So now what? After 16 days of drama, deliverance, delight and even – on occasion – disappointment, how can British sport keep its wagon of momentum rolling along the high road to success rather then suffering a seemingly inevitable dip?
Catching the United States in the Olympic medal standings is an impossibility. Too powerful, too deep. The only way is down, the UK’s rivals say. Or perhaps hope. The hardest work begins this morning when the team and their coaches step off the plane into the blaze of flashbulbs. For most, it will never seem so bright again.
Yet stars have burned ferociously here in Rio that have ample energy to burn at their core. For every Mo Farah or Katherine Grainger, relative relics but still an example to their peers, there is a Jason Kenny or Laura Trott with the ambition and attitude to stay perched on the high bar.
We might wave farewell to Jo Pavey, the mums’ inspiration-in-chief, or perhaps Nick Skelton, whose showjumping exploits have given hope to men of a certain age everywhere. But there has been plenty of exciting and unexploited talent that made barely a scratch on their personal surfaces here.
Duncan Scott, for example, the swimming imp from Alloa who practically dared Michael Phelps to beat him in the legend’s final Olympic race and nearly won the bet. Aged 19 but with two silver medals to his name, he is already being spoken of as an over-achiever in the making.
Same for Callum Skinner, who was given a push by Chris Hoy as a kid but now might yet follow along the same illustrious cycle path with a gold and silver stashed away. Or Katie Archibald, who woke up the day after her team sprint gold and immediately thought not of where the next party was but when the next Games was getting started. They, like Andy Murray and Heather Stanning, were in every sense all gold.
Others brought medals home. Others performed at their peak. All you can ask. On the closing weekend, there was quiet brilliance from Andy Butchart and Callum Hawkins, among the 48 per cent who were fully homegrown heroes rather than dispatched raw into the British system and spat out cooked at the other end. Scotland needs more of their ilk to inspire and enliven, running through local parks one weekend, taking on the world the next.
More than ever, there is a need, says Mike Whittingham – the director of Sportscotland’s Institute of Sport – to look longer-term. Chatting in the Olympic Stadium last week, he reeled off statistics by the dozen – on who might do what and where, and which sports might deliver and which will likely not. But now, the former hurdler insisted, is not the time to rest on laurels despite the average cost of each British medal running to several million pounds.
“We should really be looking at 2022 to do something a bit longer,” he said. “There are some areas where if we don’t get it right we’re going to lose our competitive edge. We want to create initiatives that address that: one is a data management issue, two is a Para initiative because it’s not looking brilliant going into the future. And we want to up the ante in high performance coaching.
“What’s holding us back in Scotland is talent pool, which we can’t do much about, and coaching. We don’t have enough performance coaches. And what we’ll do is design a new programme, target a number of sports, and by 2022 have more coaches.”
It sounds blatantly obvious but there is a question of pathway. The best Scottish talent spotters are inevitably lured away. Regeneration is hit or miss. Only judo and swimming, among summer Olympic sports, have true centres of excellence north of the border. Yet they remain hubs, not the centre of the wheel. UK Sport must do more to spread the wealth rather than squirrelling it away.
“One of the things we’ve worked hard to achieve over the past four years is to develop a sense of ownership and collective responsibility between the home nations to develop the performance pathway,” the agency’s performance chief Simon Timson counters. “We’ve got an advisory group to look at planning and to make it as easy as possible for talented athletes, no matter where they come from, to progress through the pathway and become world-class athletes and Olympic medallists. Scotland has enjoyed huge success here with a record number of athletes on the team and a record number of medallists. If we’re going to sustain that success, we want everyone contributing.”
About 80 per cent of UK Sport’s time over the past 18 months, he says, has been expended with Tokyo in mind. A boon also for those who have marked the 2018 Commonwealth Games in the Gold Coast in their diaries with the “priority” box ticked.
Their timing is not ideal, Whittingham (pictured right) concedes. Some may go Down Under for the experience but many will have bigger fish to fry. “In sports like swimming, some of the challenges we’ll have going forward is retaining our top medallists so they don’t retire. They might want to continue to Gold Coast but might not be selected for Tokyo.
“Which is why we’d hope the Scottish Government might look at results and give us additional funding so we can offer more personal awards. So if Hannah Miley or Eilidh Doyle said: ‘We want to do Gold Coast but not Tokyo’, we could do something for them.”
It might prolong this feelgood factor that has been sensed from 6,000 miles away, within the bubble of the Games where the rest of the world faded to oblivion. Back to reality now, back to the grind without the glamour, the early starts and early nights required to plot a course towards Japan.
At least, that lies beyond for those with intent. As the lights at the Maracana dimmed as the closing ceremony concluded, you wondered what the nation left behind will reap from these Games. Following the Paralympics, many of the venues will simply be dismantled. The fervour will remain solely for football. If they could not find a fascination for pole vaulting or judo with victories on home soil, what have these Olympics brought except visibility and cost?
Seb Coe, assessing the legacy of 2012, called the British successes here something in which he took immense pride. Let us stop for a second to enjoy and salute those who distinguished themselves over the past two weeks. Because we move on now, present becomes past, and the wagon speeds off someplace new.