W hen Great Britain emerged from the Atlanta Olympics with just one gold medal it would have seemed inconceivable that just 20 years later the nation would declare itself a “world sporting superpower”.
However, that is exactly what happened after two golden weeks in Rio in which Team GB became the first to increase its haul of medals following a home Games.
It had been widely predicted that the British team would suffer a natural drop-off from the extraordinary performance in London but, incredibly, their exploits in Brazil were arguably more impressive. While the 27 golds were two fewer than London, when added to the 23 silvers and 17 bronzes it was enough to put Britain second in the medals table, behind only the United States and leaving China, the disgraced Russians and declining Australia trailing in their wake.
It was the breadth of sports in which Britain excelled that most impressed those who witnessed the lean years, which reached their nadir in Atlanta just two years after the game-changing launch of the National Lottery and its attendant transformative levels of funding for sport.
Sports such as track cycling and rowing, which have become the rock on which Team GB’s success in the past few Olympiads has been built, continued to deliver, but there were also stunning breakthrough successes in sports such as gymnastics, in which the USA’s Simone Biles was a star of the Games with four golds.
Max Whitlock ended the wait for Britain’s first Olympic gymnastics gold medal by winning the men’s floor event, then added the pommel horse title for good measure less than two hours later. His exploits headlined an extraordinary display by the GB gymnastics team, which gathered seven medals in total, including inspiring bronzes won by young pair Nile Wilson and Amy Tinkler and a surprise trampolining silver for Bryony Page.
Swimming had been one of the rare failures for Team GB in London, with just a silver for Scotland’s Michael Jamieson and two bronzes for the great Rebecca Adlington. However, when Adam Peaty surged to breaststroke gold on the second full day of Rio 2016 it signalled one of the most memorable meets for a British swimming team. Scots were to the fore, with Duncan Scott, Stephen Milne and Dan Wallace making up three-quarters of the men’s 4 x 200m relay team who won a brilliant silver behind the Americans, with another Scot, Robbie Renwick, getting a medal for playing a part in the heats.
As the medals began to flow all the trepidation about a Games which got under way amid a backdrop of negative stories melted away.
There had been political unrest in Brazil about the cost and disruption of the event to a nation facing severe economic hardship. The Russian doping scandal, which led to that nation being banned from some sports but not others, had left a bad taste in the mouth.
However, a vibrant opening ceremony, which was understated in comparison with the Danny Boyle spectacular four years earlier, set the tone for a Games which unfolded with a growing sense of warmth. The crowds at some venues were disappointing but, overall, the hosts delivered a good Games.
For the Scottish element of Team GB it proved to be the best ever overseas Olympics, flagbearer Andy Murray leading from the front with a sparkling defence of his tennis singles gold, which culminated in an epic final battle with Juan Martin del Potro.
There were golds in the velodrome for Katie Archibald as a member of Great Britain’s women’s team pursuit quartet and Callum Skinner in the men’s team sprint.
Heather Stanning also defended her title with Helen Glover in the women’s pairs rowing, although it was a Scottish silver on the stunning rowing lake which proved to be one of the feelgood stories of the Games.
Katherine Grainger was one of the stories of London 2012 when she finally struck gold after three successive silvers but she wasn’t given much chance of getting on the podium four years later at the age of 40. The Scot had endured a miserable build-up to Rio after she and partner Vicky Thornley belatedly reunited a struggling doubles sculls partnership. They dug deep for a wonderful silver which Grainger said was actually more satisfying than her gold.
A couple of Scots, Mark Bennett and Mark Robertson, played a big part in Great Britain’s men’s rugby sevens team taking an excellent silver from the inaugural event, losing to a delirious Fiji in the final for the Pacific nation’s first-ever Olympic medal.
Britain were once again next to invincible in the velodrome, Jason Kenny, Laura Trott and Sir Bradley Wiggins all breaching historic marks, while Mo Farah’s lung-bursting double-double of 5,000 and 10,000 metres titles for two successive Games marked him out as one of the greatest British athletes of all time.
Nicola Adams swept through the women’s boxing competition and joined taekwondo’s Jade Jones as a double Olympic champion.
Netminder Maddie Hinch pulled off a string of remarkable saves to steer the GB women’s hockey team to gold after a dramatic penalty shoot-out win over the Netherlands which was watched by a Friday night primetime audience of 9 million people.
Alistair Brownlee was another who repeated London victories in the triathlon and Justin Rose eased the controversy over golf’s inclusion in a Games for the first time with a popular victory in the men’s event.
Among the avalanche of other successes was a gold for 54-year-old showjumper Nick Skelton in his seventh Games, while Britain took diving gold for Jack Laugher and Chris Mears, and there was a surprise canoe triumph by Joe Clarke.
Britons apart, it was another victorious Games for Usain Bolt, who completed the “Triple Triple” of 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay and the phenomenal swimmer Michael Phelps, the American taking his overall gold tally to 23.
There were even greater concerns about the following month’s Paralympics, with poor ticket sales and a cash crisis dominating but, with the Russians completely banned, the GB team flourished with a stunning haul of 147 medals.