New Year 2020 inhabited a very different kind of vibe for Katherine Grainger. The bells tolled for an Olympic campaign. For the first time during the present millennium, she had no need to moderate her celebrations. No rowing sessions of any import lie ahead. No exerting herself to the physical limit. Normalcy, of sorts, with a haul of four silvers and an adored gold now mere reminders of a competitive life well-lived but consigned to the past.
Yet this coming summer’s Games in Tokyo will nevertheless consume much of the 44-year-old’s attention in the months ahead. Her secondary pursuit as chair of UK Sport has morphed her into the face of the team behind the team bound for the grand stages of Japan.
We talk, just before Christmas, during a gathering in Manchester of the learned boffins and performance masterminds of the various sports whose central aspiration is to aim high and deliver what they can. The British contingent, it has been forecast, might exceed the record of 67 medals from the Rio 2016 Olympics, a tally that scaled the unprecedented heights of second in the overall table.
The number crunchers project a modest elevation, based on global podiums achieved and top-eight placings obtained over the current cycle. Down payments on £266 million of Lottery cash. Grainger covets an adequate final return on the investment. Yet, as one who knows there are no guarantees in elite sport, she throws a pail of water on the flames of over-expectation.
“That is the big question,” she admits. “Internally we will ask it as well – ‘how will we do realistically?’ Although we have brilliant ways of predicting success – and it worked very well for London and for Rio – there’s always new elements coming in every cycle. So with the Tokyo cycle, the location is a different challenge, it’s been very much talked about. And the risk of the weather. And the heat and the location and the travel, which bring different factors across different sports.”
With other nations raising their own bars, it is unlikely that the UK will repeat the spectacularism of Brazil. Significantly, Grainger observes, success need not be defined by how many times she cheers a compatriot collecting one of the medals fabricated from recycled mobile phones.
It underscores a telling shift in policy amid her tenure, away from an era of no-compromise and a fixation on gold. Better, many argue, to spread the wealth around more sports and to cherish a stronger correlation with participation.
The results of 2018’s public consultation support the quiet evolution now under way, Grainger underlines. It asked respondents to define inspiration and the base level of attainment required to illuminate the nation in a collective glow. The boldest question, she offers, was to query whether those buying the Lottery tickets still coveted more of the same grandiose glory.
“Because it could be that it’s had its day with an incredible recent Games – and maybe we’ll move on,” says Grainger. “There was a feeling that the public certainly still love success and love the inspiration that those medal moments provide. But it wasn’t as clear on where we would need to finish for it to be a successful Games.”
Still a proud Scot to her core, the Dame of the Realm trusts that the Caledonian contribution will remain abundant. Even if gripes are heard within the sporting ecosystem and corners of Sportscotland that pathways toward British teams from north of the Border are still laden with cumbersome obstacles.
Grainger, creditably, is said to have widened the channels of communication from the home nations into the core. “It’s a constant process of having the right people in the right room and engaging in debate,” she says.
Hence she feels frustration when opportunities beckon to emulate her own glorious journey but where blockades are self-imposed. It is an open goal missed, she suggests, that the refuseniks of the Scottish FA cannot fully embrace a United Kingdom football side once every four years, parochial politics over common sense.
And she openly acknowledges that she is biased. “Because I’ve always been part of Team GB and I’ve seen the important and positive impact that can have on any sport. And we’ve seen it within newer sports. Like when golf came in, or rugby sevens came in. Even though they are part of much bigger, separate worlds, they really respect and benefit from the Team GB environment. I would like to think that football would feel the same.”
Coaches, medical staff, and administrators can all reap the rewards too, she adds. “And every athlete I’ve ever met that’s been part of that – and tennis players like Andy Murray are a good example – have really valued that very different environment, that multi-sport environment, that they take something back with them.” An alternative vibe but still enriching, and she concludes: “I’d hope that people can see the positive benefits.”