How Britain went from Olympic zeroes to heroes in 20 years

Gold, gold and more gold, that's what £30 million over an Olympic cycle buys you. The rest of the world are still scratching their heads at a nation that has utterly transformed the cycling landscape, routine winners of the Tour de France and the alpha beasts on the track.

Laura Trott, left, kisses her fiance Jason Kenny. The pair contributed five gold medals between them. Picture:  Victor R. Caivano/AP
Laura Trott, left, kisses her fiance Jason Kenny. The pair contributed five gold medals between them. Picture: Victor R. Caivano/AP

And to top it all a golden couple to douse the Olympic triumph in romance. Money can’t buy a moment like that, a kiss for the ages, Laura Trott falling tearfully into Jason Kenny’s embrace, gold melting into gold.

To date the cyclists have contributed 20 per cent of the 50 medals won by Team GB, 11 in total, and 30 per cent of golds. Of the six golds won on the track Kenny bagged three and Trott two, the men’s team pursuit weighing in with the sixth.

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Such alchemy, and all down to funding born of crisis. It is hard to believe as we reflect on the best performance by Britain at an Olympics on foreign soil how a nation could send 300 athletes to the Atlanta games 20 years ago and come home with just one rowing gold, won by Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave.

The answer was to identify areas of growth and to throw money at it. In Sydney four years later Jason Queally won Britain’s first gold of the games in the kilo, one of four cycling medals.

In 2004 at the Athens Olympics the medal tally remained four but the golden ratio doubled. Beijing in 2008 was the watershed, with eight golds in a total of 14 medals. And so it continued, eight golds out of 12 medals in London.

Those knights of the bicycle, Sir Bradley Wiggins and Sir Chris Hoy have come and gone, the great Victoria Pendleton, too, but the flow of hot metal continues. The challenge now is to spread the success across all cycling elements, which means a drive to bring the BMX discipline up to speed.

Head of communications at British Cycling Scott Dougal said: “While we are thrilled at the results here the challenge for Tokyo is to broaden the success.

“We identified the need to improve the talent pathways in BMX, which we have done. Liam Phillips is number two in the world and at his third Olympics, Kyle Evans is just 22 and came through the BMX academy set up in 2011. More are coming through.”

Steven Burke, part of the successful men’s pursuit team, exemplifies the problem facing the rest of the world. “There are still areas to improve. Some of the teams have made a step in race kit, textiles, stuff like that. We can’t afford to sit back and we won’t. We are already planning for life without Brad [Sir Bradley Wiggins]. Excited about what’s coming.”