- 25 Aug 08, 09:05 AM
Media Village, Beijing
From the moment Nicole Cooke surged past four rivals on an uphill sprint to win Great Britain's first gold of the 2008 Games in the women's road race, I thought we could be on to something. Not "our best Games for 100 years" something, but certainly a fortnight to be pleased with.
Those thoughts were back two days later when Rebecca Adlington pipped American favourite Katie Hoff in the women's 400m freestyle to earn our first gold medal in the pool since 1988. British team-mate Joanne Jackson came home third in the same race and suddenly our often-maligned swimming squad was on the board.
And so it continued. We never had to wait too long for a success of some sort in that first week and our wildest dreams were delivered in spades over the middle weekend, when we leapt up the medal table to heights we haven't seen since the Liberal Party were in power.
So what next? Having arrived at our 2012 target of fourth in the medal table four years early, do we dig in or take the next ridge?
But before we leap ahead, let's reflect a little longer on just how great Britain has been in Beijing.
When UK Sport, the agency that dishes out money to the national governing bodies, announced its targets for 2008 they appeared about right - 35 to 41 medals in total, with 10 to 12 of those gold. These seemed reasonable increases on what we had done in Athens and Sydney, and a huge advance on what we had achieved (or failed to achieve) in Atlanta.
I thought they adequately reflected the improved performances many of our Olympic sports had posted in their own events since 2004, without unnecessarily creating a rod for our own backs. It also set these Games up nicely to be a "staging post" on the road to our "stretch target" of fourth in London. Having come 10th in the table in 2000 and 2004, I was looking for progress up the ladder - eighth sounded reasonable.
So when we sailed past the top end of that gold medal target on Tuesday, with five days of competition still to come, I couldn't help wondering if UKS had pulled off one of the cleverest cases of managing expectations in British sporting history. If it had, it will have a job to do so again in four years' time.
The Beijing total of 19 golds, 13 silver and 15 bronzes (47 medals in all) is by some margin our best tally ever apart from 1908, which if it were a country on a medal table would be a rogue state.
We finished third on the medal table in 1920 and fourth in 1924, but from there it went downhill. We were 11th in 1928 and have more or less remained there for 80 years. During this period of mediocrity, we would win on average 4.5 gold medals an Olympics - less than a quarter of the number we have earned in the last fortnight.
Compare our Great Haul of China to the gold medals we won in four Games from 1980 to 1992. We claimed 20 golds during that time, just one more than we've managed in the last 17 days, despite two of those Games being weakened by boycotts.
So how have we done this? Well, it's simple really - money goes a long way to deciding success in Olympic sport and our boys and girls didn't have much of either before 1996.
Our Atlanta horror show, which saw us win one gold and come 36th in the table, brought a resolve to never stoop that low again. It was clear we needed to spend more on sport and the advent of the National Lottery seemed to provide the answer. The government agreed and lotto lolly was diverted in sport's direction.
Our Olympians have been reaping the benefit ever since - £265m was spent on Team GB over the last Olympic cycle - and increased funding has already been agreed in the run-up to London.
But is money alone enough? Will having £600m to spend over five years in this cycle enable us to find an extra Adlington or a Chris Hoy clone?
No, you need good people and a clear mission too. And even then it's a challenge but I'm delighted to see how far we have come already. Adlington would later add to her 400m gold with an emphatic victory in her strongest event, the 800m. She is only 19.
And it wasn't just in the Water Cube where evidence of something building towards London and beyond could be detected. Hoy's heroics - the Scottish cyclist was the first Brit to win three gold medals at a Games since swimmer Henry Taylor managed it in (yes, you guessed it) 1908 - stole the headlines but it was the youth elsewhere in the team that impressed most.
British cycling's domination at the velodrome was breathtaking at times - we were that far in front.
Our rowers and sailors also won their regattas - the first time ever for British rowing at an Olympics and third straight for sailing. And the good news was that both teams think they've got room to improve.
To be honest, we've won so many medals, it would be pointless for me to list them all. You can find them elsewhere. But I should perhaps flag up our first gymnastics medal for 80 years (won by 19-year-old Louis Smith), our first taekwondo medal (Sarah Stevenson), our first women's windsurfing medal (Byrony Shaw) and our first women's 400m gold (Christine Ohuruogu).
Inevitably, there were some sports that failed to deliver. In fact, six of the 17 sports predicted to win at least one medal failed to do so, and two more, including high-profile athletics, did not reach their targets.
For some (badminton and diving), the target was a reach; for others, Beijing must go down as a missed opportunity. Sports like archery and judo will have much to discuss when they return. As will boxing but for entirely different reasons - the sport surpassed its target but appears to be split into factions.
I would also like to see a far greater focus on the team sports: we really didn't make any kind of a mark in these events at all, although hockey is heading in the right direction.
Athletics could also use a period of reflection. It missed its target but can point to a number of near misses as evidence it is going in the right direction. This is true but the British public will expect much more from the Olympics' main event in 2012.
So it's been a great Olympics for Britain - best of the rest, top EU nation and ahead of Australia - but there is room still for improvement. We've left a few shots out there.
The task now will be to instil the virtues of our most successful sports across the spectrum. We must also, as host nation, attempt to take our place in every possible event. To squander this opportunity would be a crushing failure and a denial of our legacy goals for increased participation in sport.
Roll on London.
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