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Are Britain's Olympic hopefuls on track for 2012?

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Ollie Williams | 20:58 UK time, Monday, 26 July 2010

The days from 27 July to 12 August 2012 will be the biggest, and most testing, in the lives of hundreds of British Olympic athletes and their coaches.

They have spent years preparing for the chance to win medals in front of the largest crowds they will ever face, the vast majority of whom will be roaring home athletes on to anticipated glory.

Two years from the official opening of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, if those athletes and coaches do not have a very good idea of how they are going to challenge for those medals and bring home results, they can probably forget about it.

Which sports are on track to meet their targets in 2012? Which are struggling, and where do precious points and seconds - potentially the difference between a gold medal and obscurity - hang in the balance?

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How do top GB athletes feel with two years to go?

The best gauge of Britain's Olympic readiness comes from funding body UK Sport. Understandably, it wants to know precisely how the 27 Olympic sports it funds are spending their money, and what Britain is going to get back in return.

Three times each year, UK Sport gets together with the people in charge of each sport to evaluate performance. It asks searching questions about the performances of athletes, the training arrangements in place, and the working environment in which athletes and coaches operate. Is everything the best it can be? If not, why not? And if there are issues to be resolved, have solutions been identified or is more help needed?

The end product is called Mission 2012 and is manifested in enormous Olympic and Paralympic "tracker boards", set into walls at either end of what is effectively a war room at UK Sport's headquarters off London's Russell Square. Each sport gets a green, amber or red rating on the board after each assessment, summarising its overall progress.

UK Sport asks each of the Olympic sports it funds to grade its progress three times each year. This is how they rate with two years until London 2012. Click 'Next' for more details about some of the results on the tracker board.
Flagship sports rowing and cycling are green, having earned 20 of GB's 47 medals at the Beijing Games, but athletics and swimming are amber. UK Sport says the latter simply have strong ambitions to improve for 2012 and are being honest in their assessments.
Sports assess themselves and interpretations of the criteria may differ. Hockey and gymnastics are enjoying renewed success but, while hockey is green, gymnastics is amber. The simplified board hides a complicated system of 30 criteria used to evaluate sports.
As well as one overall colour, the board at UK Sport's HQ evaluates three key aspects - athletes, training systems, and climate. Taekwondo was amber earlier in 2010, but both its systems and climate were red. It has since resolved its problems and is on track for 2012.
Handball was the last sport to receive a red rating, in mid-2009, because of budget cuts as a result of UK Sport's own £50m budget shortfall. Boxing, shooting and weightlifting have all been red in the past over "governance issues" - i.e. the way their sports are managed.
The latest reports show athletics progressing after time spent by head coach Charles van Commenee with "key athletes". Badminton coaching changes have "had an effect on the programme". Synchro swimming has downgraded its rating after injuries to top athletes.
Volleyball reports that "prioritisation of budgets will be critical to maintaining progress". Fencing announces 2010 as "the best ever season in performance terms". Table tennis warns that "squad numbers are being reduced to match the capacity of the programme".
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"These are the sports' own assessments of their progression," explains Peter Keen, who is UK Sport's director of performance. "The whole process encapsulates one, simple question - are you on track to be where you want to be in London in 2012?

"Green means you're on track. Amber means you've got issues but you're working on them and know what the solutions are. Red is a cry for help: things need to be fixed to be where we need to be."

Following a briefing Keen and UK Sport gave last week, the headline in terms of preparations for 2012 has been: "Britain's athletes are bang on track."

But that statement and the simplified colour-coding mask an enormous amount of work being done across all sports to remain on target. Only with a closer inspection do you get a sense of the urgency with which sports are working to achieve success in two years' time.

So what do the tracker boards really tell us about how Britain's Olympic sports are doing?

Firstly, there are fewer greens now than when the tracker boards started at the beginning of 2008, but Keen insists this is no cause for concern.

"Bizarrely, it's a cause for celebration for me," he tells me. "It actually reflects the honesty of the dialogue now.

"When we introduced this, most sports quite understandably saw this as about funding. They thought the important part of the game was to look good in the eyes of the funding body. We've moved on a long way from that, sports have relaxed.

"The message now is: 'Why would we invest if we didn't think you could win? But we want to see how you're going about it and, if we can help, we will do.' So the increased number of ambers reflects a more honest appraisal now coming through."

With that in mind, are the big amber lights next to athletics and swimming, two of the Games' biggest draws, a worry? After all, rowing and cycling, who draw similarly large amounts from the funding pot, are green-lit and have been for some time.

"That says those two sports have greater ambitions than where they're at," explains Keen. "Swimming and athletics clearly believe - and we believe equally - that they're capable of more success and a better system than they currently have.

"They're pretty hard on themselves, but that's not uncommon among elite athletes and coaches. In our front-running sports like cycling and rowing, their greatest challenge is defending the incredible level of performance they've already reached. Simply remaining at that standard is a challenge in itself, but in their view, they're on it."

Since sports evaluate themselves, their interpretations of the criteria for green, amber and red differ. Some, like hockey and gymnastics, are performing to similarly high standards but award themselves different colours. As a result, amber is less a sign of trouble than a statement that work is not yet complete - but it will be.

Red is the one to watch out for, and the most heartening thing for Britain to draw from the latest assessments is its complete absence. The board at UK Sport's headquarters awards smaller coloured boxes for three sections - athletes, systems and climate - and, for the first time, even those are entirely devoid of red.

"From that, I take considerable heart that the process itself is having value. Behind most of those stories is change," says Keen. "Things have been done, things have been resolved, and it's evidence that this process works."

Taekwondo spoilt things last time around by receiving red blotches against its training systems and climate (i.e. working environment). The tracker boards tell us these were down to a "need to act" around the way the sport was run and "uncertainties around a permanent training facility".

According to Keen, the sport has since "changed its willingness to ask difficult questions and make tough calls" and has performed a "massive turnaround" by creating and sustaining a training base in Manchester. A green light and clean bill of health this time are evidence, he argues, that "things can change remarkably quickly if you want them to".

However, staring at the tracker board represents one extreme of Olympic sport in this country, the conceptual end at which governing bodies and funding organisations pore through results, budgets and documents to decide how happy they should be.

At the other end is the coalface, the day-to-day existence of each Olympic hopeful, and in many cases it is far from glamorous. Nobody at this end of the spectrum is sitting back and posting a big, green light on a board. Two years to go is an exciting moment for them, but most are aware it means two years of blindingly hard work remain.

To take just one example, I know of handball players who spent the last year cleaning Danish toilets for a living in order to support their Olympic ambitions.

UK Sport suffered a budget shortfall of £50m last year, which had to be passed on to some sports, and that has meant a real struggle to find the cash to make those sports competitive. Because nobody wants to just turn up and get thrashed in front of their own fans in 2012. It would be heartbreaking.

That is why the British women's volleyball team are marking two years to go by completing a four-day fundraising cycle ride from their base in Sheffield to London. Lacking the funds to operate as they would like, they are doing all they can to find more money, even if it means going an extra 250 miles.

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Volleyball team tell me why they're getting on their bikes

"This trip is absolutely essential," the women's head coach, Audrey Cooper, told me in Sheffield as they prepared to set out.

"We don't have enough money in our pot to go through to 2012 with a high-performance programme, and we don't want to go to 2012 just for the t-shirt, that's not what this is about."

The extra cash - if it comes in - will go towards setting up international matches against top opponents, like top-six nation Japan, with whom the British have a good relationship but who happen to be based a long distance, and large amount of money, away.

Meanwhile, having seen their winter training programme collapse through financial difficulty, the women who make up the team are desperately trying to find European pro teams to take them on.

Despite their amber light - "work needed but solutions identified" - the team will scarcely merit the word throughout the winter, barely seeing each other. They will instead use Skype to catch up every couple of weeks.

"We're all seeking employment in Europe, hopefully in countries like France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands," said British player Rachel Laybourne.

"Last year I was playing in France but my place to stay was released because of the uncertainty around the British plans this summer. There have been a few interesting offers since, but nothing that ticks the right boxes."

These are the battles many of Britain's Olympic sports face to reach 2012 in good shape. It isn't just training until you're really good - it's working out how to train, how to fund it, and how to scrape together the time, talent and mental toughness needed to compete on the most fearsome stage of your life.

Two years may pass in a blink, and Team GB looks set to be a formidable force on home soil, but there is a long, hard road ahead.

Behind the boards of destiny
Excerpts from sports' latest entries on UK Sport's Mission 2012 boards

Athletics: A heavy-throws coach (e.g. hammer, discus) has been appointed, while head coach Charles van Commenee has "spent time with key athletes challenging ways of working".

Badminton: Recent coaching changes "have had an effect on the programme" - and that was before the recent changes at performance director level, where Ian Moss has been replaced by a new Head of GB Performance and a separate head coach.

Fencing: The latest entry crows over what is "already the best-ever season in performance terms" for the sport. Since then Richard Kruse has won bronze at the European Championships, as did the men's foil team.

Gymnastics: "The men's juniors are now ready for transition to the seniors" - indicative of the sport's current strength in depth.

Handball: "The programme remains subject to tight financial pressures," 18 months after being hit hard as a consequence of UK Sport's own budget shortfall.

Table tennis: "Squad numbers are being reduced to match the capacity of the programme," suggesting the sport is cutting back to maximise its funding. Identifying the main medal contenders and diverting the focus to them is a theme across several sports at this stage.

Triathlon: The sport is operating with an "increased sense of urgency" ahead of London 2012.

Volleyball: "Prioritisation of budgets to individual programmes will be a critical factor in maintaining progress," reads the latest (amber-coloured) card. By which it means: our players need more money, stat.

Weightlifting: "There are fewer host nation places (at London 2012) available than expected," the sport reports, which is sure to have livened up internal competition. However, "some senior athletes have exited the programme after performance targets were missed".



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