British Gold Rush? The Host Nation Gets Serious About the Olympic Medals Race

No stage is bigger than that of a home Olympics, so London 2012 officials drafted a battle plan early.

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Photo-Illustration by Alexander Ho for TIME; Medals: Getty Images

Pleasing the home crowd is never more important than when your country is hosting the Olympic Games. In the run-up to the Beijing Olympics, China’s government saw success as a matter of national importance. It launched “Project 119” to improve its medal-haul in track, swimming and other water sports, which accounted for roughly one-third of the medals awarded at those Olympics. The government also promised gold medalists across all sports hefty payouts of around $51,000 as an incentive to bring glory to the Motherland. China ended up winning 51 golds—more than any other country, and 15 more than the United States.

But in Britain, which doesn’t exactly need to distract the world from its human rights record, the desire to rack up more medals stems from other pressures, not the least of which is the fact that they are the host country this year. A poll conducted by Ipsos MORI earlier this summer found that 60% of Britons believe the Games will create or heighten a sense of ‘Britishness’ among the U.K. population. With that in mind, success at the Olympics could do much to bolster the national mood. It could also dilute criticism—leveled by sharp-tongued journalists—about the Games’ £9.3 billion ($14.6 billion) price tag during a time of austerity.

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Luckily the U.K. is already outperforming countries of a similar size—and proving that it’s something of a sports machine. The island nation earned 47 medals at the 2008 Summer Olympics, placing it fourth on the medals table behind China, the United States and Russia. Russia, the smallest of those three countries, has a population that’s 2.3 times larger than the U.K.’s. Britain also out-performed its larger European rivals, including Germany, which finished fifth on the table, and France, which came tenth. “As a nation the British are extremely passionate about their sport,” says Chelsea Warr, the Head of Athlete Development at U.K. Sport, the government body that invests around £100 million ($156 million) into Britain’s top athletes every year. “The overwhelming majority of the population, both sporty and non-sporty, want to see us be competitive on the world stage.”

And no stage is bigger than that of a home Olympics, so officials drafted a battle plan early. Shortly after London won the right to host the Olympics in 2005, U.K. Sport began strategizing about how it could seize on various opportunities to boost Britain’s standing in various sports. The International Olympic Committee offered Britain several “home nation places” — those set aside for the host, and which do not require them to qualify — in sports like judo, handball and rhythmic gymnastics. “Suddenly new sports came onto the agenda that we had never worked with before in a performance context,” Warr says. “Our job was to fast-track and supercharge the pathways into them.”

That frequently involved setting up teams from scratch, and introducing athletes to sports they had never encountered. It assembled a small team of six sports scientists—one specializes in motor control, another is a physiologist—and in February 2007 they began their nationwide search for potential Olympians. With the “Sporting Giants” initiative, they specifically sought to find athletes to fill spots on the handball, volleyball and rowing teams, all of which would benefit from having tall recruits. Officials asked for potential athletes to get in touch if they were tall (6’3” for men and 5’11” for women), young (16 – 25) and had some sort of athletic background. More than 550 women, the tallest being 6’4”, and more than 2,400 men, the tallest being 7’2”, applied.

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The team at U.K. Sport—in conjunction with the English Institute of Sport—whittled the numbers down, and sent dozens of women to training camps over several months. The Olympians-in-training learned the ins and outs of their respective sports, and faced constant evaluation from coaches. U.K. Sport also launched six other searches. “Girls4Gold” sought to find highly competitive sportswomen with the potential to become Olympic champions in events including cycling, skeleton, and canoeing. And “Fighting Chance” offered high-level combat athletes from all kicking-oriented martial arts the opportunity to try out for a place in an elite taekwondo academy. Fast-forward to the end of June 2012, and these initiatives had yielded 99 international medals. Five Sporting Giants have also been named to Britain’s Olympic squads thus far. They include three women’s handball players and two female rowers. “That’s pretty phenomenal because they didn’t pick their sports up until four years ago,” says Warr. “They’ve had massively accelerated development over that time period.”

The rowers in particular seemed poised to rock the boat at their home Olympics. Victoria Thornley, a former show-jumper who hoped to become a runway model, won a bronze medal as part of the women’s eight at the 2011 World Championships. And Helen Glover, a former hockey player, has now won back-to-back silver medals at the World Championships in the women’s pair event.

Speaking to the Guardian in May, Glover recounted the moment she locked her eyes on the top of the Olympic podium. “They tested 4,500 of us in groups of 200 at a time,” she said of an early Sporting Giants trial in 2007. “I remember sitting in a room and someone saying: ‘a gold medalist in 2012 could be [sitting] in this room. Look around you.’ I thought, ‘I’m going to make that me.’” This summer Britain will be hoping she’s right.

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