Britain’s Olympian Capital: Why Yorkshire Produces So Many Winners

There’s one boast the county of Yorkshire can confidently make: it’s a veritable Olympic champion factory

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Joel Ryan / AP

British triathletes and brothers Alistair, right, and Jonny Brownlee, show their gold and bronze medals, as they greeted fans at the BT London Live concert at Hyde Park in central London, Aug 8, 2012.

In the north of England lies a region, not more than 6,000 square miles in size, that, if you were to believe the word of its proud residents, is the most green and pleasant land in all of England. A boast that is hard to substantiate, perhaps, but there’s one boast the county of Yorkshire can confidently make: it’s a veritable Olympic champion factory.

Only 43 of the British Olympic team’s 541 athletes are from Yorkshire, but with three bronzes, two silvers and six gold medals, Yorkshire athletes account for nearly a fifth of Great Britain’s medal haul. If Yorkshire were a country, it would rank above Australia and Japan in the medal table.

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So why has the region done so well? Look at one of Britain’s most successful sporting families, the Brownlees, and there are clues. The brothers Alistair and Jonathan Brownlee took gold and bronze in the Olympic triathlon on Tuesday. Both young men display lots of what’s known locally as Yorkshire “grit”–the tough-as-nails and single-minded character that people from Yorkshire say is typical of the county. Despite being given a 15-second time penalty in the triathlon—a grueling 1.5 km swim, 40 km bike ride and 10 km run—Jonny still managed to secure a bronze.

Simon Ward, the Brownlees’ triathlon coach when they were in their teens, explains that it’s their attitude to life: “We’re down to earth and not afraid to do the hard work, which the Brownlee boys epitomize.” To make sure the boys wouldn’t forget this, he and the Leeds and Bradford Triathlon Club gave them a leaving gift of Yorkshire things—including a Yorkshire phrasebook (“I’ve instructed them to drop in some Yorkshire phrases for their post-race interviews, you see,” says Ward).

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One popular Yorkshire sport, fell-running, is evidence of the population’s typical determination. The sport is unique to northern England. It requires not just the ability to run fast, but also endurance and navigation skills. Many of the Bingley Harriers—the club the Brownlees belong to—are keen fell-runners, and Christine Oates who steers clear of it, is full of admiration: “I have no idea why they do it! You have to negotiate the rugged terrain through mist and fog. It’s like an extreme sport really.” It’s perhaps not surprising that Alistair Brownlee is a champion fell-runner.

But surely there’s more to it than romping over the hills, something more scientific? Dr. Daniella Strauss, who teaches in the sports science department at the University of Leeds, where Alistair studied, says that from a scientific point of view, a lot really is owed to the terrain. “As a biomechanist and from a locomotion perspective, having access to an environment that continuously changes is likely to influence muscular response,” she says. “If the success of the Yorkshire athletes is anything to go by, the biomechanical and physiological adaptations are extremely beneficial.”

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Another part of the winning-formula is that the county’s unusually young population has come of age in time for London 2012. Yorkshire has the highest proportion of people in the 20 to 24 age-band in the U.K. The vast majority of the county’s Olympians are in their twenties, and have grown up in a time when the region has experienced a wealth of funding from Britain’s national lottery, in particular for its sports facilities.

The John Charles Center for Sports in Leeds, West Yorkshire, was funded through lottery money. Its Aquatics Center opened its doors in 2007, replacing the old Leeds international pool. International teams such as the Chinese swimming team have availed themselves of its world-class facilities. Both Brownlee brothers also train there.

Leeds city councilor Adam Ogilvie explains that it is the mix of these facilities as well as the sports centers in Leeds and at Leeds Metropolitan University that have enabled local athletes to do so well.

But the future is not necessarily rosy: “A key issue is legacy. A lot of people are throwing this word around.” The challenge, he says, is securing sufficient funding in the current economic climate to keep develop the region’s sports infrastructure. In the short-term, though, Yorkshire can count on two things it now has in abundance: grit, and Olympic gold.

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