Finishing in second place in at the Rio 2016 games, the UK has just enjoyed its most successful Olympics in over a century. This outstanding success at the biggest sporting event on earth has majorly enhanced the UK’s reputation, turning it into a “sporting superpower.”
Despite the UK’s recent decision to leave the EU, the country is still held in high esteem worldwide. On the Reputation Institute’s recently-released 2016 Country Rep Track Index, the UK acquired a “strong” score of 71.1% out of 100%, rising from an “average” ranking of 69.5% the year prior.
Improving Olympic performance
The UK’s record is more mixed in sport. The UK famously came 36th on the Atlanta 1996 Olympic medals table, the BBC writes1, only earning one gold medal. The UK went from 28th on the medal table at the Sydney 2000 games, to 3rd during the London 2012 games.
It is important to note that British Olympic training is funded by public money via the Exchequer and the National Lottery. Following the successful London 2012 games, the UK government amped up Olympic spending2, increasing from £60m before Sydney 2000 to £280m prior to Rio.
UK Sport was going for gold in Rio 2016, aiming to become the first nation to win more gold medals at the first Olympics after their home games. The body allocated Olympic funding to individual sports based on their success during 2012. Some sports, such as athletics, cycling and boxing, saw increased investment due to their performance in London.
Others, such as volleyball and wrestling, saw their funding reduced or stopped in the run-up to Rio. Commenting, Loughborough University Senior Lecturer in Sports Management and Policy, Dr Borja Garcia, was quoted by the Guardian3 admitting that “it is a brutal regime, but it is as crude as it is effective.”
Success in Rio
The strategy proved effective, as the UK finished second on the medals table for the first time in 108 years. It is key to note that the Olympic medal table is calculated based on number of gold medal wins. Throughout Rio, Team GB earned 27 golds, to China’s 26, with the US beating both at 46.
In total, the UK acquired 67 medals during Rio 2016, in contrast with China’s 70 and the US’ 121. Originally, the British Olympic Association (BOA) set a target of 48 medal wins for Team GB in Rio, one more than the UK won at the Beijing 2008 games, to set a record for most medals won at a first away games after hosting the Olympics. Team GB won 65 medals at the London 2012 Olympics.
Estimates suggest 4 that each gold medal cost UK tax payers in excess of £4m. Commenting the BOA’s Chairman, Bill Sweeney, was quoted by the Independent 5 saying that “20 years of investment” has culminated in “this outstanding performance” in Rio. Going further, he said: “Since National Lottery funding started in 1997, we have had five consecutive [summer] Olympic Games of medal growth – no other country has come close to that.”
Also speaking out on Team GB’s success, UK Sport Chief Executive Liz Nichol noted: “We’re making sporting history – 67 medals, nearly 130 medallists, across 19 sports… Even the sporting superpowers haven’t done that in the past, but we are one of those now.” Despite its sterling global reputation, the UK has not been generally regarded as a ‘superpower’ since the end of World War Two.
Return on investment
Despite the exorbitant price tag, it is clear that UK Sport believes it received good return on investment for every gold medal captured in Rio. Not only do these accolades raise the profile of UK sport, which holds economic benefits, but they present the UK as a success story to the world, while stoking national pride. After Rio, it is likely that UK Sport will strive to ensure Team GB does even better at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, because gold medals can enhance a country’s reputation worldwide.