David Owen

Will Brexit Britain decide to maintain, or perhaps even to redouble, the country’s extraordinarily successful assault on the Olympic and Paralympic Games medals tables?

Such is the chaos around Westminster decision-making at present that the only honest answer can be, "Goodness alone knows".

So I was intrigued to read a Press Association story tweeted by its outstanding chief sports reporter Matt Slater last week headlined, "UK Sport wants £3 billion [$3.9 billion/€3.4 billion] funding so Team GB can top Olympic medal table".

To recap, spurred by a meagre haul of one gold and 15 Olympic medals at Atlanta in 1996, Britain has since harnessed the newly-created National Lottery to part-fund a no-compromise high performance programme spearheaded by the agency UK Sport.

Twenty years on, the Olympic medals tally has more than quadrupled, fuelling a scorching rise to the giddy heights of second place in the Rio 2016 rankings.

In terms of achieving what it set out to do, this may make it the most successful national programme in Britain since the creation of the National Health Service in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Now the suggestion was being made, apparently, that Britain could do even better, climbing all the way to top spot in the medals table - a feat last achieved over a  century ago, at the first London Olympics in 1908.

The only thing was, I remembered that when I had last looked into this properly, more than four years ago, the high performance programme appeared to me to be facing a funding squeeze.

This was for two related reasons: 1. the balance of money built up amid the excitement of London 2012 in the National Lottery Distribution Fund (NLDF) was dwindling; 2. National Lottery proceeds were not living up to expectations.

UK Sport’s Exchequer funding over the Rio cycle was also set to be considerably less than the £240 million ($310 million/€275 million) earmarked for the 2009-13 period.

The article I wrote then can be read here.

Britain last finished top of the Olympic medals table at London 1908 ©Getty Images
Britain last finished top of the Olympic medals table at London 1908 ©Getty Images

All in all, it seemed like a good time to check in with UK Sport, which I did over the phone yesterday.

First, regarding the present cycle leading up to the Tokyo 2020 Games, a funding squeeze did indeed threaten, but was finessed thanks to an innovative deal struck with the ministry now known as the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) in December 2016.

Under this arrangement, the Government has consented to provide an "underwrite facility" of up to £25 million ($33 million/€29 million) a year, essentially assuming the risk of Lottery proceeds falling below budgeted levels.

The most recent annual report, for the year to end-March 2018, says that Lottery proceeds were indeed "below previously forecast levels" in the first half of 2017-2018.

"As a consequence," the report explains, "a Grant-in-Aid adjustment of £13.86 million ($18 million/€15.9 million) was agreed with DCMS".

While the deal could theoretically offer UK Sport a £100 million ($130 million/€115 million) cushion over the full four-year cycle, Liz Nicholl, chief executive, told me that the current estimate was that the agency might actually need £40 million-£50 million ($52 million-$65 million/€46 million-€57.5 million) of this.

Frankly I am amazed that Ministers were persuaded to sign up to this at a time of significant pressure on public spending and spectacular uncertainty over the country’s future direction.

But it does seem to provide further evidence of how alluring politicians of all stripes find the notion of national sporting success, especially now that a model with such a strong track record has been developed.

So what of the future?

Well, irrespective of the UK Government’s appetite for aspiring to be top Olympic dog, it is possible that Ministers might once again have to invest more just to stand still over the cycle leading up to Paris 2024.

This is because the 2017-2021 budget includes £27 million ($35 million/€31 million) from the NLDF, or so I am told, and, while the accounts put the balance at £43.4 million ($56.5 million/€50 million) on 31 March 2018, there might not be enough remaining post-Tokyo 2020 to allow for a similar contribution in 2021-2025 over and above the Lottery income actually generated during the cycle.

An increase in Lottery income from its current approximately £75 million ($98 million/€86 million) a year, or £300 million ($392 million/€344 million) per cycle, could of course potentially change this equation for the better.

Britain finished second in the medals table at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images
Britain finished second in the medals table at Rio 2016 ©Getty Images

As explained in the Press Association article, which quoted UK Sport’s chair, the former Olympic oarswoman Dame Katherine Grainger, the overall £3 billion ($3.9 billion/€3.4 billion) investment that is mentioned would be over three cycles, with the thought that it might be possible for Britain to top the medals table in 2032.

This is a summary of how Nicholl - who is stepping down in the summer after a distinguished 20-year stint at the agency - explained the position to me.

UK Sport has been doing analysis of the potential, especially for Paris 2024.

It can see the trajectory Britain has been on.

It can see that there is potential for British sports to be better.

It knows that the United States is about 20 gold medals ahead of Britain currently.

If Britain has an aspiration to be number one in the Olympic medals table, it could be possible to target it.

That, though, would have to be a long-term aspiration.

It could be realistic in 2032, but if Britain wants to be number one, it needs to start investing now.

UK Sport estimated that if it had £1 billion ($1.3 billion/€1.15 billion) in each of these cycles, it could embark on this.

Nicholl also told me that the agency had not formally said anything to the Government yet.

End of explanation.

If Britain is to receive the necessary funding to challenge the United States at the top of the medals table then they will need UK Chancellor Philip Hammond to back them with extra funding ©Getty Images
If Britain is to receive the necessary funding to challenge the United States at the top of the medals table then they will need UK Chancellor Philip Hammond to back them with extra funding ©Getty Images

If Lottery money continued to flow in at a similar rate to now, it suggests to me that something like £2 billion ($2.6 billion/€2.3 billion) over the twelve years would need to come from Government.

That compares with a contribution of perhaps £240 million ($312.5 million/€275 million) over the Tokyo cycle.

In normal circumstances, I would rate the prospect of "Spreadsheet" Philip Hammond, the UK Chancellor, agreeing to such an uptick at approximately zero.

But these are peculiar times.

If Britain does crash out of the European Union and precipitate an economic tailspin, the Government might well be on the lookout for ways of bolstering national pride and togetherness.

The symbolism of topping the Olympic medals table, albeit more than a decade hence, might conceivably strike a chord.

And £2 billion ($2.6 billion/€2.3 billion) over twelve years is not a vast amount in the context of the overall public finances.

So, is this era of dramatically improved British Olympic sports performance nearing its end; or could it, on the contrary, be granted a new, supercharged lease of life?

I would say the first scenario still remains more likely, but it will be well worth keeping an eye on the signals from Whitehall over the next 20 months or so.