Olympic superstar Dame Katherine Grainger has told Notebook magazine about her pride in the UK’s national team for going out to the Tokyo Games after a ‘difficult year’ and triumphing over adversity
While the recent Tokyo Olympics may have been different from any other modern Games, Dame Katherine Grainger believes they were a beacon of hope and an international sporting triumph.
The Olympic gold-winning rower and chair of UK Sport, says, “These Games were extraordinary, a celebration of sport and a gathering of the best Olympic and Paralympic athletes in the world.
“We know the shadow of the virus hangs over us still, and our primary focus was to ensure that every athlete got safely to their start line with the opportunity to compete for their country. And when they did, they were a beacon of hope to lift and reconnect us all after a difficult year.”
Dame Katherine’s period of representing her country – during which she won five Olympic medals, including gold in the women’s double sculls at the 2012 London Games – neatly overlaps with the transformation of British sport by funding from The National Lottery.
In 1997, when she was part of the pair that won the World Under 23 Championships, the day elite sportsmen and women might be given the financial freedom to focus exclusively on their discipline seemed remote.
Katherine Grainger won five Olympic medals during her distinguished career ( Image: PA)
At the time, most British athletes survived by “working, taking out bank loans, running up overdrafts or a combination of all three”, explains Katherine.
“Athletes were genuinely talking about how to find petrol money. They’d be rowing first thing in the morning then eating breakfast while driving to work.”
At the 1996 Atlanta Games, when the British team was placed 36th in the medals table and won a single gold, the nation was spending about
£5 million a year on Olympic sport. Four years later, thanks largely to donations from The National Lottery, that sum had rocketed to £69 million.
“I came into sport during an incredible period,” says Katherine, 45. “It’s easy to feel National Lottery funding has always been there, but I was aware of what life was like before it.”
Previously, the only true sports professionals were footballers and boxers, with strong commercial backing.
She says, “No one could leave university and plan to be an athlete. That just wasn’t done. It was never heard of. Now I go to schools to speak to the students and they tell me they want to be Olympians or Paralympians and that’s an amazing change. Thanks to The National Lottery, that’s a transformation that has occurred.”
Dame Katherine herself was also fortunate. As the only sport in which GB had won a gold in every Olympics since 1984, rowing was pretty much funded from the start.
She says, “All of a sudden there was an opportunity for coaches to be employed, and there was less reliance on holding down a job while you competed. The level of training grew and became more professional and the ambition [of the athletes] grew with it.”
Funding also led to better scientific and medical support, including for mental health and wellbeing, issues probably more important in Tokyo than during any other Olympics.
The question at the time was whether the funding from The National Lottery (which started in 1997) could change British sport in time for the Sydney Games of 2000.
The answer was an emphatic yes as the squad, known as Team GB since 1999, went from 36th to 10th in the medal table.
And that was only the start. At the London Olympic Games in 2012, a team of 541 athletes won 65 medals, 29 of them gold. Four years later, in Rio de Janeiro, the medal haul rose to 67, of which 27 were gold – second only to the US. Success had become the new normal.
Dame Katherine says, “It can be easy to feel we’ve had it [success] for a long time and that National Lottery funding has always been there.
“There are athletes coming in who feel – in a great way – it’s all they’ve known and as a result their expectations can be huge. In the past we had athletes who didn’t have those opportunities. Now we have everything combined and you can see the success that flows from that.”
By Clare Fisher, Mirror