How British sport learned to be ruthless again
Max Benson @maxbjourno
England hit the top of the world in Test cricket, British athletes and rowers returned from respective world championships with medals aplenty, and Mark Cavendish became the undisputed king of sprint cycling – all in the space of a few weeks. Well, not quite.
This level of success can’t be achieved overnight, and it has taken decades of failure, soul-searching and a fresh outlook to make it happen.
We have discovered a new cutting edge in British sport, a steely-eyed will to win that was once the preserve of Australian swimmers, American sprinters and almost every other supposed rival you can call to mind.
A ruthless streak was considered most ‘un-British’ and our sporting feats seldom rose above dignified quarter-final defeats and occasional bronze medal.
Now we have a new breed of sportsmen and women. They are encouraged to express themselves, thrive on the big stage and channel their skills to achieve sporting excellence. Second best won’t do any more.
So what has changed? Broadly speaking, we have opened our eyes as a sporting nation. Performance charts, diet plans and ice baths – for so long ignored – are the order of the day and a new professionalism has swept across elite sport. We have caught up with other nations and then some.
Even the notoriously myopic Australian press are recognising the success of a nation they have for so long derided. “Finding fault with English cricket right now is like assassinating the Dalai Lama’s character,” according to Richard Hinds, writing in The Sydney Morning Herald.
The England side was, frankly, a shambles when Duncan Fletcher joined as coach in 1999. His meticulous approach over an eight-year spell in the job paved the way for fellow Zimbabwean Andy Flower to take England to the summit of world cricket, and the smart money is on them staying on top for the foreseeable future.
Fletcher was instrumental in bringing a new discipline to the national side that, chiefly through the introduction of central contracts, evolved into a cohesive unit, rather than the ragged collection of individuals dragged off the county circuit that had gone before.
The key link between Fletcher and Flower is their nationality and, more specifically, the fact that neither is British. In the past decade or so, there has been a new willingness, perhaps born out of desperation, to look abroad to our betters for help and inspiration, and it is no coincidence that some major recent successes have come under the watchful eyes of foreign coaches.
The cricket side alone also have David Saker (Australia), Mushtaq Ahmed (Pakistan) and Richard Halsall (Zimbabwe) as senior members of the coaching staff.
Athletics is another prime example. Hard-nosed Dutchman Charles van Commenee, the head coach of UK Athletics since 2008, has made it abundantly clear he favours the stick over the carrot.
Previously Team GB’s heptathlon coach, he famously labelled Kelly Sotherton a “wimp” moments after she claimed a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics in 2004, believing she should have taken the silver that was “easy to get”.
Sotherton has since seen her funding cut by UK Athletics, following an unsuccessful switch to 400m after declaring her retirement from the heptathlon in 2010.
Such an unyielding desire for excellence has caused friction, and Team GB’s track and field team are controversially banned from attending the opening ceremony of their home Games next year.
“It doesn’t fit in the professional preparation for the biggest event of your life. They would not go shopping for eight hours before their biggest event, so why would you be on your feet for that long?” Van Commenee said.
Baron de Coubertin may not recognise the philosophy, but it is starting to bring results for Britain’s track and field underachievers. Eight medals are the target for London after a disappointing four-medal haul in Beijing in 2008, one short of the pre-Games target.
2012 poster-girl Jess Ennis is building steadily for a tilt at heptathlon gold, taking silver at this summer’s World Championships in Daegu. It would surely have been gold but for a solitary poor performance in the javelin from the 2009 champion.
Ennis was eclipsed by newly-crowned 5,000m world champion Mo Farah, in the form of his life over the long distances, while Welshman Dai Greene is an early favourite for success next year after storming to gold in the 400m hurdles.
Team GB met Van Commenee’s objective of winning seven medals in Daegu, while the world-beating efforts of Greene and Farah ensured they surpassed the target of one gold.
Beyond the medals, there were just a disappointing six further top-eight finishes, but Van Commenee remains bullish, saying: “There are obviously disappointments but, two-and-a-half years ago, if I could predict at the end of the World Championships in Daegu that we would have seven medals, including two golds, I would have been very happy.”
In an ideal world, the leadership of our national teams would be provided ‘in-house’, but the uncomfortable truth was that British coaching often fell short at the highest level and is still playing catch-up.
Arguments persist over whether drafting foreigners in to sort out our sporting problems is right, but the results cannot be argued with, bar the infuriating underachievement of the England football team under the Italian Fabio Capello.
British athletes are funded largely through national organisations such as UK Sport and centrally contracted cricketers are paid by the England and Wales Cricket Board, fostering a sense of obligation to supplement the passion and self-motivation.
Not so in football, where the clubs of the richest league in the world hold the power and international fixtures are seen as a downright inconvenience during the Premier League season.
UK Sport’s ‘no compromise’ approach to funding allocation has also allowed sports such as boxing, canoeing, hockey and rowing to flourish after strong British performances in Beijing and last year’s Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
There are winners and losers with such a system and badminton saw its funding slashed in 2010, the same year there were no seeded players from home shores for the first time at the All England Championships.
Andy Wood left his post as performance director and was, incidentally, replaced with a foreigner as Denmark’s Jens Grill seeks to rebuild ahead of 2012.
Less surprising is the continued success of GB rowing. Steve Redgrave’s sustained brilliance set the bar, and public expectations, higher for future competitors than ever before in British sport.
The ongoing Olympic and World Championship dominance, underlined by a solid performance at Lake Bled this year, stems from a winning tradition as much as anything. Here is consistent proof that success breeds success.
The British squad brought a record 14 World Championship medals home from Slovenia, smashing performance director David Tanner’s flexible target of four to six, while 16 of the 18 available berths for 2012’s Olympics and Paralympics were secured well ahead of time.
Reassuringly, there isn’t always a need to look abroad for exceptional coaching talent. Dave Brailsford, performance director for British Cycling and principal of Team Sky, steered Team GB to an unprecedented 18 medals in the Beijing velodrome three years ago.
He is a new breed, a graphs and charts man with a seemingly peerless understanding of science and psychology in the sport. Crucially, everything is geared towards winning. Not to reach finals or make friends, but to win titles.
Brailsford knows the recipe for success: “A broad understanding of the financial concepts, understanding the process of learning and being taught learning techniques, basic problem-solving techniques; identify what a problem is, get to the root cause of the problem and learn how to solve the problem and understand it.”
He continues: “[You must] understand how to generate solutions, understand how to work from first principles and learn how to contextualise from first principles and apply those principles to the given circumstance.”
He would have been laughed out of British sport with that kind of talk not so long ago, but a new forward-thinking attitude and willingness to listen from governing bodies has allowed the likes of Brailsford to flourish.
Another long-standing frustration is the oft-discussed state of British tennis. There is no obvious reason why we should lag behind the rest of the world, particularly given that Wimbledon is still considered by many as the greatest of the Grand Slams.
Andy Murray has bucked the trend in recent years, taking over from perennial nearly-man Tim Henman, who was, particularly towards the end of a successful career, treated unfairly by the press and public alike, simply for not being as good as we wished he could be.
Murray epitomises the new ruthlessness, demanding of himself demonstrably on court while his frequent changes of coaching staff point to a constant desire for improvement rather than a complete inability to maintain professional relationships.
The emergence of teenagers Heather Watson and Laura Robson on the women’s circuit bodes well for the future, while Dan Evans, 18-year-old Oliver Golding and 17-year-old Liam Broady provide tentative hope on the men’s side. Time will tell if their early promise can be translated into Tour wins.
Tennis is cited as prohibitively expensive to play in this country, preventing scores of naturally gifted youngsters from taking it up. The same criticism has been levelled at golf, but that has never been healthier on these shores, with Luke Donald, Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood holding the top three world ranking places.
McIlroy and fellow Northern Irishman Graham McDowell have snapped up the past two US Opens, while another fellow countryman, Darren Clarke, finally fulfilled 20 years of promise to claim the 2011 Open Championship in July to prolong a purple patch for British golf.
US Open winner McIlroy mirrors the effusive traits of his young British contemporaries, saying recently: “I’m the sort of person who likes to have people watching. I like to have a little bit of a buzz in the atmosphere around the group, and I’ll enjoy it. It’s nice to be the centre of attention.”
Generally speaking, Britain’s sporting trend is one of gradual improvement since the turn of the century. Public imagination needs special moments to capture it en masse, though, and the summer of 2005 provided not one but two.
Not only did England wrestle the Ashes back from Australia in arguably the most thrilling Test series ever but, on 6 July, London was announced as the host city for the 2012 Olympic Games.
A fawning media cottoned on to the new high standards in British sport on and off the field. We were not merely eschewing two decades of embarrassment against the old enemy on the cricket field, but were now trusted with hosting the greatest sporting event on the planet.
If the 2012 Olympics had been awarded to Paris instead, where would that have left British sporting ambitions? Would we have regressed to the ‘good old days’ of gallant quarter-final defeats? Do we care?
Not one bit. From the moment Jacques Rogge pulled ‘London’ from the golden envelope, a whole new focus was there for British sport, and it wouldn’t do to embarrass ourselves on home turf.
Triathlon, an Olympic event since 2000, has been a decent measure of Britain’s general progress across the sporting board. Aided by a forward-thinking governing body, occasional individual success throughout the 90s has been used as a platform on which to build elite performance.
Recently crowned world champion for a second time, Helen Jenkins lies second in the women’s Olympic rankings for 2012, with Vicky Holland, Jodie Stimpson and Liz Blatchford also in the top 30.
Alistair Brownlee, also world champion this year and in 2009, is second in the men’s rankings, with younger brother Jonathan ninth. At 23 and 21 years of age, there is real potential for them to dominate the sport for years to come.
Equally important is their entirely natural, down-to-earth personalities in front of a camera.
Used wisely, their charm, as well as their prowess, can help foster the next generation of British talent, as well as further advertise a growing sport – the latest phenomena for a sporting nation that often spent more time reflecting on its past, rather than focusing on its future or even present. What better clean-cut, healthy image to promote 2012’s much-discussed legacy than the young Yorkshire siblings?
Similarly neglected in years gone by, our understanding of the mental side of elite sport has improved no end, and a plethora of psychologists and analysts can now be found in the national coaching set-ups. It is no coincidence that individual flair is encouraged like never before.
Cavendish is infectiously cocky. And so he should be after becoming the first Briton to not only take the Tour de France green jersey this summer but also be named world road race champion since Tom Simpson in 1965.
As a child, he recalled telling himself: “I want to be world champion and I want to win stages of the Tour de France.” This summer, he added: “Normally, when I say I want to do something, I do it.”
The little upstart from the Isle of Man will likely end his career as the most successful road cyclist Britain has ever produced and this is, in part, down to his immense self-belief being encouraged rather than stamped out.
There is even, somewhat unexpectedly, room for manoeuvre in cricket, often regarded as the most anachronistic and stuffy of sports.
Notorious for bouts of petulance and dissent, Stuart Broad has not been severely punished by the ECB but awarded the captaincy of England’s Twenty20 side, presumably on the proviso that he curbs his inclination to fall out with umpires.
But that’s the way it is now. It’s OK to be precocious in British sport if you have the talent and drive to back it up. Fans and performers alike are beginning to expect rather than hope.
Vastly improved coaching and emerging, exceptional talent means that this could be, whisper it, just the beginning of a British spell of dominance on the world stage.
If you enjoyed this, then check out Rich Hook’s interview with Olympic swimmer Liam Tancock