Even before they filed into the Olympic Stadium to the tune of David’s Bowie’s rock anthem Heroes, the athletes of Great Britain’s Olympic team – Team GB as they’re known here – knew the pressure was on. As they waved to a wildly cheering home town crowd, stadium speakers bellowed out Bowie’s classic hit with its chorus, “We can be heroes, just for one day.” For Team GB, that day has arrived.
Playing at home carries a heavy set of expectations, says the Chair of Great Britain’s Olympic Committee, Lord Colin Moynihan. The only thing that will help ease the pressure, he says, is for the team to win its first gold medal. Moynihan says that’s something he discovered talking to Canadians at the Vancouver Games in 2010.
“We learned that from you, “Moynihan said on a visit to Canada House, the headquarters of Canada’s Olympic Committee in London.
“There’s a sense of relief because there’s so much expectation from the country as a whole to see Team GB, the host nation, deliver the first gold. We learned that. We saw it happening in Canada in Vancouver and we knew that we needed to focus on those early events and try and get the gold.”
“Once that’s there,” he says, “there is a sort of sense of inspired confidence that is translated from the crowds to the team. And that feeds on success in the future.”
Britain has a lot riding on these Games. And not just in terms of national pride.
Following the Athens Olympics in 2004, where Britain won 31 medals, the country ramped up spending on sports. The investment paid off. British athletes won 47 medals at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Since then, UK Sport, the body that administers amateur sport funding, has poured nearly half-a-billion dollars —much of it from lottery proceeds — into the country’s Olympic and Paralympic teams.
The money is targeted toward sports most likely to deliver medals in a program called No Compromise, similar to Canada’s Own the Podium program. The biggest benefactors in Britain have been track and field, cycling, sailing, rowing and swimming.
“There were all sorts of aspects to it.” says Lord Moynihan. ” But possibly the most important was that there was consistency of funding over time. So that we knew the level of funding that was needed. We needed to persuade government not to make it an annual funding round, but a four-year funding round. And that enabled the athletes to have consistent support and that’s paid off.”
British sports fans are waiting for the next big payoff at the own London Games. But it didn’t come on the first day of competition. Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins, a star member of Team GB, was a hopeful — along with teammate Mark Cavendish — to win the 250-kilometre road race.
Wiggins finished well back. The gold went to a rider from Kazakhstan. Team GB, known as a powerful force in cycling, was shut out of the medals. Canadian cyclist Ryder Hesjedal, who finished the race in the middle of the pack says Wiggins and Team GB have nothing to be ashamed of.
“He rode excellent for his team,” Hesjedal says. “Team GB was incredible.”
The results left British fans disappointed, though not discouraged.
Andrew Salter, who came out to cheer Team GB cyclists through the streets of London, says the entire team is under “enormous pressure." But the Games have just begun.
“We’ll still do well in the Olympics. And, you know, the atmosphere today in London is absolutely fantastic.”
The atmosphere will get even better when the home team starts to win. Lord Moynihan and the rest of Britain’s Olympic team know they’ll be able to breathe a little easier with some gold in the bank.
“The team is very inspired,” Moynihan says. “We’re better prepared than any team we’ve had. It’s the largest team here with 541 [members] and we’re going to go for gold.”