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Britain’s stunning medals success in the Rio Olympics may have been a cause for elation at home — but in parts of Europe it has met with sneers, incredulity and withering criticism of UK sports policy.
Great Britain achieved its best Olympic performance in more than a century, garnering a total of 67 medals, including 27 golds. It ended the Rio games second in the overall medals table after the US and ahead of China.
Some fellow Europeans were impressed. Others were sceptical.
Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper, for example, singled out Team GB’s spectacular success in cycling, which it said “has led its rivals to wonder if there isn’t something fishy going on with the Brits”.
The paper also had harsh words for the Britain’s “no compromise” approach to funding, which allocates money to sports with a realistic chance of earning medals and has withheld it from disciplines that failed to meet their medals target in 2012.
“It made no difference how popular the sport was with the public, how suitable it was for the mass market,” the paper said. “Volleyball and table tennis were excluded from funding programmes, despite their broad appeal and wide take-up in the population.”
The article was headlined: “No compromise: why the Brits win more often in Rio than China, and what a high price they pay for it.”
There was a similar reaction in Spain, where the El País daily described Britain’s pursuit of Olympic glory as “brutal and heartless”, stating: “Every medal is the product of calculation, not the spirit of a nonconformist athlete.”
Perhaps even more irritating to British sports fans was the approach taken by the European Parliament. In a tweet it airbrushed out the Britain’s performance, instead congratulating the whole of the EU on the 325 medals it had collectively won.
That earned this terse response from one @JDrewer: “If you want to know why the Brits decided to leave the EU, this tweet pretty much sums it up.”
Yet in other countries, there was outright envy at Team GB’s medal haul, and especially the extraordinary turnround achieved since Atlanta in 1996, when it won just one gold. On Monday, Poland’s sports minister called for the country to copy the British approach in order to win more medals.
“In Rio, Great Britain won 67 medals. And this shows that their model, which involves the selection of key disciplines, passed the test,” said Witold Banka.
He said Poland should emulate UK Sport’s targeted policy, rather than splitting funding equally between all disciplines. “[This approach] will play a very important role in the development of Polish sport,” he added.
The Frankfurter Allgemeine’s sniping at Britain’s success in the velodrome came in the wake of comments by a number of athletes and coaches at Rio hinting at skulduggery in the British ranks.
Michael D’Almeida, a French cyclist who was in the bronze medal-winning men’s sprint team, said last week: “We are human beings like them, we are made of the same stuff, we have a bike like they do, so why are they better?”
German track cyclist Kristina Vogel, who won the women’s sprint, said there was something “questionable” about Britain’s cycling success. “They all come here at their best level, and I have no idea how they do it,” she said.
She later backtracked, saying: “I never said they take any drugs or have a bike with engines, but they always seem faster at the Games.”
It’s not the first time that Britain’s success in the velodrome has raised eyebrows. At the 2012 London Olympics the French director of cycling suggested that GB was winning so many cycling medals because its racers were using different wheels to everyone else. This prompted Dave Brailsford, the British cycling director, to joke that Team GB did have a secret — they used “specially round wheels”.
Reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin, Henry Foy in Warsaw, Tobias Buck in Madrid and Tony Barber in London