Deep inside the UK Sport offices in central London there is a secret wall, accessible to only the most senior figures, on which the performances of every potential Team GB medal prospect are tracked and scrutinised. Normally, if it was seven months out from an Olympics, that wall – in a room called the performance lab – would be a hive of activity. Instead it looks like the Mary Celeste.
“I’ve not been in that room since last March, so I don’t know whether the wall has a nice layer of dust or is being brushed down by the one person who still checks the office,” the UK Sport chair, Katherine Grainger, says. “I think it’s fair to say that there’s probably more question marks going into a Games than we’ve ever had.”
How could there not be when the Covid-19 pandemic has wrecked so much of the sporting calendar and, in many cases, forced athletes to train differently? For every Adam Peaty, who was able to break the 100m breaststroke world record in November, there is a Dina Asher‑Smith, who did not compete at all on the international stage.
The new variants of the virus have only added to this swirling uncertainty. Normally in January and February many British athletes would go away to warm-weather training camps. Instead they are having to slog away in temperatures barely above zero. What effect might that have come the summer?
One thing may surprise you, though. Both UK Sport, which funds Britain’s Olympic sports, and the British Olympic Association, which is responsible for preparing and leading Team GB at the Games, are convinced that Tokyo 2020 will go ahead in July.
It’s not just the rollout of various vaccines that gives them confidence. The BOA’s chef de mission, Mark England, is on a key International Olympic Committee working group and is able to see at first hand the work organisers are doing to make sure the Tokyo Games take place.
And if they do, the BOA believes Team GB will be one of the most well-prepared squads, despite the difficulties created by the pandemic. When, in March, Tokyo 2020 was postponed by a year, the BOA was forced to renegotiate hundreds of contracts, ranging from the operation camp and the performance facilities in Japan to freight, travel, transport and catering. It was, says one insider, “a huge challenge”. Yet it was one that was quietly overcome.
As Andy Anson, the BOA chief executive, says: “We’re confident the Games are going to go ahead and we’re fully focused on making sure we provide the athletes with the best performance environment we can in Tokyo. The timings of the Games might have changed but that won’t have lessened the ambitions of our athletes. And after a five-year wait from Rio I sense there’s now a growing fervour for the Games to happen.”
So how might Team GB fare? A year ago the former UK Sport performance director Chelsea Warr said she was “quietly confident” Britain would do better than the 2016 Rio Games, where 27 gold medals and 67 podium finishes lifted them to second in the medal table. Understandably no one is being as bold or bombastic with their predictions now.
Grainger, who was a five-time Olympic rowing medallist before retiring after 2016, says: “In terms of performances, it is so hard to predict because we haven’t had the international competition that we would normally have in the year before the Games. We’re still way off knowing what the Olympics and Paralympics team is going to look like, never mind what their performance will be.”
It is also worth noting the analytics company Gracenote, which has a decent track record of predicting Olympic medal tables, has warned Great Britain’s medal tally at the Tokyo Games will fall “significantly” from 2016. “Their best hope is to break into the top five rather than the top three where they landed in the last two Olympics,” the company said in February, pre-pandemic, pointing to rowing, athletics, gymnastics and cycling as events where Team GB would not do as well this time around.
However, there are at least three caveats to their prediction. The first is we don’t know how many neutral Russia athletes will turn up. The second is how the pandemic will affect some countries more than others. Third, Team GB’s tech department is the envy of most countries. Their aerodynamic cycling skin suits, which are only wheeled out at Olympic Games, are said to improve performance by 5%-10%. That can be the difference between a good performance and a gold medal.
Certainly within Team GB there remains a quiet confidence that Britain will do well and that the big stars such as Peaty, Asher-Smith and Laura Kenny will deliver. “I genuinely feel our athletes are in a good place,” says Grainger. “Some have benefited from a break in the training regime, or trying a new approach to doing things. Like all of us we’ve all learned different ways of working.
“So I think there’s a general positivity about next summer. For a long time it was ‘will it or won’t it happen’. Now it feels like it is on – and our athletes are ready to show how good they can be.”