Team GB to target top-15 finish in Beijing after record medal haul

Sean Ingle in Pyeongchang
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Lizzy Yarnold (right) and Laura Deas with the gold and bronze medals they won respectively in the women’s skeleton at Pyeongchang.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images</span>
Lizzy Yarnold (right) and Laura Deas with the gold and bronze medals they won respectively in the women’s skeleton at Pyeongchang. Photograph: Ian MacNicol/Getty Images

Britain’s Olympic chiefs are targeting a top-15 finish in the Winter Olympics in four years as they seek to build on their record-breaking medal haul in Pyeongchang.

The 59-strong British team, who are due to leave South Korea in the early hours of Monday morning, were ecstatic at having achieved five medals – squeaking past the four achieved in Sochi in 2014 thanks to Billy Morgan’s thrilling if unexpected snowboarding bronze on Saturday.

But some sports now face an anxious four-month wait before UK Sport announces its funding plans for the Beijing 2022 Winter Games in June, with bobsleigh and ice skating seen as particularly under threat.

However Mike Hay, the British Olympic Association’s chef de mission, insisted that Britain should be proud of their best Winter Games, with a solitary gold from Lizzy Yarnold in the skeleton joined by four bronze medals from Dom Parsons and Laura Deas (skeleton), Izzy Atkin (ski slopestyle) and Morgan (big air).

Hay, who has led Britain’s team with distinction, said his goal now was to turn Britain into “a creditable winter sport nation” with medals in multiple sports. “Trying to break into the top 15 is our target,” he added. “We need a couple of golds, maybe three, and we feel we have individuals who can win gold.”

“Skeleton is a strong sport for us and other sports will have learned. But it isn’t easy. Every other year we are asked to make history. There is a point in time when you can’t do that, but we still have a lot of headroom in winter sport.”

Meanwhile Bill Sweeney, the BOA’s venerable chief executive, insisted that it was worth Britain continuing to invest more in winter sports. In 2014, UK Sport doubled its investment in winter sports to £28m after the successful Sochi Games.

“We are reading reports back in the UK around snow domes and centres and inspiring kids to go and book them going through the roof, booked for weeks to come,” added Sweeney. “I read a figure we have something like eight million snowboarders and skiers doing it on an annual basis so we think there is a really strong culture around it worth investing in and we have proven we can be competitive with the best in the world.”

“If you equate this to the Summer Games and equate it to 1996 and improvement through 2000, we are starting on that journey,” he added. “Funding is someone else’s decision to make but we see some real potential here to inspire kids and continue to compete strongly.”

However there has also been growing criticism of some investment decisions, and particularly the £5m into British Bobsleigh, which had only one top-10 finish from its four teams while its four-man teams finished 17th and 18th respectively.

Among the critics were David Pond, the CEO of Britain’s wheelchair rugby team, which lost its funding after the Rio Paralympics. He tweeted: “£5m to bobsleigh to come 18th in the most inaccessible sport, but UK Sport assessed as having more medal potential and more worthy than wheelchair rugby, basketball or badminton.”

Meanwhile UK Sport’s director of performance, Chelsea Warr, refused to be drawn on which sports might get the axe, or get increased funding, in June. But she did point out that it was too simplistic to believe that sports such as short track speedskating would get a hefty cut just because Elise Christie had failed to win a medal.

“Yes we will look at the results here from Pyeongchang,” she said. “But we never make our decisions when we are emotionally charged, positively or negatively. We will go back and say, right, which are the sports that can create the medal-winning environments for four years’ time?”

When asked whether UK Sport wanted more money so Britain could chase more Winter Olympics medals in 2022, Warr replied: “We would all like more money, but what we want to do is to invest it in a really savvy and intelligent way.”

Sweeney also urged the country not to be overly fixated by medal targets and instead enjoy sport for sport’s sake. “We never really signed up to the medal range of four to 10,” he added. “We felt that top end was particularly challenging. We felt this team had a capability of a best ever in the Winter Games, around five to six, and that’s what’s been delivered. We are very comfortable with that. I think it is a shame when the conversation goes straight to ‘that medal cost x’ and ‘what impact does that have on the country’.

“If you sign up a football club in the billions, how do you quantify returns?” he added. “Some you can measure, some you can’t. Take Lizzy Yarnold’s performance. How many women, kids, male and female has she inspired to get out and do something, and challenge themselves?”

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