To the utter surprise of the average cynical Brit, GB brought home even more medals from Rio 2016 than it achieved at the London hosted 2012 Games. This was a feat and a half. After all, not since 1948 has any country increased the number of medals at the Games after the ones they hosted themselves. Great Britain is currently in slight shock – coupled with understated pride – and is having to adjust slowly its identity as a sporty and winning country.
But just how did Great Britain achieve this incredible medal haul? Funding was no more – in fact less – than for the 2012 Games. Can we put the victory down to a statistical anomaly of talented sporting individuals? Did the focus on drugs cheating alter the culture and somehow spur on ‘clean’ competition?
Those factors may have had some influence but perhaps the biggest contributor of all to GB’s achievements has been the strategic focus of UK Sport on winning. Creating a structure and processes that are explicitly about winning is hardly part of British culture. British history may be littered with huge successes in many fields but they are often celebrated humbly, having been achieved without much obvious or overt effort.
But something quietly shifted for sport in the UK at the turn of the century. A government department set out the vision for sport in 2020 with a twin track approach of increasing mass participation and enhancing international success. Looking back over that journey some 16 or so years later, one thing jumps out – the strict process to allocate resources, and the choices that were made to meet one goal: to win.
Speaking post Rio 2016, Liz Nicholl, CEO of UK Sport, said that the vision was underpinned by a clear mission, objectives, strategies (targets) and tactics. She pointed to the clear line of sight that each individual sporting body – and team – had to the overall goal. And the clarity that people had about what they had to do and by when. She said that this enabled them to be able to say no to any idea or suggestion that wouldn’t contribute to winning.
Business has a lot to learn from this approach. We can become over complicated in our organisation structures; we can get distracted by other shorter term goals; we can make choices which don’t always directly link to the overall vision or mission. It’s true that most businesses operate in markets which are more complicated than developing and nurturing sporting talent. But still, having the clear vision of what winning looks like, and knowing how to win that we have seen work so well for UK Sport must surely give us messages for business too.