LONDON – “It’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts,” according to the famous maxim of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic Games.
But with many Britons still questioning a Games set to cost around £9 billion ($14 billion), plus ongoing controversies over ‘plastic Brits’ and the still to be decided future of the Olympic Stadium, officials know a large medal haul is their best, and possibly only, defense against accusations of wasteful spending.
Four years ago in Beijing, Britain finished fourth in the medal table with 47 medals in total and 19 golds — their best tally since London first hosted the Games in 1908.
The ‘sit-down’ sports of cycling, sailing and rowing, which between them yielded 16 golds, will be expected to deliver more Olympic success in London, with reigning champions Chris Hoy and Victoria Pendleton (cycling) and multiple gold-medallist Ben Ainslie (sailing) all bidding for fresh Games glory.
Meanwhile, in a sport where ‘breeding’ usually refers to the horses, rather than the riders, the fact Zara Phillips, the granddaughter of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, has been selected for the three-day event will bring a new audience to the discipline.
Former world and European champion Phillips, both of whose parents were Olympic three-day eventers, with her father Mark wining a team gold medal at Munich in 1972, said: “It’s awesome to be given this opportunity.”
In the central Olympic sport of athletics, Britain managed just one gold in Beijing when Christine Ohuruogu won the 400 metres.
But since then Dai Greene (400 metres hurdles) and Mo Farah (5,000 metres) have won world titles.
UK Athletics coach Charles van Commenee is looking for a minimum of eight medals from the track and field team.
“The statistics and the results over the last three years indicate that we should be able to be there or thereabouts,” he said.
The Dutchman also defended his decision to select hurdler Tiffany Porter, born in the United States to an English mother, and triple jumper Yamile Aldama, who has also represented her native Cuba and Sudan.
“There is no such thing as ‘plastic Brits’, I think sport, and the Olympics in particular, is about bringing people together. It’s about inclusion. It’s not about separation or exclusion,” he said.
However, ‘exclusion’ of a different sort has become a familiar theme, with several instances of athletes refusing to take their non-selection lying down.
The most high-profile case concerned taekwondo world number one and European champion Aaron Cook. He lost out to Lutalo Muhammad, who will drop down to Cook’s weight class to compete in London.
Cook, after several attempts to get the British Olympic Association to reverse the decision, recently gave up on his London 2012 dream after ruling out legal action on the grounds of cost.
“It is hard to put into words,” said Cook. “I just feel numb.”
However, taekwondo could still provide Team GB with a heartening story as Sarah Stevenson, who lost both her parents to illness last year while winning the world title, bids for Olympic gold.
Meanwhile another high-profile, if more explicable, omission concerned the absence of David Beckham from the British Olympic football team.
There had been speculation the former England captain, who played a prominent role in helping bring the Games to London, would be included as one of three over-age players in Stuart Pearce’s squad.
“Naturally I am very disappointed, but there will be no bigger supporter of the team than me,” said Beckham. “And like everyone, I will be hoping they can win the gold.”
But former England winger John Barnes insisted the 37-year-old Beckham, now with the Los Angeles Galaxy, was simply no longer good enough.
“If you’re only allowed three overage players, then Craig Bellamy, Ryan Giggs and Micah Richards would warrant their place more than him,” said Barnes.
“The Olympics is about winning and you’re belittling that if you say let’s throw a spectacle by picking someone more popular. That belittles the Olympic ideal of excellence.”