Let's turn back the clock 20 years to the Atlanta Games in 1996. There, mighty Great Britain took home just one gold medal.
You could even say Great Britain beat the two superpowers — it won nearly three times as many medals per capita as the US, and more than 20 times as many as China.
Great Britain impressively won 11 medals in track cycling, seven in track and field, six in gymnastics and five in rowing. The Brits also took home medals in a range of sports from judo to golf to canoe.
“Given how Britain did at London 2012 [65 medals], one would have expected them to have carried on and continued to do well because the same system was still in place,” said David Goldblatt, author of the new book, "The Games: a Global History of The Olympics." “The system is more entrenched and, I would say, more bold than ever.”
That “system” is a healthy chunk of public money — about $500 million spread over a four-year Olympic cycle — paid for by Britain’s national lottery. The math works out to more than $7 million spent per medal earned at the Rio Games.
“There’s been a very ruthless application of that money to sports where medals can be delivered. For example, in basketball and handball, where there’s no grassroots or professional circuit in Britain — absolutely no money, not a penny. Whereas archery, where it was deemed there were the possibility of medals, money was then applied,” said Goldblatt.
For what it's worth, though, the Brits did not win any Olympic medals in archery in Rio.
Goldblatt, who is British, defends this "ruthless" tactic. “If you are in the business of investing public money in an effort to win gold medals, you might as well be as rational and systematic about it as you can.”
This idea is not unique to the Brits. Think of China. At the 1988 Games in Seoul, China finished 11th in the gold medal count. Then the country began investing heavily in sports where it found it could win. For example, diving. Now, China dominates that sport, and dominates the Olympics. China has finished in the top three at the past five Olympics, taking top honors at the 2008 Beijing Games.
But for Great Britain in Rio, was all the cost worth it?
“The feeling at the moment, broadly speaking, is yes,” said Goldblatt, who said Brits are enjoying their Olympic success. “It feels at the moment like money well spent.”
But, the British government also has its share of critics who say money is being directed toward elite athletes at the expense of the general population. Goldblatt said the critics have a valid argument as well.
“London 2012 was the Olympics most systematically committed to leaving a legacy of a higher participation rate in exercise and sport amongst the general public. And even here, with such a tremendously successful Olympics, the results are that the British are exercising less and playing sport less than they were four years ago.”
That’s a black mark. Still, Goldblatt expects the British government to continue investing heavily in its future Olympians, perhaps even putting more money toward elite training. And he expects it to pay off again at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
“In Britain, having decided to leave the European Union, there is a searching in this country for forms of global success.”