Team GB’s Olympic swimming legacy must be reopening of pools – Tom Richmond

THERE is a humbling humility to Team GB’s swimming stars as they continue to make waves at the Tokyo Olympics.

Great Britain's Duncan Scott, Tom Dean, Matthew Richards and James Guy celebrate gold in the Men's 4x200 freestyle relay at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on the fifth day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.

First Adam Peaty. Then Tom Dean. And now a first relay win since 1910 – coincidentally the last year that Britain won three swimming golds.

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But it is the exemplary example that they’re setting – in and out of pool – which has the potential to create a sporting legacy for the ages if their endeavour is matched by political will back at home.

Great Britain's Tom Dean (right) with his gold medal celebrates after winning the Men's 200m Freestyle alongside second placed silver medalist Great Britain's Duncan Scott at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on the fourth day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.

First the swimmers whose gold rush began when Peaty became the first Briton to defend an Olympic title as he pushes back the boundaries of the 100 metres breaststroke.

“I think the NHS has taken care of health and it’s sport’s job to take care of hope,” said Peaty before honouring a team of thousands, from elite coaches to ordinary people buying Lottery tickets, who he credits with supporting him. Government, too, should be a team effort, too often it is not.

Next Dean who twice fought back from Covid before winning the 200 metres freestyle from his team-mate Duncan Scott whose magnanimity in defeat – he was simply elated for his friend – showed a loyalty rarely seen at Westminster.

And then a memorable win in the 4x200m freestyle relay as Dean and Scott, together with veteran James Guy and the rookie Matt Richards, triumphed in a time just 0.03secs off the world record.

Great Britain's Adam Peaty reacts after winning the Men's 100m Breaststroke final at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre on the third day of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.

Again Dean’s reaction was telling. The first British male swimmer to win more than one gold medal at a single Olympics since the 1908 London Games, his first thoughts were for team-mates who helped Great Britain reach the final.

It was another touch of class from this country’s swimmers whose success – they didn’t win a single medal at Sydney in 2000 – stems, in part, from recognition that the letter ‘I’ does not feature in the word ‘team’.

This is another lesson that our politicians can embrace. Our Olympians mean it when they talk about the ‘team spirit’ – our leaders often lack sincerity when they do so, even though good government depends upon ‘team work’.

But this is the type of Olympian effort that now needs to be replicated by Boris Johnson’s government if this success is to inspire a new era of swimmers from youngsters learning basic water safety – one of the most important life skills of all – to elite competitors.

For, while Peaty spent much of the lockdown training in a makeshift training pool in his garden, the country’s swimming pools remained shut due to Covid and pandemic restrictions.

Only now are many beginning to reopen – and Swim England chief executive Jane Nickerson has been genuinely fearful that as many as 20 per cent of pools will remain closed permanently because of council funding pressures and a backlog in maintenance.

This is illustrated by the continuing uncertainty over the once iconic Ponds Forge complex in Sheffield which has been so integral to British swimming.

Even though a public outcry saw a package put together to save the venue from closure, its leisure pool is again shut and out of bounds to those who want to go and splash about after being captivated by the performances in Tokyo and John Hunt’s spine-tingling swimming commentary on Radio 5 Live.

“During recent checks we noticed deterioration that occurred during the time the building has been closed and immediately ended access to the flumes for the public,” said Sheffield City Trust which runs the venue.

Yet, unless facilities are open, the immediacy of the moment will be gone and opportunities lost. It’s a similar story up and down the country – the loss of revenue during the lockdown proving too much for some pools and other grassroots facilities for Olympic sports like gymnastics and taekwondo.

The very places where youngsters take the first steps that can lead to sporting superstardom, they risk being lost to this generation unless there’s greater recognition of these facilities and their wider societal value to health and wellbeing.

After all, the pools that made the aforementioned Peaty, Dean, Scott and many others are also integral to public safety, swimming’s place on the primary school curriculum and the desire for all youngsters to be proficient in the water by the age of 11.

With 600,000 youngsters a year already missing out on swimming lessons despite this national commitment, and a shortage of up to 8,000 instructors, there’s now a golden opportunity for the Prime Minister to throw a lifeline to the country’s community pools.

In short, ‘Team Boris’ needs to invest in the generation now being inspired by Team GB’s swimmers and their own recognition that they wouldn’t be on top of the world without local leisure centres – and the work that they do to help youngsters to learn key disciplines, stay active and, ultimately, go for gold.

Tom Richmond is Comment Editor of The Yorkshire Post. He tweets via OpinionYP.

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