LONDON, Aug 23, (AFP): Great Britain’s triumphant Olympic team returned home from the Rio Games in a gold-nosed plane Tuesday, as officials trumpeted their success as the “best sporting achievement” in the country’s history.
Some 320 athletes and support staff travelled back from Brazil in the British Airways Boeing 747 with “victoRIOus” emblazoned on the side, and the airline ordered an extra 77 bottles of champagne for the 11-hour flight.
Team GB’s Olympic medal haul was its biggest for more than a century, with a total of 67, including 27 gold, putting Britain behind only the United States in the overall standings in Rio.
“I think it is the best sporting achievement by any team in British sporting history,” said British chef de mission Mark England, flanked by team members, at a press conference at London’s Heathrow Airport.
Adam Peaty, who started the British gold rush by smashing his own world record to win the 100 metres breaststroke swimming title added: “It’s great to be back on British soil again and I can’t wait to inspire the next generation of British athletes.”
Meanwhile rower Katherine Grainger said she was glad the team had been a source of joy for the country after a year of political upheaval.
“The lovely thing is that after London 2012 we thought it could not be replicated, that feeling of uniting a nation, but the reaction here at Heathrow is just a small taste of what is to come,” she said.
“It’s felt like it’s been a tough year for the country and the good thing about sport is that it unites the country with some good news, for a short time at least,” added Grainger, whose career five medals make her Britain’s most decorated female Olympian.
Some of the medallists’ families were present to watch them land, along with Hugh Robertson, Britain’s sports minister at the time of the 2012 Games in London.
Britain’s performance in Rio was the best by any country that had hosted the immediate preceding Olympics and Robertson, now a vice-president of the British Olympic Association (BOA) said the knock-on effect from London had played a part.
“One of the objectives was to leave a legacy for UK athletes for generations to come,” he told AFP.
“Rio has surpassed all our expectations,” added Robertson, who flew back from Brazil last Friday.
“This plan wasn’t drawn up on the back of a fag (cigarette) packet, although that isn’t perhaps the most apposite analogy to use for sports.”
Cycling saw Britain’s “golden couple” of Jason Kenny and fiancee Laura Trott triumph in the velodrome.
Kenny matched British cycling great Chris Hoy’s tally of six golds with three wins in Rio, while Trott won two of her own to take her total to four.
Both Kenny and Trott returned ahead of the bulk of the British squad, with Kenny telling the BBC on Tuesday: “It’s strange, it’s a new experience because I’m not used to being in the public eye as such.
“We’ve not bought a single drink since we got home, so people are really nice! The support is incredible and we all really appreciate it.”
Several British competitors defended titles won in London, notably track star Mo Farah who again took gold in both the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres, with boxing’s Nicola Adams and taekwondo’s Jade Jones also repeating their victories of four years ago.
Double gold medal-winning gymnast Max Whitlock and Adams were first off the plane, posing and waving for photographers, before the rest of the team followed to further cheers and applause from airport staff.
Also on the plane were triathlon medal-winning brothers Alistair and Jonny Brownlee.
The United States finished with 121 medals in Rio, including 46 golds.
BOA chief executive Bill Sweeney cautioned against hopes Britain could replace the US at the head of the standings at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
“Topping the Americans may be a long shot, it’s just been an incredible moment,” Sweeney said.
“Tokyo will be tough… Japan are stronger than the Brazilians, China will bounce back, there will be a full Russian team and Australia will be strong,” he said.
“However, we have a young team, so the potential is there.”