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Published: 16/06/16

The number 66, already engrained in British sporting folklore as the year England won the World Cup, could help Team GB's athletes achieve a remarkable and unique winning streak when they compete in Rio this August. 

A 'winning streak' is defined as three or more Olympic Games in which a nation has increased its total medals won, that is, showed continuous improvement over three or more editions.

Sixty-six is the number of medals Team GB need to achieve the target set for UK Sport in 2016 in return for the £20m additional funding awarded to elite sport after the triumph of London 2012.  Achieving this total will see Team GB become the first nation to improve its total haul for an unprecedented fifth consecutive Olympic Games.  From the ignominy of 15 medals and 36th place in Atlanta 1996, the UK's elite sport development system has improved continuously over the last four Olympic cycles to achieve 65 medals and 3rd place at London 2012. 

Team GB's medal tally in previous Games

Winning streaks of three or more editions of continuous improvement are rare.  Since 1896 there have been 22 three-edition winning streaks and just seven four-edition winning streaks.  Most of the four-edition winning streaks, (Cuba, Hungary, Poland and Romania) occurred between 1932 and 1980 and were achieved by communist nations determined to show off their sporting prowess.  The remaining three (Azerbaijan, Great Britain and Greece) are recent with Azerbaijan and Great Britain achieving theirs at London 2012.  East Germany, with what we now know to have been a state-sponsored doping regime, only ever managed a three-edition winning streak.  Even China with its huge government commitment to elite sport has a best winning streak of three editions (2000-2008 inclusive).

Whilst Azerbaijan has the same chance as Team GB to show continuous Olympic improvement over 20 years, the scale of its success has been more modest: 1 medal in 1996; 3 in 2000; 5 in 2004; 7 in 2008 and 12 in 2012.  However for a nation of 9.5m people, Azerbaijan is a country which exceeds the number of medals that would otherwise be predicted on the basis of its population, wealth and political system.  Its elite sport policies are not without controversy, notably the recruitment and naturalisation of foreign athletes who made up around 50% of Azerbaijan's team of 53 at London 2012.  Nonetheless, it has carved out a successful niche for itself particularly in wrestling, boxing and to a lesser extent weightlifting.

Team GB however will become the only nation to achieve a five-edition winning streak in the Games after being host.  Since 1896 every host nation has won fewer medals in the Olympics after being host than it did as host but there are grounds for quiet optimism that the GB team is on course to reach the magic 66.

The Government has invested an additional £20m in UK Sport to improve performance at Rio 2016, which is unusual as often nations rein back on their elite sport spending once the Olympic Games are over.  We need look no further than recent hosts China, Greece and Australia to see what the typical pattern of performance is after being host.  And although Team GB have given up the benefit of home nation advantage to Brazil - they will be competing for a bigger pool of medals as Brazil is not expected to make the gains that recent hosts have achieved.  With the addition of golf and rugby sevens to the Olympic programme, in which British athletes are realistic medal prospects, there are even more medals for Team GB to contest than in London 2012.  Finally with uncertainty over the participation of Russia's track and field team following recent doping allegations, the competition for some medals may be reduced, which would also favour Great Britain.

The combination of these factors means that achieving 66 medals is not as outlandish as we might have thought in the immediate aftermath of London 2012.  To achieve 66 medals and thereby deliver the first ever five-edition winning streak immediately after being host would really be a unique sporting achievement.

And what if Great Britain and Azerbaijan are unsuccessful in achieving the first ever five-edition winning streak?  Waiting in the wings, currently on a three-edition winning streak, is New Zealand who find themselves as medal contenders in both of the rugby sevens events, and in Lydia Ko, the gold medal favourite for the women's golf event.  Not content with defending the Rugby World Cup in 2015, New Zealand may well achieve the eighth ever four-edition winning streak in Rio 2016 and then aim to go one better in Tokyo 2020. 

Whilst many nations have aspirations to win medals and improve in Rio 2016, the field for a five-edition winning streak is just two.  This point demonstrates how it really has been some recovery and redemption for Team GB since Atlanta 1996.

The author:

Professor Simon Shibli

Simon specialises in the sport and leisure industries, with a particular focus on the impact of major sporting events.

""By achieving 66 medals in the Rio Olympics, Team GB will become the first nation in history to improve its total medal haul for an unprecedented fifth consecutive Olympic Games.""