THE BRITISH are passionate about their sport - look at the football fans of Newcastle United. Yet the place sport occupies in the nation's heart is almost comically unmatched by the place it occupies in the national brain - look again at Newcastle, whose panicked directors have replaced the club's manager four times in the past two years. Connecting the two - so that heart combines with head to yield the long-term success everyone wants - is the job of Peter Keen, the eager young performance head of UK Sport who is charged, among other things, with bringing home Olympic bacon at this year's Beijing and, even more so, at the 2012 London games.
Keen, an ambitious cyclist turned academic turned coach, is both candid and realistic about his job. While the coach shares ownership of any sporting result, there's no feeling of helplessness to match that of the person standing on the touchline waiting for the off: 'You can't even run it off,' he sighs. 'On the starting line, the coach is nothing - and if you believe otherwise you're a risk to yourself and them.'
With no business background as such, Keen is refreshingly short on management speak. Yet he is long on the practical business of coaxing outstanding performance from promising athletes. Chosen in 1997 to set up a lottery-funded programme to develop high-potential cyclists, he masterminded the rise of the GB team in the world championship rankings from 13th in 1998 to 3rd in 2002 and first in 2005, coaching nine world-record and gold-medal holders along the way.
Is a similar trajectory possible for other Olympic sports? Yes, says Keen. He points to his own case, where the key - both personally and nationally - was lottery funding that enabled him to give up the day job and concentrate solely on coaching and the national cycling centre. Lottery funding of pounds 50m a year, matched by a similar amount from the Exchequer, has enabled UK Sport to provide the minimum platform without which systematic success is impossible - 'not the nice-to-haves, but the essentials' - and focus ruthlessly on the few athletes offering international 'podium potential'.
With this aid, a number of other sports - rowing, sailing, equestrianism and to some extent athletics - have made the transformation to 'full-on professional mode', with the resources and ambition to compete with the very best. 'With those, we're putting the shiny roof on. Others are shaping up, while others again' - an example is handball - 'are just starting out.'
In Olympic terms, the seeds of today's shoots were sown in the aftermath of the Atlanta games of 1996, where an expectant Britain won just one gold medal and found itself 'at the bottom of division two' at 36 in the medals table. In Sydney in 2000 it bounced back to 10th, with 10 gold medals, followed by a similar performance in Athens in 2004. And Beijing this September? Keen cautions against over-optimism. 'But we're back in the top 10,' he says. 'And although we can't predict, we're further ahead than before.'
Keen's headline focus is, of course, 2012 - 'the most massive thing to happen to UK Olympic sport'. Meeting the challenge is not rocket science, he says: any sport worthy of the name requires eight or more years to master, and a semi-institutionalised system to instil it. He points to the triumphant France football team of 1998, almost all of whom were graduates of a central national academy. For London, the die is mostly already cast: 'You know 90 per cent of the top performers six years out.'
In most people's eyes, particularly athletes, the London Olympics are an entirely dominant end. For Keen, however, they are also a vital means towards broader, more permanent change. It's not just about honing and refining an elite group, he insists. If a talented teenager wants to be a soldier or a musician, he reasons, there is an established educational path to move down, from apprenticeship to mastery. Why not in sport?
'I believe passionately in the value of sport to society,' he says. 'There's something fundamental about moving, running, swimming. But while we love it, we don't really understand it.' Hence the perennially disappointed ambitions of England football teams and the impossibility of finding an English coach to manage them - '2012 is about bringing all that to life'.
But, with funding uncertain after that, for successful sports the London showcase is also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to suck in the commercial support that will consolidate the infrastructures - teams, academies, coaches, grounds and events - that have been put in place, and maybe lay the foundations for new ones. Thus, as ever, commercial success depends on performance and performance depends on investment in a system to support and amplify individual talent. Simple in theory - but if he pulls it off, Keen will deserve his own gold medal.
The Observer, 27 January 2008