Monday, 22 August 2016
The Olympian Spirit Moneygoround
If you're British, you're almost certain to have rapturously enjoyed the Olympic jamboree and Britain's record medal haul. When international tournaments go well for Britain, we bask in success and indulge in flag-waving nationalism. So we crow about how our tiny island race of some 65 million people defeated the 1 billion plus population of China in the medal table. So did the 350 million population of the USA and India, which also has a 1 billion + population, notched no gold medals at all and a paltry 2 in total.
What this chest-thumping whooping fails to reveal is that if you averaged the amount of financial investment in elite sports performance by the government across each head of population, then it should be no surprise that Great Britain out-performed China and that India barely registered at all at the Olympics. GB spends heavily on sports, ever since our humiliation in the 1990s when we secured a solitary single gold and then Prime Minister John Major (a big sports fan himself) committed to a programme of investment, buttressed by National Lottery money, to ensure the country never felt so humiliated again. In 2012 of course we had the extra expense of staging the Olympics and Paralympics in London, whose costs went way over budget because incompetent politicians had missed basic factors like including Value Added Tax and which as a Londoner, I knew we were going to have to end up paying the shortfall out of our pockets. And yes, the shebang was a great success and showed London off to its best side, but still not worth the money in my opinion. If you wanted any evidence, look no further than the white elephant of the Olympic Stadium itself, not offering any imagined heritage to future generations of Olympic sportsmen and women, but sold off for a song on a peppercorn to a professional Premiership football club earning multi-millions in its own right as a member of the most successful sporting franchise outside of the USA and incidentally to a club owned by two ex-pornographers.
As our gold medal success has been plastered across the front page of all our newspapers and dominated television news programmes even though the BBC has been broadcasting the events wall to wall so there is no escaping it as news anyway, the social commentators tell us it isn't just about patriotism. They claim that after the bruising Brexit campaign that has split the country right down the middle, the Olympic success has healed and united the nation and brought us all back together as one as we get behind our athletes. If that was one of the purposes of all that investment, how is it any different to when Iron Curtain countries used to invest heavily in their sport to flim-flam their citizens who were going without and for propaganda purposes? The only difference I can see is that our government aren't pumping our hammer-throwers full of growth hormone and our gymnasts full of growth-retardant hormone as a matter of course. Oh and it's not true by the way, our faultlines and splits are still present as evidenced by the row over where to hold the victory parade with demands for it to be away from London, one of the major pressures in the Brexit campaign, of London being viewed as needing taking down a peg or two and the rest of the country not getting its due.
So to me all this rapture over success misses the point. While there are never any guarantees in the outcome of sporting contests, we pretty much bought our success. While our defeated opponents in the cycling Velodrome carp and whine about it being an unfair playing field in track cycling because of the investment, the technological advantages and the sheer professionalism of GB cycling, they do have a point. Golf and tennis are in the Olympics, possibly the two most well-paid individual sports and a million miles away from the amateur Olympian spirit of yore. Yes the world has moved on, but in the GB hockey team, some of the players are going to return to play professional hockey with their club teams in Holland and Germany, while another is going back to her accountancy studies, so while some of the amateur spirit lives on, it really is professionalism that equates to success. And while we're talking about GB hockey success, I have never seen a British team so white and blonde haired as that. That suggests to me a problem of access and a lack of diversity and critically a lack of heritage as was promised by us hosting the 2012 Games. Maybe their ultimate success this time round will open up their sport to all comers, but I doubt it.
And just to put the tin lid on money's centrality to the modern day Olympics, Brazil was the first country in Latin America to host the event, yet it is so financially straitened, it is now saying that it can't afford to run a full Paralympic Games. Stadiums were half-empty because its citizens couldn't afford the prices and yes while they may have no tradition in Greco-Roman Wrestling, neither does Britain but our greater income levels meant we could still afford to pack out the event in London 2012.
Today as our newspapers go wild with their wraparound photo spreads of our triumphant heroes, on those same front pages they carry stories of our National health Service having to cut back on operations it can offer in the winter through its perennial funding crisis and there is a story about schoolgirls' stress levels being through the roof, so not much evidence there of any heritage from sporting success.