Team GB’s Olympic Glory: A Sense of Perspective
What is the point of sport? What is the point of the Olympics? If you play sport for a living, the answer is obvious – you’re in it to win, to become the best you can possibly be, and, yes, to make money.
If you’re a spectator, there are four main reasons why you watch. In no particular order: You want to be entertained; you enjoy watching the pursuit of excellence; you find it a form of escapism from the humdrum of daily life; you identify with certain individuals or teams, and because of this, your mood correlates with their success or lack of it.
There is nothing wrong with any of these four reasons for watching sport. I tick all four boxes. But we should be very careful not to exaggerate the extent to which it impacts on our own lives. Collecting Olympic medals is becoming a very expensive hobby for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. More on that later.
In terms of medals, Britain has never had it so good. ‘Team GB’, as it’s now known, came home from Rio de Janeiro with 27 gold medals, 23 silvers and 17 bronzes.
Let us take nothing away from the competitors. Success does not come without enormous sacrifices on their part, regardless of how much money is thrown at their sports. This means early morning and late night training sessions, as well as missing out on parties and various other pleasures young people enjoy.
Credit must also be given to their families, who have to make sacrifices of their own, both in terms of finance and of time used ferrying their children around. There’s no denying the fact that the majority of Britain’s Olympians come from comfortable, middle class backgrounds, and have parents who have the time and the means to support them, but they still have to put the work in.
Many of the competitors are a true credit to our nation. Mo Farah is an extraordinary individual who overcame extreme hardship as a child in Somalia to become arguably the greatest British athlete of all time.
Kate Richardson-Walsh’s inspiring words about hard work and achievement during her interview following the gold medal hockey match should be played in every school in the country.
Lutalo Muhammad was utterly devastated after missing out on a gold medal in taekwondo by a single second, but still handled his media duties with tremendous dignity.
The Islamic community in Britain would do well to hail Farah and Muhammad both as role models to impressionable young Muslims, and as examples to wider society of the positive contribution members of their faith make to our nation.
Yet there is another, less appealing side to the Olympic fever that we are told has infected the entire country over the last few weeks. People older than me will remember how Brits used to ridicule the Soviet nations in the 1970s and 80s for ruthlessly targeting Olympic glory by whatever means necessary as a political propaganda tool, while their countries were grim, shabby, secretive, authoritarian dictatorships. We’re now doing something very similar ourselves, albeit using money, rather than performance-enhancing drugs.
Our national debt is increasing by £5,170 per second, and is currently somewhere in the region of £1.7 trillion, more than double what it was in 2010, in spite of George Osborne’s ‘cuts’ and ‘austerity’ agenda. UK productivity is currently at the lowest level since records began, yet we work far longer hours than those who are doing better. Our armed forces are a fraction of the size they once were. Our public services are creaking and inefficient. Millions of people still have to travel on creaking Pacer trains that should have been retired for scrap decades ago. Libraries are closing, council provisions are being cut back, and the bins are being emptied much less frequently. The success of strangers who happen to come from the same country at us in a sporting festival on the other side of the world will not change any of this one iota.
There is no relationship between the number of Olympic medals a nation wins and its overall wellbeing. If British people were given a choice, would the majority have swapped the London 2012 medal tally for the economic growth Australia experienced around that time? They probably would.
Or what about Singapore, who went from Third World to First World during the second half of the 20th century, and is now one of the most developed countries on earth, but didn’t have a single Olympic gold medal to its name until Joseph Schooling won the 100 meter butterfly this year?
The turnaround in Team GB’s fortunes began with the creation of the National Lottery in 1994, which created a steady flow of millions of pounds that was invested in ‘elite’ athletes.
The money was channelled in very specific ways. It was targeted at hiring coaches, buying equipment and subsidising athletes in events where competition is weak. They went for the keirin cycling rather than the men’s 100 meter sprint, and the kayaking rather than the 110 meter hurdles.
And it paid off. The process began to bear fruit as the children of the mid-1990s became the medal winners of the 2008 Olympics, and the medal haul has grown with every four year cycle since.
Again, well done to the competitors involved. I’m happy for them. But their success in half-empty arenas in Brazil in no way reflects the overall state of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The BBC appeared to lose all sense of proportion during the Olympics. Far too much of the Olympic coverage itself consisted of BBC staff interviewing each other, killing time with endless waffle and platitudes about how amazing Team GB were, swapping journalistic impartiality for sycophantic cheerleading.
For instance, quite a few BBC presenters and commentators need reminding that there are no teams called ‘We’ and ‘They’. The BBC’s sport department has developed an irritating habit of treating sport as a branch of light entertainment in recent years, and this was evident in the overall tone of the coverage, from Helen Skelton, who seems lovely but still has the persona of a Blue Peter presenter, to the talented but over-exposed Clare Balding appearing excessively impressed by each and every achievement of a Team GB member.
Far worse was the way Team GB’s success was treated by BBC News, who day after day relegated important stories down the running order to make way for Soviet-style propaganda about how well our competitors were doing. Sport has its place in TV news bulletins, but only in highly exceptional circumstances should it be placed at the top of the bulletin.
People who relied on BBC News for information could be forgiven for thinking that for the two-and-a-half weeks of the Olympics, the conflict in Syria had stopped, the situation in Turkey had stabilised, and nothing unpleasant or tragic happened in Britain.
Perhaps the worst example of this came on the Tuesday night of the second week, when the BBC’s flagship Ten O’Clock News was delayed for an hour and a half while we waited for a three minute race, which Jason Kenny was expected to win. Apparently it was too much to ask of viewers to switch to BBC Two at 10pm as scheduled to witness the race.
When the news eventually started at 11:30pm, the lead story was, you’ve guessed it, a report on Jason Kenny winning the race I’d watched just minutes earlier, followed by one about his partner, Laura Trott winning her race earlier in the evening, followed by a further report summarising Team GB’s achievements that day.
In the minds of the BBC News editors, this was worthy of top billing, ahead of Anjem Choudary’s conviction, huge tax fines and the possibility of ‘special status’ for Britain in the upcoming Brexit talks. All three stories will affect the people of Britain to a far greater extent than two heavily-subsidised cyclists winning their respective races.
I am a sports fan and always enjoy the Olympics, but I keep its importance in the grand scheme of things firmly in perspective. I am also very aware that a significant number of people have no interest whatsoever in the Olympics, and were extremely irritated by the BBC’s propaganda machine at work in what were supposed to be ‘news’ bulletins.
It is also worth asking whether money targeted at a tiny number of elite athletes is the most appropriate use of National Lottery funds. Each medal won by Team GB equated to £4.1 million of lottery money.
There is a strong argument that in these austere times, the money could be better invested in keeping community facilities open and well-equipped including swimming pools, leisure centres and recreation grounds, as well as ensuring schools do not have to sell off their playing fields, which places severe limitations on the access children have to sports that require a large playing area.
Questions are also being asked as to whether lottery money is always being used for its intended purpose. While British cycling’s headquarters are a hub of activity focussed on Olympic excellence, there are increasing suspicions that the training base of the boxing squad in Sheffield is being treated as a finishing school, as a number of current professionals take advantage of facilities and coaching available.
With this in mind, would it not be better to divert a generous portion of this money towards amateur boxing clubs the length and breadth of Great Britain that have bills to pay and facilities to maintain?
It is these clubs that get youngsters off the streets and instil the discipline and skills required to start their journey in boxing. Without these clubs and the volunteers who give up their time to maintain them, there would be no Team GB.
Yes, it’s wonderful to see Team GB winning all these medals. Well done to them all. No doubt they’ll be richly rewarded in the honours system, and in some cases, with sponsorship opportunities. In six months’ time, quite a few of them will have faded into relative obscurity, known to few outside discerning followers of their particular sports.
But as a nation, we need to rediscover a sense of perspective. A heavily-subsidised athlete winning a medal is not more worthy of leading a news bulletin ahead of a city being bombed in Syria, or a major political development in Britain.
A child might be inspired by Adam Peaty winning a gold medal, but he may not have the opportunity to try to emulate his hero because the council has closed his local swimming pool.
As a nation, we need to regain a sense of perspective about the level of importance we place on the Olympics and the heavily-subsidised elite athletes. The Olympics are interesting to many, but not to all. They bring temporary enjoyment to many, but not to all. But they make a lasting difference to the lives of very, very few.
This reality should not be lost on the editors of newspapers or broadcast news bulletins, nor on the ‘powers that be’ who decide how National Lottery funding is spent.