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What the Olympics are all about: ‘the global sporting arms race’

One of the supposed objectives of the 2012 Olympics is to stimulate greater participation by the general public in sport. However, another even more pressing concern is the final medal table and Britain’s place in it. The National Audit Office recently got in on the act and produced a report (see attachment) on Britain’s strategy for increasing its medal tally at the Olympic Games.

It begins by setting out the goals of the various bodies involved, such as the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and UK Sport, which are to ‘achieve a sustained improvement in UK sport before, during and after the Games, in both elite performance – particularly in Olympic and Paralympic sports – and grassroots participation’. In this report the NAO is only interested in the goal of increasing the number of medals Britain will win. Although it is critical of the focus on gold medals, preferring an alternative and not particularly original concept called ‘market share’ to provide a broader measure of performance, it implicitly accepts the need for golds when dealing with medal tables as places at the top table depend on how many of these are won. However, in preparing this report it doesn’t acknowledge that the two goals, achieving an improvement in elite performance and grassroots participation, might be in conflict.

That winning medals is all important is borne out in the NAO’s concern that spending must be tailored to this goal when it says ‘There is a risk that the wider goals of the Department and UK Sport, in particular their aim to help develop Great Britain teams which can compete creditably in every Olympic and Paralympic sport at London 2012, may distract UK Sport’s focus and funding from its primary goal of winning medals.’ It is sad that a national audit organisation can go along so uncritically with this kind of sporting tunnel vision. But at least it has the merit of avoiding the usual sport administrator/politician double speak about Olympic spirit.

That there is a conflict between the two goals, promoting elite and grassroots sport, is evidenced by the ruthless raids carried out on Lottery funding for children’s sport to pay for the 2012 Olympics. The reality is that children’s sport was already on the back foot with the large scale sell off of playing fields and the decline of sport in schools. The experience of previous Olympics is that, despite claims by the likes of Jowell and Coe, they have little impact in raising levels of sporting activities in the general public so this further attack on the funding of children’s sport is likely to have serious consequences for the future of children’s participation in sport and their health and fitness and possibly on the number of sports stars of the future. The NAO ignores these issues and sticks doggedly to its task of analysing the programme of winning medals.

The NAO refers to this medal ambition as part of a ‘global sporting arms race’. Britain is not alone, there is a ‘general trend of increased spending on elite sport’ and, of course, as we all know where there is a race everyone has got to keep spending to stay in contention. Not only will spending have to keep pace but some sports will have to lose funding to ensure the sports which are most likely to produce winners receive the funds they deserve. ‘UK Sport’, the NAO says, ‘will need to take firm decisions on which sports to stop funding, and when, if it is to minimise the impact of such a funding shortfall on medal performance in 2012 and on the longer term legacy for elite sport in the United Kingdom.’ So not only is there a conflict between elite and grassroots sport but also between elite and not so elite sport!

The NAO goes on to say UK Sport is expected to receive £722 million between 2006 and 2013 to achieve its ‘ultimate goals’ of making fourth place in the Olympic, and moving towards first place in the Paralympic, medal tables. Knowing how keen this government is on league tables of all kinds this kind of goal seems entirely in keeping with its general outlook. Indeed the report lists the various targets which have been set in the race to medal glory. One peculiar failing is noted. Some sports had pointed out that the English Institute of Sport’s services were not available at the weekends even though high performance training often occurs then!

The ‘ultimate goal’ set by UK Sport is for the British Olympic team to win 17 gold medals in 2012. Last time Britain got nine. The NAO then considers the impact of being the host nation. To this end it recruited the Sports Industry Research Centre at Sheffield Hallam University to look at the performance of previous host nations.

The academics at the Sports Industry Research Centre came up with the following stunning findings:
Host nations do better because they increase spending on elite sports ahead of the Games, just as the UK is planning to; they have a right to contest more events; their athletes are familiar with the venues and facilities; and they have the benefit of the support of home crowds.

Armed with these amazing and unexpected insights the NAO is pleased to report that the researchers conclude that the host nation ‘typically wins six or seven more Olympic gold medals than it would have done had the Games been held elsewhere’. So, lo and behold, being host nation should ensure victory in the ‘global sporting arms race’ and get Britain to fourth place! Well, not victory but hmm… Oh well, fourth is better than…. fifth.

Sadly, however, the NAO concludes this may not be enough to boost Britain into the coveted fourth spot on the medal table. Unfortunately there are now more nations competing and they are all, not just host nations, spending more on the global sporting arms race! ‘This host nation status’, it declares, ‘and the increased funding that it involves should help the Great Britain team to improve its performance for London 2012, but may not be enough on its own to achieve fourth place in the Olympic medal table. If the relative performance of other nations at London 2012 were to remain the same as at Athens in 2004, the impact of host nation status could be expected to help the Great Britain team to achieve fifth place in the Olympic medal table, based on an anticipated 15 or 16 gold medals.’

Rats! Oh well, look on the bright side, fifth is better than….sixth!

And what if the ‘relative performance’ of other nations at London 2012 were not to remain the same as at Athens? Well sixth or seventh or…. Better not to go there.

NAO report on medal success.pdf861.14 KB

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