It pleased me to see British athletes doing so well at the Olympics. However there are a few things to consider before pouring your patriotic cup of tea and having a nice triumphant sit down to celebrate. Note that these aren’t wholly fleshed out ideas but they are ones that stalked around in my head throughout the Olympics.
- If we want to bask in the warm glow of our second place in the medals table, then we have to remember that a lot of Russian athletes and sportspeople weren’t there. Some of them rightly because of drugs-related misdemeanours, but others were wrongly punished by a sanction applied to many rather than the few who cheated. Lest we forget that some unsavoury rumours have also followed some British athletes around.
- Britain won medals in a restricted range of disciplines. Less restricted than Australia who do well in the swimming and then pretty much go home, but restricted nonetheless. One tournament on from hosting the Olympics and we are already cutting sports adrift. The funders of olympic sports are ruthless in their application of marginal gains. They risk losing sight of the value of all sport if they only assess the ability of each sport to deliver gold medals. I’d even go so far as to argue that success this time around depended on having the broad base from the previous Olympics.
- Many argue that winning gold medals generates a soft power for the United Kingdom and that this might provide a boost to our self-esteem after the igmony of Brexit. But just like Brexit, chasing gold medals places too much emphasis on the result over the spirit of competition. The supporters of Brexit need to see Britain as “the best” and cannot deal with the reality that we are not that special. What matters is that there is friendly competition between nations, a mutual recognition of each other’s cultural and physical achievements, not that we win everything in sight.
- Britain still struggles with the effects of health inequalities. The gaps between the best and worst off are too wide, and widen by the hour. There is a strong correlation between access to and participation in sport and economic outcomes for individuals. Yet we continue to vote for governments and councils that cut these essential services for ordinary working people. The millions of pounds spent on supporting athletes to win medals for Britain could have been spent on public health programmes and public sports facilities. These would save the country billions of pounds over the course of twenty years. It is true that medal winners might inspire some to get out and participate in sport. But we as a nation desperately need everyone to get out and participate, and far more urgently than we need the world to see us winning.
- We didn’t win any golds in the BMX and that’s the best event.