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The price of gold

The Olympics has become a competition in throwing money at minor sports

26 May 2012

2:00 PM

26 May 2012

2:00 PM

On 27 July millions will drown in syrup as Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee, delivers his usual platitudes about international togetherness and sport without boundaries. He might, for example, do something close to reciting the mission statement of the IOC’s world conference on Sport for All, held in Beijing last September: ‘to build a better world by encouraging the practice of sport for all, particularly in the developing world’.

Then, once the last firework has been discharged and the stands are cleared away, we can get on with the business of the Olympics: rich countries hauling in the medals which they bought with mountains of public and private cash. Forget the guff about the world competing as one: Usain Bolt aside, this year’s Olympics will, even more than the last one, be a conspiracy of the rich world to show its sporting prowess over the poor.

Huge efforts will be put in over the next few months to try to ensure that no athlete gains advantage over his rivals through drugs. But you won’t hear many people — and certainly not the London 2012 organising committee — raising concerns about an even more potent performing-enhancing substance: lucre. I hope you enjoy those gold medals as they trickle in; you have certainly paid enough for them. Through the auspices of UK Sport you and I have contributed £264 million towards training Olympic competitors and fine-tuning their kit. If Team GB repeats its performance at Beijing 2008 and wins 19 golds, that will be just under £14 million of public money per gold medal.

On top of UK Sport’s lottery-funded handouts comes all the corporate sponsorship a rich country can afford. Our sailing team, which won four golds in Beijing and has received £22.9 million from UK Sport, will be backed by Scandia, the life insurance company. And the sailors are also being topped up by individual sponsorship cash. Ben Ainslie, the three-times gold medallist, has seven sponsors, from JP Morgan to British Airways to Volvo and UPS.

How are contestants from, say, Namibia supposed to compete in a sport where it costs £30,000 for a boat? The answer is of course that they will not compete, not in the minority sports which will account for the bulk of medals won by developed countries.

Before each of the past three summer Olympics, Andrew Bernard, professor of international economics at the Tuck School of Business in New Hampshire, has published a forecast of how many medals will be won by each country. It has proved to be remarkably accurate. For Beijing in 2008, he correctly forecast that the US would top the medals table but that China would knock it into second place on the table for gold medals. His forecast that the US would win 36 golds was spot on. He was just two out on the gold medal tallies of Russia, Australia and Germany, his forecast only faltering with the China and the UK, which exceeded his forecasts, and with Japan, which performed less well than expected. He did this without studying the form of a single athlete. All he did was to devise a simple formula linking a country’s national income with past performance in the medals table, plus a bonus for the host nation.

The idea that money wins titles would perhaps not come as a surprise in most sports — just look at Premier League football or Formula 1 racing, where the team with the biggest chequebook regularly takes the prize. But it sits rather oddly with the Olympic charter, which states grandly: ‘Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.’

Although the original ban on professional sportsmen competing in the Olympics was gradually phased out in the 1970s and 1980s, the Olympic charter retains a strong suggestion that the games are a step above the grubby world of other sports. ‘The practice of sport is a human right,’ it goes on to say. ‘Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.’ Olympic sports do stand out from others, but only in the sense that governments as well as private sponsors pour in the cash to buy the trophies. Like or hate professional football, at least the public is not forced to fund the multi-million-pound transfer deals.

The funding of Olympic sports was transformed by lottery money after Team GB returned from the 1996 Atlanta games with just a single gold medal, eight silvers and six bronzes. Unable to stomach this attack on national pride, and perhaps feeling empathy with athletes because of his own situation at the time, the then prime minister John Major shamelessly poured money into the training of British Olympians. This wasn’t money to increase participation in the hope that it would set a future champion on the path to glory; it was cash shamelessly targeted at bringing home a bigger pile of medals. Those who showed promise were put on elite training programmes; and if they faltered, the money was cut off. The cash wasn’t apportioned according to the popularity of the sports involved; it was targeted at the sports where Britain had a comparative advantage over most of the world’s athletes, namely those where relatively few other countries were in a position to compete.

You wouldn’t have guessed it from the welcome awarded Team GB on their return from Beijing, but British performance in athletics has plummeted in the era of big money. For British athletics the golden games were 1980 (admittedly affected by the boycott over Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan) and 1984, when British athletes respectively won 10 and 16 medals, four and three of which were gold. In 2008 British athletes won just four medals, only one of which was gold.

In some of the more minority sports, however, we reign supreme. The cyclists came home in 2008 with 14 medals, all but two of them won in the rarefied world of track cycling, with its pricey carbon fibre bikes and sparse velodromes. It is the fruit of £26.4 million worth of funding from UK Sport — more than goes into athletics. We needn’t worry too much about competition from Africans and Asians here: there is only one banked cycling track in Africa, and only eight in the whole of Asia. Rowing has gobbled up more money from British taxpayers than any other Olympic sport: £27.1 million over the past four years. The money is sure to bear fruit this time as it did last, there being very little competition beyond European and North American crews. Sailing has had £22.9 million of taxpayers’ cash, in a quest to repeat our four gold medals in Beijing. I am sure it takes tremendous skill and effort to compete in an Olympic sailing event, but does anyone really think that victory will be the equivalent of a gold on the athletics track? One of our medal hopes this year will be the women’s Elliott 6 metre sailing team. In order to compete you need a boat which can only be obtained from one New Zealand-based manufacturer and which costs a minimum of £30,000 — one of the reasons why there are only seven such boats in the whole of South America.


John Major is certainly pleased with his investment of public cash: after the Beijing Olympics he spoke of getting up every morning at 6 a.m. and weeping as he watched yet another pedalling or rowing Brit pump his arms in victory as he passed over the finish line. Others are less impressed. In a veiled attack on the worth of pouring money into minority Olympic sports, Roger Black, who won silver in t
he 400 metres in Atlanta, said recently that ‘money doesn’t buy you medals in athletics’, only raw talent — the implication being that for some other sports you don’t necessarily need all that much in the way of talent.

Britain will have a good party at the London Olympics. But once it is over, perhaps it might be time to ask whether the arms race in training and preparation has drifted just a little too far from the Olympic ideal. How about having what we have in elections: a cap on the money any athlete can spend on his campaign for victory? Or, if we have to have minority rich man’s sports at the Olympics, perhaps — like Oxbridge half-blues in minor sports — they should be awarded smaller medals called ‘half-golds’. I don’t doubt that the British Olympic Association will be outraged at such a suggestion, complaining that it denigrates the hard work of British Olympians. But somehow I can’t imagine that Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics and champion of amateurism, would be twiddling his waxed moustache with great pleasure as he watched this summer’s Olympians test the size of each other’s wallets.

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