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Claire Potter: After Britain’s Gold Rush

August 29, 2012

London won its Olympic bid based on a promise to reinvigorate the nation’s interest in sport—now, after the Games, Parliament has to deliver the funds.

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Image from Flickr via TJ Morris

By Claire Potter

A fortnight ago, the sky over Stratford was alight with pyrotechnics as London closed the thirtieth Olympic Games. The flame was extinguished in Olympic Park and Britain was celebrating sixty-five medals: nineteen bronze, seventeen silver, and twenty-nine of the coveted gold. For two weeks, Britain had been a nation captivated by its own spectacle. A people much more comfortable uniting in the face of embarrassment and discomfort, the Brits were playing against type and reveling in London’s success. After a series of mishaps leading up to the Games, the city had hosted an efficient and friendly international drama that placed British athletes up front and center. But now that the Olympics are over and the stadiums empty, attention is already turning to a repeat performance.

Britain is still hungry for gold, but the government should dig into its pockets if the country’s appetite is to be satisfied again. Olympic success comes down to money.

Medals become a source of national pride–an exercise of political muscle when tallied up in a table that still has echoes of the Cold War. When a powerful nation like the UK fails to deliver on this narrative with a rush of medals, it becomes an embarrassment. Following a disappointing performance at the 1996 Atlanta Games, Britain restructured its sports funding system in pursuit of Olympic glory. The new system injected proceeds from the National Lottery into the country’s floundering sports programs. Britain climbed the medal table over the next few Games, steadily increasing their haul as greater funding provided athletes with better sports infrastructure, more experienced coaches, and top level gear. In 2008, Team GB took home forty-seven medals from Beijing. They hoped to capitalize on this momentum leading into the home Games in 2012, but by the time London’s turn came, Britain was in the middle of a double-dip recession.

While a gold rush certainly drums up interest in athletics, Britain’s avarice communicates to its youth that in sport, superstardom is valued over participation.

In 2010, when the Coalition came to power, huge cuts were made to sports funding. Education secretary Michael Gove axed the £162 million a year allocated to School Sports Partnership–a network of schools and Physical Education teachers. Gove advocated selling school sports fields in a weak effort to remedy Britain’s economic woes, signaling just how little he cared for grassroots sporting organization. Public outrage forced Prime Minister David Cameron to do a U-turn on some of Gove’s draconian cuts, but the resulting policies still seem incongruous with the Olympic promise to “inspire a generation.” The money for sport is allocated for gold-medal glory, rather than for programs that would foster the enthusiasm of young people with average ability. While a gold rush certainly drums up interest in athletics, Britain’s avarice communicates to its youth that in sport, superstardom is valued over participation. It would be wiser to invest in a healthier generation than to heap the nation’s hopes on photogenic champions.

In this respect, Britain mirrors another recent host nation. China, whose sports programs are funded entirely by the state, has performed well in the medal table since it won its Olympic bid, but Chinese journalists have reported that hosting the Games has had little effect on the general population’s enthusiasm for sport. In fact, obesity among the general population is rising. China’s focus is fixed on its Soviet-style elite sports system, and it pays little attention to the structure of grassroots athletics. There is an emphasis on the glory of medals and the pageantry of competition, while children who don’t display promise of Olympic caliber rarely have an opportunity to participate in sport. Physical education classes are cut from the curriculum, which echoes Michael Gove’s threat to sell school sports facilities. Culling talent may result in two weeks of televised glory, but it underscores a lack of interest in fostering the fitness of ordinary people.

Like China, the British government is interested the media’s agenda of creating poster boys and girls, and investment in Team GB’s continued success at the Games is driving in some reversal of 2010’s austerity cuts. While PM Cameron has promised to guarantee funding of £125 million per annum in the years leading up to Rio 2016, it seems to be largely a placating measure coming on the heels of the public’s appetite for star athletes. The media lionized medal hopefuls, like cyclist Chris Hoy and heptathlete Jessica Ennis, who delivered spectacular performances with the weight of gold on their shoulders. Newspapers were splashed with images of these sporting heroes. Headlines were heavy on wordplay and characterized by an enthusiastic proliferation of exclamation points. “She’s MaJESStic!”, declared the Daily Mail featured photos of Ennis flashing her gold medal. “A-Tom Bomb!”, announced The Sun after GB diver Tom Daley won bronze in the 10m Individual Platform competition. These athletes are enjoying the voracious coverage and frantic media conjecture that comes with celebrity. When Ennis returned home, the 10,000-person crowd that greeted her in Sheffield was reminiscent of Beatlemania; Daley continues to be the subject of speculation surrounding the possibility of a tour with pop group Girls Aloud. Reports indicate he would be paraded around stage in “his little Speedo,” because, you know, he is cute and famous.

There is no guarantee that Britain will continue to run on the fuel of national sports frenzy created by a host Games. A cautionary tale is Australia, who hosted a successful Games in Sydney just twelve years ago, yet took home just thirty-five medals in 2012 (by contrast, the U.S., China, and Great Britain totaled 104, eighty-eight, and sixty-five, respectively). It is no coincidence that Australia’s government made drastic cuts to the nation’s elite sports programs in 2009–funding is essential to compete in the Olympic echelon and the amount of money earmarked for high level athletics was only half of what Australian Olympic Committee had suggested. Australia’s performance in London was so dire that AOC officials were forced to publicly demote the country’s medal target in the middle of the Games, citing “unrealistic” goals. Australia is reassessing its sports funding policies and looking to put more money into it, but the British government is threatening to further cut funding for sports that underperformed. These sports failed to produce any national heroes, break records, win medals. And this is a country only interested in winners. With its funding axed, British teams face even steeper odds than Australia. While Australia also relies on corporate sponsorship and grants from the IOC, Team GB is largely supported by UK Sport–a sports agency run by Parliament.

It’s obvious that the money injected into elite sports programs has a profound impact on a nation’s medal haul. For example, the most successful British teams continue to be the sports that receive the most funding–the so-called “sitting sports” of rowing, cycling, sailing, and equestrian events. In 2012, Team GB won multiple golds in each, but there is little correlation between this and public participation in sport. The “sitting sports” in which Britain excels also happen to be prohibitively expensive–gold medals in dressage are unlikely to “inspire a generation” of pony-dancers in the traditionally poor East End where these spoils were won. These Olympic champions may be torchbearers of national pride, but they won’t be the sports heros encouraging working-class people to get up and go.

According to the BBC, London won the Olympic bid over favorite Paris on the strength of its pledge to imbue the rising generation with a respect for sport. The Games have captured Britain’s national imagination–the same baser instincts that laud footballers’ wives and spawned Katie Price–with the unprecedented success of its elite athletes, but there is no evidence that it will inspire ordinary people to pick up a football or run a few laps around the park. That sort of rearrangement requires athletics programs that are aimed at average citizens rather than superstars. To foster sustainable change in Britain’s attitude towards sport, Cameron, who has been tightening Britain’s belt for a few years now, must keep pumping money into grassroots sporting programs once the hoopla of the Olympics has died down and the world’s gaze is no longer focused on London. When the Daily Mail has stopped running stories detailing how to get Jessica Ennis’ abs by doing crunches on your lunch break, if people are still interested in improving their health through sport, then London 2012 will have delivered the legacy it promised.

Claire Potter is a recent graduate of Northwestern University and currently resides in Queens. She is what American sociologist Ruth Hill Useem would term a Third Culture Kid, having spent her formative years living in London with a U.S. passport.

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