British Olympic Success: a Contrarian View

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Team GB has been applauded and lauded for its medal-winning success at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janiero.

Before going any further, I should make two things clear.  First, British athletes performed spectacularly well and made the country proud.  Secondly, I absented myself from London for all but the last two days of the 2012 Olympics and the time-difference between London and Beijing made real-time viewing tricky in 2008, so I’m looking at the UK’s Olympic performance from an absence of at least eight years.

British athletes have benefited from substantial and significant funding, provided principally by Government and proceeds from the National Lottery.  The sums run into hundreds of millions of pounds, providing elite athletes with the equivalent of a salary, as well as cutting-edge sports facilities and all the support that accompanies sport at the highest level.  For those who are successful (and there seem to be many of them), they have individual glory and the prospect of a career after retirement – whether as a sports pundit, a motivational speaker, a coach, a sports ambassador or otherwise.

Compare that with the position of students at university.  They have to pay tuition fees and support themselves through what I’m going to call the three-year “cycle” of a university career (mimicking the four-year “cycle” we heard so much about on Olympic commentary).  They will receive a loan, which they then need to repay.  There’s no public acclaim for having completed a degree course, which many find arduous, particularly if they are working in vacations and possibly in term-time as well.  There’s no assurance of a job once they get their degree, let alone a future career.

How did we come to value winning at sport – and particularly Olympic medals – more than further education?

I appreciate the political benefit of a reflected feel-good factor as a result of Britain ranking second, to the United States, in the medal table – particularly following the international shock of the Brexit vote.  However, this isn’t just about a narrow point on funding policy.

I’ve said before that excellence seems to be valued in sport, but not always in other areas, and the Olympics is a particularly fine example of that.  Why can’t we, as a nation, extol academic excellence and achievement, pushing the boundaries of research as well as beating world records on the track?  I appreciate sport lends itself better to television and is more exciting to watch, but that shouldn’t be the only test we apply.

Isn’t it time to celebrate and push for achievement across a far wider range of activities and constituencies – and provide the money to facilitate that?