Whatever next? Apparently, the UK is a Sporting Superpower; and for once this is not a tabloid invention. Depending on who’s counting, Britain finished second or third in the Rio Olympic medals table. China won more medals, 70 to 67, but the UK won more golds and silvers. So, let’s go with second, to distant ‘winners’ USA! That’s more than in London 2012, when home advantage was considered to count for so much; and it’s the best showing in over a century, since London 1908, a time when home advantage (and judging) certainly helped. Contrast Rio with the pathetic showing just 20 years ago at the Olympic Games in Atlanta, where Britain won a solitary gold (Coxless Pairs rowing), and 15 medals overall. That merited a 36th place in the medals table, behind such sporting impotents as Algeria and North Korea.
The farrago prompted the dying embers of John Major’s Conservative government to inaugurate national lottery funding for elite sport, a move which was elaborated by successive Labour administrations under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Whether this largesse with Other People’s Money will save Blair from the International Criminal Court in The Hague is another matter, and a question for another day?
Meanwhile the British public is alternately proud and bewildered. After all, the nation has a reputation of pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. The English football team is a recurring nightmare. Having won the World Cup in 1966, with the benefit of home advantage – the team played all its games at Wembley, the national stadium – and some partial refereeing, the nadir came in the recent European Nations Cup when the inventors of football conspired to lose to Iceland (population, 332,000). As for Brexit, the less said the better.
Inevitably there have been accusations, or insinuations; Kristina Vogel, the German gold medallist in the women’s sprint cycling said of the Brits (who won six golds and 12 medals overall), “I don’t want to make any allegations about anyone, but it is questionable. Of course we wonder about it, to an extent they used to be cannon fodder. They all come at such a level – I have no idea how they do that. They must be doing something right.”
I love that ‘cannon fodder’; it’s nice to see someone other than the British tabloid press using military metaphors for sporting contests. But what ‘they’ are doing right is spending an awful lot of money. Hundreds of millions of pounds have been channelled into elite sport over the last 20 years. Medal targets are set, and if the sport doesn’t measure up, grants are cut or even lost completely. It is draconian, but it seems to work. However, it has been estimated that those Rio medals have cost, on average, close to £5m each! A good investment some might say, and who am I to argue?
I don’t believe for an instant it will make a difference to levels of public participation in sport; and the incidence of obesity will continue to climb. A century ago, the slang term for running or jogging was ‘wobbling’; the tubs of lard wandering down Britain’s High Streets nowadays have given the term an entirely different sense. However, there is no doubting the national pride and sense of well-being that success in Rio has engendered, and given that we are now confronted with an Olympiad (the four year term between Games) of bragging rights until Tokyo, that feel-good factor is going to stretch a long way.