Friday, 22 August 2008

Going for Gold

Great Britain's performance in the Olympics has been astonishing, little short of stupendous. Even hardened cynics have been moved to bring out the red white and blue, and God Save the Queen can't have been heard quite so often since they stopped playing it in cinemas. As I write Britain is maintaining a slim lead over Russia in the number of golds (though not in the number of medals per se) and has a comfortable lead over traditional sporting superpowers Germany and Australia. Japan, with twice Britain's population, has a mere nine gold medals. The French are languishing in eleventh place with five - which is approximately where Britain used to be. By any stretch of the imagination, and despite a number of disappointments, Britain has hugely overperformed in this Olympics.

And yet...while China's even bigger medal haul looks like a symbol of its new-found confidence and global reach, Britain's looks ever so slightly like a con-trick. It's not that the improvement since Athens and Sydney (to say nothing of the embarrassing 36th place in Atlanta twelve years ago) has been so dramatic, or that it's less than obvious why Britain should be performing so much better than comparable nations such as Italy. No: it's the identity of the medals themselves. Although the medals table treats all golds equally, intuitively they are not the same; and this year the athletics track - where the real medals are won - has seen thin pickings for Team GB. Note, too, that Christine Ohuruogu, who won the 400 metres, only got to Beijing after overturning the British Olympic Association's attempt to ban her. If the BOA had had its way there would have been no British golds in the athletics at all. By contrast, the vast majority of the British medals have come from watersports of various kinds and, most strikingly, cycling.

That Britain should dominate sailing is only right and proper, given our history. Rowing, too, is a pedigree British sport. Cowes and Henley, the University Boat Race and the Admiral's Cup: these are internationally famous (but then so is Wimbledon). It's less easy to see why no fewer than seven of our gold medals have been won in the velodrome, in events such as the team pursuit and the points race. Of course, there's an explanation: the sport has been the recipient of vast quantities of Lottery money. But that only points up the artificial nature of the success. Track cycling would appear to have been chosen cynically by a committee for the sole purpose of winning Olympic medals.

Watching groups of men (or even women) on expensively constructed bikes whizzing round and round and round and round is not just bad for the health of one's inner ear, it's also brain-numbingly tedious. Few countries compete, because it is expensive and pointless and has almost no following. And while I was delighted to hear that Chris Hoy had won three gold medals in the velodrome, I'm equally pleased that I didn't have to watch him doing it. On the road, meanwhile, Britain's cyclists picked up only a single gold medal. But then road racing is a proper sport, which is exciting to watch, has a large international following and is, thus, properly competitive.

Britain's medal haul is a perfect expression of the target culture that has so blighted many aspects of our national life during the New Labour years. Just like the steadily rising A-level results that mask (not very effectively) a catastrophic decline in the ability of university entrants to construct an argument or master the hard mathematics needed for traditional science, just as police performance is measured in the successful prosecution of minor crimes while major criminals go free and museums are graded by visitor numbers rather than the quality of the exhibits, so Olympic success has become another box-ticking exercise. What matters is not participation in sport, or public enthusiasm for watching it. The important thing is to achieve an arbitrarily defined numerical target or to look impressive in league tables. In schools, this has produced a situation in which this week's record GCSE pass-rate combined with another fall in the numbers taking a foreign language. In the Olympics, it may well lift the national mood for a few days. It doesn't, though, ultimately mean very much.

The British Olympic effort has become an exercise in statist managerialism. A top-down funding council funnels money into selected sports; those that produce results get more, others are left struggling. In best New Labour fashion, delivery is via a supposedly arms-length quango; yet the result is almost as state-managed as used to be the case in the Soviet Union, or East Germany, which regularly finished third or fourth yet remained a nasty totalitarian dump. Meanwhile, the government continues to permit the selling off of school playing fields, without which Britain's performance in the real Olympic sports, the track and field events, will continue to decline.

Compare that with sports that people actually want to see: above all, with football, where the spirit of the free market presides. All the ills of the market are visible: over-inflated salaries, costly failures, greed, hubris, vulgarity, sexual excess. The England team, like some medium sized bank, is full of over-hyped stars who consistently underperform and still walk off clutching giant bonuses. As in the City, many of the rewards go to foreign talent, inflating property prices and leaving the national side understrength. E pur se muove. Football requires no publicised subsidies; no government minister has to come up with strategies to encourage participation; however inflated the ticket prices, Premiership stadiums are not characterised, like too many Olympic venues, by rows of empty seats.

As in East Germany, the British government seems to be of the view that national success can be measured in terms of medal tables. So it's bitterly ironic that today, which saw Britain's 18th gold medal, also saw the country's economic growth come to a complete standstill. In foreign policy terms, too, Britain has been utterly sidelined during the recent Georgian crisis, not just by the Russians and the Americans, but by the French and Germans too. Whether the Olympic success will generate enough of a feel-good factor to deflect attention from these and other instances of Gordon Brown's multiple failure I don't know. But I wouldn't bet on it.

8 comments:

therealalekid said...

I for once slightly take a different view on a couple of matters that has sprung up about the British team. Firstly we shouldn't be apologetic just because we have become succesful at particular sports such as Rowing, Sailing and cycling etc...

There are several sports that lend itself towards particular forms of governance. With the exception of the USA it would be extremely difficult for a western country to get a gold in the Gymnastics, a sport dominated this Olympics by the Chinese and previosuly the Eastern Europeans. There was recently a documentary comparing teenage British gymnasts and their Eastern European oponants and the gulf between the two are stark Chinese and Eastern Europeans gymnasts are drilled from a young age, whilst their British counterparts are restricted legally in the amount of training they could do due to their young age. For me the bronze medal a male British gymnast achieved (first medel in gymnsatics in 80 years) in gymnsatics was a far greater achievement then some of the gold medels that Britain has won Another example is Boxing, which is dominated by the Cubans as their boxers remain loyal (or coerced) to stay loyal to Castro instead of turning pro.

So, I have no problem celebrating golds in Rowing, sailing and cycling because i know that we're not going to dominate gymnsatics, handball or Beach Volleyball anytime soon.

valdemar said...

1. They all count, cobber.
2. Most people are quite pleased.
3. The England soccer team are indeed vain prima donnas who can't work together.
4. We won a lot of medals at team sports as opposed to the individual (prima donna-ish?) running events.
5. We won a lot of medals in events (like sailing) where drug abuse probably doesn't help.
6. I don't like sport and don't know much about it.
7. I've just had bangers and mash and am about to eat an ice cream Mars, therefore state funding of sport does not make the nation healthier.
8. So much for NuLab thinking.

The Heresiarch said...

Well of course they all "count" - in the medals table. My question was, why should mathematical success in the medals table be seen as an aim worth pursuing - especially if it's in a sport so boring that getting lots of Olympic medals is the only reason for investing in it? If you take out the seven velodrome medals GB still won 12 - which is about where we should be, all other things being equal. As you say, state funding of elite sports doesn't the nation healthier - but it's more likely to, surely, if the money were spent on sports that people actually wanted to participate in.

Good point about the gymnastics, Real Ale Kid. But then child protection and health&safety are the enemies of excellence in many forms of classical art (which is how I regard gymnastics). There will never be another Rembrandt, for much the same reason. As for Cuban boxers - do all their medals compensate for living in a crumbling dictatorship?

valdemar said...

In a very unscientific sample at work, at lunchtime, some blokes found the cycling worth watching. I don't find cycling round and round any more pointless than running round and round.

Minor point - there is nothing more tedious than cricket, a game devised by Sir Bertram Mogadon, yet some of the most vibrant/volatile countries in the world are obsessed with it.

I was under the impression (and therefore probably wrong) that a sport has to 'qualify' in some way for the Olympics, and that this includes a popularity factor.

Mind you, if popularity isn't considered, I suggest that for 2012 we make up lots of sports in secret and spring them on the IOC at the last minute. Hah.

The Heresiarch said...

Cricket takes place in a different time dimension from, say, football. Therefore it's impossible to watch in a continuous state of heightened emotion: that might have something to do with its appeal in places that are a bit hyperactive. But that doesn't make it tedious. Marathon running takes place in a different time dimension from sprinting. War and Peace isn't a short story.

WeepingCross said...

Valdemar, you've misunderstood the nature of cricket - properly done, that is, on village greens as the afternoon sun slants across the rooftops (or used to before New Labour changed the weather) it's a form of performance art rather than a sport.

valdemar said...

Knew that would shake you up! But what happened to the heresy, eh? Surely saying nice things about cricket is about as orthodox as you can get.

Tim Almond said...

Very good post.

Was there a difference between our medal haul and the DDRs that their intention was more to paint a rosy picture to the outside world where ours is more about doing so to our own citizens? I'm thinking that they actually chose sports where there was at least a reasonable level of competition.

The hyperbole across newspapers and TV can give the impression that Hoy is some sort of global superstar, but when you use tools like Google Insight, you see that even in the UK, more people searched for David Beckham in the past 30 days than Chris Hoy.