The Olympic Games are the pinnacle of sports, and an Olympic gold is every athlete’s dream. With the South American sun setting on the superhuman showcase, the men and women responsible for Team GB’s most successful Olympics in history are basking in their own glory. Heroes were made, a generation was inspired, and a kingdom was united through glory, tears and triumph – the unequivocal Brexit division all but forgotten.
So what now? If one said funding cuts, local facility closures and shattered dreams are to follow, one would probably find that quite perverse. Yet, that is exactly what is on the horizon – a paradoxical paradigm persists with the medal-obsessed UK Sport choosing funding that favours the few.
Money Talks (And Performs)
Great Britain is only the second team to increase its medal haul at five consecutive games, with Azerbaijan managing the same feat at Rio. Ever since Atlanta 1996, when the UK came 36th in the medal table with a solitary gold medal, the growth has been huge. Ever since John Major introduced the National Lottery funding, the spending on UK Sport has risen from £5m per year before Atlanta to £274m for elite athletes in the run up to Rio – a stark contrast. Certainly, Major’s decision has been a major contributor to the subsequent success.
The psyche of a funding increase for strong performances seems a fair one – after all money breeds success – but is it right for rowing and cycling to get more than £30m when sports like basketball gets nothing? Basketball is popular in inner cities and schools, with so much legacy potential. It seems that if one is competing in a sport where a medal challenge is unlikely, one is being sacrificed in favour of others. This increases the gap between sports that do well and ones which have little chance of developing anytime soon – an ideology that works against the wider interests of British sports. Even getting into some sports is difficult without money. One looking at going into fencing would have to part with about £20,000 a year, while equestrian would cost even more.
If one takes a look at the investment and participation in grassroots sports, the contrast could not look any more different. “The legacy for school sport is paramount” were words uttered by Lord Sebastian Coe during the London 2012 games, yet the time children spend in PE lessons has dropped by 20% since 2010. David Cameron may have provided £150m to fund primary school sport until 2020, but at half that of elite athlete funding, the country seems to have focussed more on the athletes of today rather than trying to raise the athletes of tomorrow. Since 2012, over 350,000 people have taken to the sofa and given up sports of any kind, making a mockery of London 2012’s pledge to “inspire a generation.” With each medal “costing” £4.1m, UK sports have become medal-obsessed.
The emphasis of this can be seen most clearly in the case of Adam Peaty. Receiving funding and sponsorship as part of the elite British swimming program, helping to employ his coach Mel Marshall, he has been the poster boy for British success this year. Before receiving his £30,000 a year sponsorship from the National Lottery, his neighbours used to have to raise money to help pay for petrol when he had to travel to take part in national competitions. This lack of funding is echoed by his local club, City of Derby, which nearly closed down when local pools were temporarily closed due to the cuts to local council funding. These reductions came back in 2010 and plagued many municipalities who have been forced to close sports facilities due to insufficient funds. While Adam and the other elite swimmers are enjoying unprecedented success, his old team-mates still struggle on – emphasising the need to look into grassroots funding.
It is no surprise that the world’s most developed countries take up the residence atop the Olympic medal table, while poorer countries lack the money to compete. Fiji, Puerto Rico and Kosovo all won their first ever Olympic medals in Rio, while India – the world’s second most populous country won just two medals. The infrastructure required to build Olympic champions across various disciplines is huge. Track cycling bikes are expensive, horses are expensive, pools are expensive, stadiums are expensive and boats are expensive. Cycling is the sport in which money and medals correlate the most – with Team GB’s bikes costing on average £70,000 each – 11x the GDP per capita of India.
Not only do facilities cost, but keeping talent in the country requires funding, which these countries don’t have. Developing countries do produce some exceptional athletes – Kenyan and Ethiopian runners for example – but with many families keen to get their children ahead of other athletes, they often move to more affluent countries to seek financial help. An Olympic medallist in the US could expect to receive over $50,000 a year of funding – with well-established athletes such as Michael Phelps worth over $50m after adding sponsorships and endorsements. Compare this to the average GB athlete at £21,000 a year and one realises that money really does breed success.
While national triumphs are something to be hugely proud of and the model has been a massive success, it has come at a large financial and social cost. One looks upon the Olympians as impressive pinups, to love and cherish – but to whom most can in no way relate. Each athlete has a team of nutritionists and masseurs, as well as world-class equipment and money to continue training. The discrepancy between historic sporting achievements and the lack of public motivation is increasing, with even those who do compete struggling to make ends meet.
If one is to truly “inspire a generation,” the government and funding organisations need to focus more on grassroots development – not only to continue improving the UK’s Olympic performance over generations to come but the social one too. During the games, the bid for medals is a question of who is the fittest, strongest and toughest, but with 28% of medal winners coming from a private school, getting the opportunity is all about survival of the richest.