Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Spinning Gold From Money

A black week for taxpayers. As the Beijing medal count rises, any hope of capping the 2012 budget sinks.

The jingoistic media reaction is saying circuses do work. For a paltry few hundred mill we have bought success and feelgood, a flag-draped triumph that has done more to rebuild our fractured nation than any number of Britishness speeches. Etc etc.

Look, let's not be churlish (or Gradgrindish as Lottery founder John Major put it yesterday): it's fantastic to see some British sporting success for a change, and congratulations to the medallists.

  1. We are still underperforming relative to our population and, especially, our economy - according to C4 News, we are 17th relative to population (Slovenia first, Oz 5th, Holland 15th); relative to our economy, we are 43rd (N Korea first, Oz 30th, Holland 42nd).
  2. Our huge improvement - best medal haul since 1908 etc - is less a reflection of wild success in 2008, and more the fact that for the last century we have been totally pants: since WW2 we have only twice before managed to come above 10th overall (and one of those was Moscow in 1980 when the US didn't compete).

And what are we to make of the fact that 8 of our 16 gold medals have come in just one sport, cycling? Or that only three of the golds have come from non-sitting down sports?

The power of clusters? The big sporting powers don't bother with minority sports? Poor countries can't afford the kit? Public schools? Nobody seems to know. But it sure doesn't sound like broadly based success.

Still there's no denying the fact that all of our success sports have had massively increased subsidies. Cycling was given £22m for these games, up from "just" £9m for Athens. Sailing has had also had £22m (up from £8m), and rowing an extraordinary £26m, the same as our chronic underperformer, athletics.

So can you really spin gold from money?

The answer seems to be that in minority sports with high kit costs, you probably can. But in mass participation sports where the kit is cheap, you can't - the majority of the sports we've paid for haven't produced any medals at all (and cf that bunch of money-no-object overpaid losers known as the England football team).

PS One of the pleasures of any Olympics is tracking just how hopeless the professional sports pundits are at predicting the winners. EG here are the BBC predictions from last year on which 10 Brits were "the ones to watch" (pic above). As far as we can see, only two have actually won medals (so far). As for that girl who won two swimming golds, or triple gold cyclist Chris Hoy, not a mention.

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