I don’t know what it’s like in other parts of the world, but in Britain there was really only one news story this weekend – the Olympics. On Saturday I reviewed the papers for local radio, so I browsed through all of the national papers. You had to get at least ten pages in before anything other than the Olympics came up, and then there were special pull-outs, souvenir front pages and inserted posters too. With Britain at number three in the medals table, it’s a national orgy of self-congratulation.
We take that medals table very seriously. Britain can’t really compete with the US or China – they’re just so much bigger than we are. As long as we finish above France, Australia and Germany, we’re happy. (Interestingly, there was no medals table in the first modern Olympics. It came along later and upped the nationalist ante.)
Without wishing to take anything away from the remarkable individuals who win the events themselves, we shouldn’t place too much importance on the medals table. There are lots of different reasons why countries win Olympic medals – or don’t win them.
Looking at individual events, some of it is clearly genetic. Watching the 10,000m the other day, it was notable that the bulk of the runners were African, particularly from East Africa. Kenya and Eritrea led the race, and the winner was a Somali – Britain is Mo Farah’s adopted country. Some countries seem to have a natural advantage in some sports.
Looking at events overall though, perhaps the most obvious factor in Olympic success is population size. The bigger the pool of people you can draw from, the more likely you are to find gifted individuals. A country with a billion people is going to have hundreds more athletes that can compete at Olympic standard than a country with a couple of million.
Population isn’t everything however. India has a billion people and is largely invisible in international sport other than cricket, and that isn’t in the Olympics. That highlights a second factor – culture. Different countries enjoy different sports. The Olympics are a Western institution and favour our own traditions. If it included Indian sports, you might get sports like – a kind of team wrestling-tag. It features in the and has a world cup, so it’s not an insignificant sport. I’d like to see , a traditional hybrid of martial arts and archery in which competitors shoot at each other while dodging the incoming arrows – definitely more interesting than the technical target-based affair we have at the moment.
The Olympics has had a pretty fluid range of sports over its history. I suspect future games will have fewer of the “things you can imagine royals doing in a tapestry” as says, and more international flavours. Take a look at this short youtube clip and see if you agree that should be in the next games. Or perhaps we should just have a tropical Olympics to make up for the winter Olympics, which freeze out the global south almost entirely.
After population and culture, the other big factor in medal-winning is money. If you can throw money at sport, you can win medals. If you can’t, your culture of sport and big population still might not deliver. Specialist infrastructure like velodromes are beyond the reach of many countries. Many sports rely on cutting edge technologies for a competitive edge, whether that’s shark-skin swimming suits or carbon fibre bikes – none of this is available to poorer countries, nor is the expertise in training, physiotherapy and nutrition.
How much do the winners spend on sport? I don’t know of any global data on country by country spending, and even Britain’s is difficult to put together in total. In 2011/12 government funding was around £60.6 million, and lottery funding was £70 million, but there are various other funding bodies and sponsors. has figures for specific sports. British cycling is due to receive £26 million between 2009 and 2013, a sum spent on just 85 individuals. Gymnastics is funded at £10 million, equestrian sports at £13 million.
Whether you think this is money well spent or not probably depends on how much you enjoy watching sport, and what effect those medals have on inspiring people to take up sport. If children put down their Playstation controllers and go outside, then it’s worth it – that seems to be the view behind the much discussed ‘legacy’ of the London games.
In the opening ceremony, the countries all paraded in with a copper ‘petal’ that made up the Olympic flame. It was a neat symbol of the inclusive nature of the games – everyone gets invited. But not everyone gets to genuinely compete. Most countries are fated to see their token presence extinguished in the early heats, making way for the bigger and richer countries in the finals. The Olympics do not present a level playing field.
We can take pride in Britain’s victories, but we shouldn’t look at that medal table and conclude that we are somehow better than other countries. Rather, we should be thankful that even in times of austerity, we can afford to find and nurture athletes with extraordinary talents. Perhaps we should welcome athletes from poorer countries to come and train with us. And we should be open to learning some exciting new sports from other parts of the world.