Twenty years ago, Great Britain’s performance at the Olympic Games in Atlanta was embarrassing. The team won a single gold medal and came 36th in the winners’ table, below even Algeria and Kazakhstan. On Sunday 14 August, Team GB won six gold medals in a single day. The team was on course for its best haul since 1908 and might even finish second, behind only the United States.
It is a remarkable achievement and we should savour it – not least because it is possible that the four constituent nations of the United Kingdom might never again compete under one flag.
The UK’s success in Brazil reflects well on the talent and dedication of the 366 Olympians representing us. It testifies to the thirst for self-improvement among not only the athletes, but their coaches. This is exemplified by the “marginal gains” theory of Dave Brailsford, the former performance director of British Cycling, which has led to a transformation in results. The concept of marginal gains focuses on using forensic detail and scientific analysis to achieve incremental “gains” in various areas, leading to an overall improvement in performance. This has since been mirrored in other sports such as rowing and sailing.
Yet Britain’s success at the Rio Games is also a vindication of state investment in elite sport. After the dismal performance at Atlanta, the decision was taken to divert National Lottery funding into sport. Since then the training facilities and support that Olympians receive have been transformed. UK Sport has rewarded disciplines in which Britain has been most successful at previous games, such as athletics, rowing and cycling, while ruthlessly diverting funds from those that failed. For all the cuts in public spending, elite-level sport has remained austerity-proof: UK Sport received a 29 per cent increase in funding last year, adding to the £350m it had to invest in Olympic and Paralympic sport during the current four-year cycle.
The transformation over the past two decades is an example of what the economist Mariana Mazzucato calls the “entrepreneurial state”: countries giving priority to strategic investments and promoting innovation to harness their strengths. This approach is detectable not only in sport, but across other sectors, including technology and the UK’s revitalised car industry.
The sadness is that Britain’s pre-eminent performance in elite sport contrasts with a crisis at the grass roots. As many as 10,000 school playing fields have been sold off since 1979; over a quarter of the population does less than 30 minutes of physical activity a week, and this includes walking. For all the grandiose talk about the legacy of the 2012 London Games, participation in sport in England has declined, contributing to both the obesity epidemic and mental health problems. The greatest decline is among the most economically deprived groups, who have suffered most from punitive cuts in local authority funding. This is a trend that Theresa May must reverse.
No matter how inspired future generations feel by our Olympians’ success, they will not be able to emulate it while good and affordable sports facilities remain so elusive. There is, too, the issue of what we have called the Seven Per Cent Problem: the dominance of the privately educated in public life. Britain’s Olympians are four times more likely to have attended a fee-charging school than the national average.
Our triumphant athletes should be lauded. But, however unwittingly, they serve as a metaphor for how the gains of modern society are all too often enjoyed by a minority.
This article appears in the 17 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge