Wednesday, 20 August 2008


Since bean counters run every other facet of life in our Private Finance Initiative United Kingdoms, it's not surprising that cash from the national lottery, the ultimate regressive tax on stupidity, has received so much credit for Britain's (actually the UK is listed, with great geopolitical awareness on the part of the IOC, as GB & NI, or GBR in Olympic coding) amazing tally of medals. And amazing how quickly a country's media can turn from celebrating individual effort, valiant falling short of the ultimate prize, competition for its own sake, and abhorrance of rampant nationalism every time the American or Russian or Chinese anthem is played, to flag waving triumphalism of the likes this island hasn't seen since they were desperately trying to fix events in the 1908 Games!

The cost accountants have done a remarkable job. They realised quickly that there is no real point in pouring money into sports where every nation has a sporting chance, like athletics. All it takes is somewhere to run, and you can become a track star. Ditto team sports: all those competitors, all that time, all that money, and it results in just one lonely medal. You need to target your money where it will haul in the most gold.

Britain has always done relatively well in the rich man's events: showjumping and sailing, sports where you need to own a horse or a boat in order to succeed. In most of the world, the only people who own boats are busy using them to desperately seek the few fish left swimming round our seas. Funding poured into those areas would find competition relatively thin on the ground.

If the sport can be helped by technology, so much the better. It's no coincidence Britain's biggest gain in this Olympics has been in track cycling, all graphite wheels and aerodynamic helmets. Why not pour money into road cycling? Well, in road cycling all you need is a road and a bike: cyclists come from all over the world. Track cycling, more medal intensive anyway, requires a velodrome: no banked track to practice on, no track cycling team.

It occurs to me that we had seen this all before: the same ethos that powered East Germany to its disproportionately great Olympic record. They homed in on events like the luge in the Winter Olympics: technology, specialist course (of which there were only nine in the world in those days) and lots of available medals. I wrote the obituary of Manfred Ewald, head of the East German Olympic committee, for the Guardian (you can read it here) and pointed out that, despite being disgraced, in the end he had won, because the entire sporting world followed down the path he had blazed.

But the parallel wasn't perfect, because a key factor in the success of East Germany was, shall we say, biological enhancement, everything from sex changes to doping. At least Team GB hadn't gone down that road, I thought with relief. Cue Christine Ohuruogu's win the 400m hurdles. I am not by any means saying Ohuruogu did not win clean, but I will suggest that, had an East German, or indeed any foreign, runner been banned for life after turning in her fastest times dodging three separate drug tests, and then been re-instated and won Olympic gold, I suspect the British press would react to her victory in a somewhat different way.

It is typically British that the immediate reaction to all this success is for the 2012 organisers to remind everyone that there will be no extra money taken away from the property speculators, construction companies, architects, and consultants who will bleed the taxpayers dry, in order to increase funding for the 2012 athletes, and ensure more triumphant nationalism where it will do the most good: in London. Money talks, and no one walks (except the Mexicans: are they fantastic in the heel and toe, or what?). In the meantime, enjoy the medal tally and remember: from GDR to GBR is only a very small change of one letter.....

No comments: