3 August 2021

Wise politicians should take heed of the Olympic feel-good factor


Nothing should detract from the dedication and success of individual athletes. Their triumphs in the adversity of training, competition and the expectations put upon them is worthy of our utmost admiration. We love and praise them for it. But, let’s be brutally honest: the Olympics are also about national pride, how well your country is performing relative to everyone else.

Tokyo is also the Disruptive Games. New sports hinting at an even more exciting future. I wonder if the founders of the modern games ever imagined how loudly we’d be cheering on 13-year-old skateboarders, or rock climbers. Sport is changing. It’s become more commercialised but also democratised. The barriers to entry are falling. There is nothing like the feel-good factor of seeing your nation do well in the Olympics – a factor smart politicians should be picking up on.

There is still much to debate about the Olympics. Golf? Why? (There is no universe I can imagine where golf improves anything) .The Women’s Rugby Sevens was simply fantastic. I am miffed so little of the sailing was actually shown. The BBC’s contract with the TV rights owner, Discovery, is farcical.

Forget the fact the Americans and Chinese dominate the medal tables. If you want to brag about Olympic success, then historically the nation to beat is Jamaica. Consistently the Caribbean island wins more gold per head than anyone else. The Kiwis, the Dutch and the Danes also do pretty well, unlike India which, despite its massive population, possesses an anthem you are unlikely to become familiar with at prize-giving time.

The Olympics are all about personal triumph but to achieve success athletes require political will and support. The UK has been doing rather well in international sport these last 25 years. From winning practically nothing at the Atlanta Games, we are now well up the medal table winning more medals across a wider range of sports than anyone else (13 different sports disciplines compared to 12 for the Chinese and Americans). The Australians particularly, but also the Chinese and the Americans, have won their medals in a relatively small number of focused, targeted sports.

As well as the thrill of victory, sport also has a remarkable ability to change lives for the better. Whether it’s making ourselves fitter, giving us a passion, or turning us into champions or simply generating a feel-good atmosphere. We learn life-lessons from defeat and triumph equally. Yet, for all the noise around the Olympics and our suddenly professed interest in the intricacies of Horse Dancing for the three days it’s on TV every four years, the UK by-and-large remains a nation of couch potatoes.

Participation is not just a matter of diversity or opportunity, it’s equally about personal choice. It’s very difficult for people to motivate themselves to go down the gym, or go for a walk in the rain. Across the nation, millions of people just don’t participate because they don’t perceive access to sporting opportunity.

Whatever the politicians say about encouraging sports across the community, allocation of lottery funding to sports based on analysis of the ones most likely to win medals has been one factor behind the UK’s recent successes. The Australians joke the Brits only win in sports where it’s mostly sitting down that counts like rowing, sailing and equestrian. These are not sports that occur naturally in the inner cities.

Cycling is a little better.  The UK has done particularly well, not only in the Olympics but where it really counts: beating the French in the Tour de France. While cycling is having a banner year, it’s been a shocker for the UK rowing team. Riven by allegations from some elite athletes of a bullying coaching culture, the team failed to hit its targets, despite millions in funding. In contrast, the most popular athletes in the UK today are probably the two BMX gold medal winners, Bethany Shriever and Charlotte Worthington, silver medallist Kye Whyte, and the mountain bike champion Tom Pidcock.

Bethany’s story shows why UK sport needs to be constantly re-inventing itself. Unlike the perception of pampered rowing toffs based in their multi-million facility across the Thames from Eton, their diet experts, and multiple coaches, Bethany comes across as utterly genuine. Her BMX racing was initially written off by the funders, and she had to take a job and crowdfund her path to Tokyo.

Charlotte’s dedication to her sport has seen her break her leg twice in training, and also suffer a funding crisis. Kye’s success is largely down to the remarkable inner-city Peckham BMX club. The polar opposite in terms of diversity and access to opportunity to the conventional vision of elite sport.

Fortunately, British Cycling’s performance team realised these relatively new disciplines were not just new avenues towards success, but also much more accessible – and to many more people – than velodromes, expensive lycra suits and multi-million pound bikes. Rather than locking the new bike sports out, the funding was belatedly found to support them. Cycling now scores top in terms of hitting diversity and medal targets.

But what does it mean for the nation? How do we continue to generate success and the feel-good factor? There are so many new sports like skateboarding, sports climbing and surfing getting the attention of the TV audiences. Paris in 2024 will see breakdancing added to the list. Even surfing is now accessible to the inner cities. Surf machines and parks are springing up around the country. Why should the UK not win a surfing medal one day? I’d urge the politicians to encourage it as a goal.

For all the money we’ve squandered in recent years on tanks that don’t tank, or test and trace apps that don’t work properly, or government programmes that gorge on our taxes, what would be so wrong with splurging a little more to give every kid even greater access to new sports?

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Bill Blain is market strategist and head of alternative assets at Shard Capital. He writes a daily market commentary called The Morning Porridge (www.morningporridge.com).

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.