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Monday, 9 April 2012

Are the London Olympic Games Really Such a Good Idea?

Discussions of the legacy of the London 2012 Olympics have been an ever-presented theme of commentary since Sebastian Coe first made it a distinguishing feature of the UK's bid to host the Games.

Coe said:
We can no longer take it for granted that young people will choose sport.  Some may lack the facilities.  Or the coaches and role models to teach them. Others, in an age of 24-hour entertainment and instant fame, may simply lack the desire.  We are determined that a London Games will address that challenge. So London's vision is to reach young people all around the world.  To connect them with the inspirational power of the Games. (Singapore, 6 July 2005)
Ever since these stirring claims were first made, advocates have turned to the L-word every time a shot-in-the-arm of enthusiasm has been needed.

It is not difficult to imagine why such support is needed.  Increasing numbers of commentators are questioning why London, a city with no obvious problem attracting tourists or business would, is to align itself with "the Olympic movement, a juggernaut controlled by an unaccountable sporting elite".

The original London costing was a little over £3 billion, and this grow exponentially up to £9 billion, before a new government insisted on a more suitably austere budget by changing virtually nothing (and actually doubly the funding for the 'Slumdog' opening ceremony).

The figures usually cited for the 2012 Games are misleading, as they do not include the substantial investment needed to transform the UK's elite framework to its current position as one of the leading half dozen sporting nations in the world.  In the four years prior to the Athens Games (2000) the UK government invested £70.1 million.  With a haul of 30 medals (9 Gold medals), which means that each medal cost the tax-payer about £2.3 million each.  For the Beijing Games investment increased to £75 million, and the total medals won increased to 47 (£1.6 million per medal).

The pattern of spending is revealing: the more money invested, the more medals Britain wins.  This has been likened to a type of ‘sporting arms race’, as governments in pursuit of more medals invest further into elite sport because rival nations do, which in turn ratchets up further investment.  So it was that UK Sport, the government agency responsible for distributing elite sport funding, was allocated £304.4 million for the Olympic funding cycle 2008-2012.

This figure is unprecedented, and signals a remarkable commitment to the cause of elite sport.


Even outside of difficult times, we might expect the case for such expenditure to be clear and compelling.  We sports nuts are often mocked for losing our sense of proportion, but even we would hesitate from ranking a few medals about hospitals and schools.

Well, some of us would.  There are others whose uncritical love of all things Olympic reminds of Alan Partridge's justification of the outrageous cost of building a model of his own house in BBC Television Centre by betting:
"If the British public were asked whether they would prefer an Alan Partridge Christmas special to 14 kidney dialysis machines, the response would be unanimous."

The clearest statement of justification for investment in elite sport in the UK comes from a document called Game Plan, which was published in 2002.  In fact, its defence is the only one I have been able to find from central government.  Perhaps no further statement is necessary, as Game Plan's claims continue to be made and - with a few exceptions - repeated by the media. 

It is claimed that elite sport produces a number of benefits to the wider population:
1. a ‘feelgood factor’ (among the population) and a positive ‘national image’ abroad;
2. economic benefits (from spending after events and so on);
3. as a driver for grass-roots participation.

As for the claim that Olympic Games make financial sense, for the moment I will simply cite the New York Times:
  • The 1992 Barcelona Games left Spain with a $6.1 billion debt;
  • Athens estimated that the 2004 Games would cost $1.6 billion, but in the end it was $16 billion;
  • It took Montreal nearly 30 years to pay off the $2.7 billion it owed after the 1976 Summer Games.

It doesn't follow that London will suffer a similar fate.  But it's worth bearing in mind, isn't it?

So, what about the other claims?  Will the Olympics develop positive feelings across the nation and around the world?  If it does, do these feelings balance the significant financial investment?

And will the Games drive up mass participation?

I will discuss these two vital questions in subsequent blog entries.  In the meantime, it would be fascinating to hear your thoughts.

Comments very welcome!


JoeN said...

When I was a Teach First tutor, one of my tutees taught PE in a central London girls' school. I felt so sorry for her when I witnessed the long line of girls sitting along the wall of the gym doing everything they could to avoid sport not because they were genuinely ill: but merely because it didn't match their idealised image of themselves. She rarely had a class of 5 never mind 10 girls. Even the Olympics isn't going to undo this level of teenage self-abuse.

One reason why I was delighted to see the National Trust's new bucket list initiative which will, no doubt, be castigated by the same voices that have encouraged this dismal anti-sport culture in adolescents.

Richard Bailey said...

Thanks Joe. Why do you think we have this anti-sport culture?

I wrote about this tragic situation recently. I'd be interesting to hear your thoughts.

Why I am (mostly) glad I am a man. And why nice girls don't do sport