Olympic Glory or Community?

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The 31st Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro has quickly been celebrated as the best British result ever on foreign grounds. UK Sports has invested heavily in sports where the chance of winning a medal was big, but was and is the financial aid correctly distributed? And the biggest question: is Olympic medal success more important than prosperous team sports communities?

As a relatively small country in comparison to the US, China and Russia: the United Kingdom did exceptionally well to be placed within a reachable distance of the winning medal count. The UK beat almost everybody in the medal’s table. Many factors have influenced the great result for the UK, but three reasons spring to mind immediately: anti-doping rules, population size and funding.

A cleaner Olympics has had a big impact, especially on the super powers. China disappointed hugely, but arguably in sports where doping is not regarded as a necessity of success, the reasons for China’s decline is likely to be found elsewhere. Scandalous Russia suffered its worst Olympics ever and the sole reason must be related to the effects of the increased focus from anti-doping organisations. Russia’s participation was debatable, but that discussion now belongs to the past.

The increased focus on a cleaner Olympics did not disrupt the continuing reign of the United States. The declining financial hegemony remains the leading medal collector and the variety of sports in which the Americans dominated is impressive. With more than 300 million inhabitants, the US led the medal race. However, the bigger nations aren’t necessarily destined to win more medals just because they have more people to choose from. The fact that China’s more than 1 billion inhabitants did not manage to lead the medal race is frankly disappointing. The same could be said about India, except its participation at the Games was basically invisible. It is also worth mentioning that a combined Europe would have outperformed the US significantly, so perhaps the American glorification of the ‘perfect’ American athletes is nothing more than a questionable myth. Much could be written about the medal ranking based on medals per capita – a ranking system that is unfairly overlooked by the bigger nations. The perception of the ‘greatest sporting nation’ is more fairly acknowledged as New Zealand or Denmark, as both countries managed to bring home a medal for less than every 380 thousand inhabitants. To compare, it took the US 2.6 million per medal. The UK brought home one medal per 970 thousand inhabitants, which led to a 19th spot on the medals per capita list.

The third reason why the UK performed impressively is the heavy investment in Olympic sports by UK Sport. UK Sport invested £543 million with the purpose of leading Olympic and Paralympic sport in the UK to world class success. The philosophy is to target investment to support all credible medal potential within the high performance system, meaning sports with very little chance of Olympic glory will not get a piece of the £543m, no matter how many people follow or actively participate in the sport.

Practically, this means that a sport like rowing received more than £36m in support of the Olympic and Paralympic teams. £36m! The list goes on… For a full list of how UK Sport’s funding was distributed across individual sports, please see: The entire funding from UK Sport equals an estimated Olympic medal price of £5.5m each. Is one month’s glory every four years really worth £5.5m of tax payer’s money per medal?

To place these numbers into a bigger sports picture, it is good to compare UK Sport’s budget to that of Sport England. Sport England is committed to helping people and communities across the country create sporting habits for life, meaning it invests in organisations and projects that will get more people playing sport and creates opportunities for people to excel at their chosen sport. Sport England is investing £493m into 46 sports between 2013 and 2017, which means that more funding is placed on Olympic medal candidates than on all community sport. When comparing funding for basketball and canoeing, it becomes clear that funding does not benefit the majority: basketball received nothing from UK Sport and £9m over a 4 year period from Sport England; canoeing received £23m from UK Sport and £10m from Sport England. Sport England’s statistics say that in the period 2015-2016 basketball had 56,000 active players, whereas canoeing and kayaking had 48,000. Conclusively, the bigger sport, basketball, receives more than £20m less than canoeing in total.

It seems fair to raise the question: would the UK prefer to strive to become competitive in internationally bigger sports – like basketball, handball or ice hockey – instead of funding a potential medal in fencing? In a modern world that is becoming increasingly more divided and egotistical, it is disheartening that the performances celebrated the most are not the ones that combine talent in coherent teams, but are the performances which are accomplished individually. Furthermore, the UK struggles in comparison with other countries when it comes to people being active in sports. 28 per cent of people in England do not currently do any sport or physical activity. Perhaps it would be greater appreciated if more funding was distributed to bigger sports that ‘regular people’ would actually have a chance to participate in or watch on TV. Would it not be better and healthier to fund sports that could make a difference in the everyday life of regular people?

Ricki Lyngsøe

Global Seven News

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