Sunday, September 21, 2008

The Next Olympics

The Morning After

Measures to further sport
will work better for the elite than for the masses

WHILE lacking, perhaps, the cohesion of the men’s coxless four or the cycling pursuit team who won golds for Britain in Beijing, the unlikely quartet of footballers and pop stars led by Boris Johnson at least managed to accept the Olympic flag from China without dropping it. The whimsy of the British performance at the Olympic handover, featuring twirling umbrellas and a doubledecker bus, suggested that Britain would not attempt to match the pageantry and stadiums that cost China billions. It plans to rely heavily on what London’s mayor hopefully calls Britain’s “wit and flair”.
As far as the sporting competition is concerned, however, Britain will give no quarter. Basking in the afterglow of the country’s most successful Olympic games in a century, Gordon Brown has big plans for developing sport in Britain. The prime minister’s initiatives include attempts to get more girls involved, funding to give schoolchildren five hours of sport a week and a return to competitive games in schools (on the wane since the 1960s). More money is also expected for community sports facilities.
This frenzy of activity has two aims: to ensure that Britain’s Olympians repeat their success in four years’ time; and to get a generation of potatoes off the couch and onto the track. The first will be easier to achieve. The British medals in Beijing showed that well-targeted funding allied to greater professionalism brings results, and home advantage will help. But Britain’s successful coaches are much in demand elsewhere. And £100m of private-sector funding for elite athletes in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics has yet to materialise, because of the credit crunch.
Inspiring non-Olympians to pull on their trainers is another matter. Research in 2002 by Maarten van Bottenburg, of Utrecht University, found no correlation between the success of a sporting elite and increased public participation in those sports. But taken the other way around, if more people can be enticed to do sports, are world-class athletes likelier to emerge?
Stressing competitive games at school does seem to raise the ambitions and hone the talents of the young: in Australia and Sri Lanka thousands turn out to watch schools do battle on the rugby or cricket pitch, and those countries excel at those sports. In Britain too, schools with money for better facilities produce better sportsmen: private schools educate 7% of Britons yet their old boys (and girls) won 45% of Britain’s medals at the previous three Olympics.
So boosting the money for competitive sport in schools would probably produce a few more gold-medallists (and would have other benefits too). But persuading large swathes of the citizenry to spend less time watching sport on television and more time actually working up a sweat is a Herculean task. As Stefan Szymanski, of City University’s Cass Business School, points out, it is harder to build a national sporting culture from the top down than it is to propel a handful of highly talented athletes to the podium. Mr Brown is likely to find that he can bring pools of water to the masses, but he can’t make them swim.



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