Higher, faster, yes. More meritocratic? No

By Matthew Syed. He represented Great Britain at table tennis in two Olympics (THE TIMES, 16/08/08):

The Olympic Games are built on a series of fictions, but one myth towers above all others. It is that the four-yearly festival is a bastion of meritocracy, where success is determined by hard work and talent rather than privilege. This is central to the Games’s global appeal and is particularly powerful because it chimes with common sense. Is not sport about the objective measurement of ability, leaving little room for entrenched privilege? Has not the Olympics been the traditional arena for the underdog?

Well, no.

Look beyond the propaganda and you will find that 58 per cent of Great Britain’s gold-medal winners at Athens in 2004 went to independent schools. You will also find that in the past three Olympics 45 per cent of medal winners went to the non-state sector. Given that only 7 per cent of children attend independent schools, and assuming that sporting talent is spread evenly, this is a striking demonstration of how Olympic success is driven by wealth as well as by ability. Either way, the 93 per cent who attend state schools are chronically under-represented.

But this is as nothing compared with the global imbalance. India, for example, a country with almost one fifth of the world’s population, won less than a fifth of 1 per cent of the medals available in Athens – one out of a total of 826. Africa, a continent dripping with sporting talent, won only 4 per cent of them. Can you think of a single global institution that is less equitable?

The reason for this shameful imbalance is not difficult to find – when the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the modern Olympic movement he packed it with sports affordable only to his fellow aristocrats, thus excluding the Third World. The legacy of the baron’s patrician bias is still with us today: in Beijing, rowing has 14 medal events, sailing 11 and equestrianism 6. If the International Olympic Committee believes that these sports are accessible to anyone beyond a tiny clique in the Western world it is even more deluded than previously thought.

Take the Yngling sailing event for women – at which Great Britain won gold in 2004. Only about four crews at present compete in the UK, with fewer than 100 competitive crews on the planet. Why? Because it costs more than £20,000 to buy a decent boat. You may as well include Formula One in the Olympics. In rowing, sailing and equestrianism there were 186 medals on offer at the last Olympics. Not one was won by an athlete from a low-income nation.

Perhaps the most amusing aspect of all this is how we respond to our success in such sports. Even some of our more intelligent commentators have convinced themselves that Sir Steve Redgrave is the greatest living Olympian for winning five successive golds in rowing, not seeming to realise that the sport is so elitist that it is virtually nonexistent across much of the planet. I suggest that Redgrave would not have qualified for a single Olympic final, let alone won any, had rowing been accessible to, say, 1 per cent of the population of Africa – a continent that dominates running, in which the only equipment needed is decent shoes.

It is striking that Britain’s medal success generally comes in sports that are not merely expensive but that are also so unpopular that athletes cannot earn enough from prize-money and endorsements to support themselves. Success in these sports – such as rowing, sailing and track cycling – can essentially be bought by siphoning off money from the public purse and handing it to the athletes who are then able to train like professionals.

Indeed, it is a cause for self-congratulation rather than discomfiture in the sporting community that the improved success of British athletes in recent years has been achieved by outspending many of our rivals. That is not to take anything away from the athletes, who are hard-working and talented. It is merely to say that success in sport – like in the agricultural market – is easier when it receives huge state subsidies.

We will see this phenomenon once again in Beijing. Get ready for the smugness if we achieve more success in track cycling, with commentators proclaiming that we Brits are endowed with pedalling genius. The reality is that British cycling has been given millions to spend on bike technology, something that is not considered a sensible target for public expenditure by many other rich nations (although not dictatorships such as China, which tend to spend like crazy on elite sport) and is beyond the public finances of the rest.

How does the Government get away with this raid on the public purse? By claiming that Olympic success inspires grassroots participation, which, in turn, has a benign long-term impact on the public finances. It is an argument with everything on its side except evidence. The reality is that elite success has no sustained impact on participation, and, even if it did, the fiscal effects would be ambiguous.

Instead of parading our national immaturity by splurging gargantuan sums on baubles, would we not do better to urge the IOC to alter the medal allocation to include sports that are accessible to all rather than the privileged few? You do not need a vast bank balance or state subsidies to excel in kabbadi or sepak takraw, two wonderful Asian sports. Sure, rich nations might still dominate, but low-income countries would at least have a chance, as they do in sprinting and distance running.

The Olympics should be a global festival, not a rich man’s playground.