Britain's Olympic success is a triumph of ruthless professionalism

EDITOR'S BLOG: The romantic stories of Daley Thompson and Steve Ovett wouldn't get a look-in today.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 22 Aug 2016

So, it’s over. How are we going to cope with darkening Autumnal nights without the Olympics to thrill and mesmerise us? Without the amazing cat ‘n' mouse, over-the-shoulder watchfulness of the duelling velodrome cyclists? Without those tumbling synchronised divers who nail the plop into the algae-green pool with The Smaller Splash? The new series of University Challenge hardly has the same level of drama and jeopardy.

Team GB has done amazingly well - better than anyone dared hope post-2012 and that was pretty impressive. We are now officially a sporting superpower. We have excelled because we now have an elite sports system that works. It dates back to the collective humiliation that we felt as a nation back in at the Atlanta Games in 1996 when we won only one gold medal - Redgrave and Pinsent in the coxless pairs. Especially miserable about this - and he had little to cheer him in those dark days - was the sports enthusiast and PM John Major who decided to set up the National Lottery to provide cash for medals. And there is now plenty of it. That tally of 67 medals has cost about £355 million this time round - about £5.3m apiece.

Being an Olympian has become ruthlessly corporate. They are not slightly wild, unpredictable individualists like Daley Thompson or Steve Ovett neither of whom would get past the interview stage. The competitors are effectively employees of the Olympic Association. They are not the amateurs of old who go back to their real job next week but salaried staff. They are the same kind of slightly colourless head-down incrementalists and data-watchers that succeed in Formula 1.

And a pretty harsh business it is, too. Individuals and entire sports that don’t pass muster and come up with the medals get their funding cut off. That’s the deal. In elite sport it’s no longer the taking part that counts, it’s winning. But that’s why we watched. It’s unsentimental and Darwinian and the only way to do it if you don’t want to be an also-ran. It’s the Soviet method from the Cold War in the search for vital national prestige but, one hopes, without the performance enhancing drugs.

It’s all very well moaning about the loss of the romantic amateur but they simply cannot survive in the modern sporting world. Who wants to be amateurish? It is THE job. That’s why Max Whitlock who won a double gold in the gymnastics says, ‘I go in to do my job for hours and hours in the gym for years. You only get a minute here to show what you’ve been working on and I’ve done it today.’ There are few jobs so harsh, self-denying and balanced on a knife-edge and the rest of us mortals should be thankful for this. The gymnast who didn’t ‘medal’ may not have his job come October. But for the guy and the gal who wins gold it must be the most extraordinary feeling.

There will be political mileage to be had in the post-Brexit world. The victory parades in London and Manchester will be designed to show we can stand on our own feet with our heads held high. France and Germany were hardly a big medal noise. We can do it on our own. But when it comes to HMG’s involvement there is one major problem. One of the pay-offs for such large amounts of quasi-public money being invested in elite sport was supposed to be the trickle-down effect into wider sporting activity.

The deal was that more kids were supposed to get off their bums, ditch the ipad and the PokemonGo and take part in active sport. This was supposed to be the 2012 ‘Legacy.’ It hasn’t worked when the most notable ‘legacy’ example so far appears to have been West Ham United picking up the Stratford stadium for the bargain of the century. This was supposed to have been part of a joined up government effort to reduce levels of juvenile obesity along with the (now much watered down) anti-sugar strategy. There’s not a lot of evidence that this has occurred yet.

You could even argue that while kids admire Laura Trott and her fiance Jason Kenny - the new Posh and Becks whose wedding will now be Hello magazine’s number one buy-out target - they are just like Kardashian godheads.

Because Laura with her hand on her heart cannot say to children, ‘You, too could do this. You could be like me.’ She is way off into the stratosphere. Beyond reach of mere mortals. The chances of that occurring may even be less than they were way back when we were humiliated with our one Gold.

Those who are pretty unlikely to succeed and may be in the most need of the positive effects of sport will not get selected to take part in the first place. And there simply aren’t the facilities - the playing fields, the kit, the coaches to put such a dream into reality. And yet, and yet. Then you have Mo Farah, someone who didn’t exactly start with the best life chances. Who would have put money on him, the skinny son of a Somali refugee dancing home for another two golds in Brazil. We can all dream, but it would be good if a few more of us got up and did something too.

Image source: Surrey County Council/Flickr


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