The Rio 2016 Olympics came to a close with the US Men’s Basketball team flattening Serbia on their way to an inevitable Olympic gold. There was never much doubt that the US would take home the gold, despite a few scares during the group stages against Serbia, France and Australia, there was always a sense that the American squad had the required depth to find another gear when necessary. The fact that the USA is the dominant force in global basketball is hardly surprising, investment in the sport from the grassroots level right up to the NBA is massive and participation in the sport across the US dwarfs that of any other country. The result is that since NBA players were allowed to compete at the Olympics for the first time in 1992 the US has won 6 of the 7 possible gold medals. The same is true of the Women’s team who have won Olympic gold at every games since 1996.
A similar story is born out when you look at the final medal table. America are top by a significant distance as they have been most years, since the fall of the Soviet Union. The exception being 2008 were China topped the medal at their home Olympics having invested huge amounts of money in their Olympic programme. For in reality that is what wins Olympic medals. Money. Of course there has to be an exceptional level of talent, but this exists all over the world, it is the investment in coaching and the provision of grants for athletes that brings home the medals. America invests the most in it’s Olympic programme and therefore usually wins the most medals.
So is it really any surprise that the Great Britain team finished in second place at Rio?
Since a disappointing performance at the 1996 games in Atlanta where Britain took home 15 medals and only a single gold, there has been a steady increase in investment and a steady increase in the number of medals won. From the 15 won in 1996 to the 67 including 27 gold in 2016. There is a very clear and definite link between money spent on an Olympic programme and the success of that programme.
The desperate scrabble for Olympic golds across the globe has caused many athletes and indeed countries to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve their goals. The Soviet Union was famous for running state sponsored doping programmes and it would be naive to think that the USA and other countries weren’t doing similar things at the height of Cold War tensions. The recent revelations about the Russian dropping programmes are probably just the tip of the iceberg as countries jostle for Olympic glory.
Obviously it is great that Great Britain is supporting it’s athletes and that the team has had such wonderful success in Rio. However, I find the concept of the Olympic meal table a slightly bizarre one especially when considering how closely linked the medals and the money are. If you look at the medal table and a list of countries ranked by GDP you’ll find that the top 10 is inhabited by roughly the same countries.
The idea of the Olympic medal table has always seemed to me rooted in the ideology of the Cold War. When the Soviet Union and the USA would use the games as some kind of sporting arms race to try and show that Capitalist power would overcome Communist strength and vice versa. Is this really necessary in the current global climate? I think not.
This is a dangerous road to be travelling down again, as fervent patriotism and nationalism are sweeping across the globe. This tweet from Conservative MP Heather Wheeler is exactly the kind of idiotic conclusion you reach by thinking that a nation’s sporing success has anything to do with the success of that Nation. What Olympic success really means is that the country is committed to sporting excellence and has the money to invest in it. You could argue that the £350 million that was spent by the British government on the Olympic programme over the past 4 years could have been useful for education, healthcare or welfare.
It is this kind of small minded, isn’t Britain great, we rule the waves etc. etc., thinking that has allowed us to lurch into this xenophobic post Brexit haze, legitimising a narrow and racist way of thinking about Britain. Correct me if I’m wrong but I don’t think that’s really the point of the Olympics.
I’m not saying that Britain should stop investing in it’s athletes, far from it, merely that the yardstick by which the success of the Olympic team is measured needs to be adjusted. Gold medals are all well and good but after the glow of this fortnight has faded what’s really left. The focus should be on increasing participation in sport right across the board to help tackle all kinds of issues from obesity to depression as well as helping form strong and inclusive communities around the country. Unfortunately the participation in sport across the UK has not really been affected following London 2012 which is incredibly disappointing.
There needs to be more of a plan to build on the success of this Olympic team in a way that can be felt throughout the coming four years not just for a few heady weeks in the summer of 2020 far away in Tokyo.