UK’s success in the Rio Olympics where they came second in the medal table (and second in the Paralympics medal count) has resulted in a monumental gnashing of teeth by the politically correct ranging from squealing expressions of distaste at the success – the journalist Simon Jenkins excelled himself by accusing the BBC of bringing “Rio close to a British National party awayday” – and claims that it was all down to “money doping”, an excuse the totalitarian state that is China clutched at as well.
Clearly money is necessary but it is not a sufficient condition for the level of success that UK has enjoyed not only at this Olympics but increasingly since the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta when UK won fifteen medals with only one being gold. The failure of other large wealthy Western countries such as France and Germany to come near to matching British success in Rio and the London Olympics demonstrates emphatically that money alone will not provide a really healthy bag of medals. Moreover, countries such as the rising power of China and Russia with its hangover from the good old bad old days of Soviet state training, gender manipulation and drug use take the Olympics very seriously yet failed to outstrip UK in Rio.
The “money doping” argument has several other weaknesses. When looking at either the amount of money spent on financing Olympic competitors or the size of per capita GDP it should be borne in mind that money has widely differing purchasing values in different countries because of the hugely varying cost of living throughout the world. £10,000 in UK may not go very far but £10,000 in a place such India it will be significant sum. It is also true that quite a few Olympic competitors from poorer countries including China train in richer countries, often on sporting scholarships or with sponsorship from their government..
Nor is it true that medals are very easy to win for richer countries because there is limited competition. Plenty of the richer countries compete and states which are relatively poor such as China provide stiff opposition in many events. In addition, poor countries can provide serious competition by concentrating their resources on one or two sports, for example, Jamaica with sprinting and Kenya with distance running.
Of course the numbers of competitors does vary from sport to sport, but that does not mean the medals are easier to win. I doubt whether the gold medal winner in the triathlon Alastair Brownlee had to show any less physical endeavour both before and during the Olympics than, for example, distance runners like Mo Farah. The fact that 54 countries won a gold medal and 78 countries a medal of some sort is a solid pointer to competition being generally strong.
The spread of medals over the various Olympic disciples is also a pointer to the general strength of the sporting prowess of a nation. UK won medals for Cycling track, Rowing, Athletics, Gymnastics, Equestrian, Sailing, Swimming, Diving, Triathlon, Taekwondo, Canoe slalom, Canoe sprint, Boxing, Field hockey, Golf, Tennis, Rugby sevens, Trampoline, Shooting, Judo, Badminton, Cycling road. Gold medals were won in fifteen different sports. This was a wider spread than any other nation.
There is also the number of competitors each country sent to put into the mix. The UK took one of the larger contingents (366), but the USA had the largest team (550), followed by Brazil (464), Germany (420), Australia (418) China (398) and France (393). All but the USA came below UK in the medals list.
If money is only a necessary but not sufficient condition for Olympic success what else contributed to UK rise to second place in the RIO medal table? Wise use of sports funding raised through the British national lottery played its part. This has been spread widely (22 separate Olympic disciplines provided British medals at Rio) but not indiscriminately, with sports which did not cut the mustard finding their funding cut. Only the USA with medals in 25 different disciplines exceeded the UK’s 22.
Perhaps a more efficient anti-doping regime has also had an effect because UK has a pretty good record when it comes to drug use while Russia were not at full strength because of their institutionalised drugging of athletes and won a third less medals than they did at London in 2012. However, even if all Russian competitors had been allowed to compete their effect would probably not have taken second place from UK because Russia won only 19 gold medals compared to UK’s 27 (so there was a good deal of ground to make up) and any additional competition from a full strength Russian side would have been as likely to impinge on China as on UK.
The roots of the UK’s success at the RIO Olympics can be found in England where a sporting culture has long been deeply embedded. The ancient nature of this sporting culture can be seen in the creation of a proto Olympics in England, The Cotswald Games, in 1612. Many of the most widely played sports and games have their origins in England – cricket, association football , rugby union, rugby league, lawn tennis, table tennis – and in the case of many others England or UK took a leading role in establishing the rules of a sport and putting it on an international level.
It is not only in participation in sport which shows the UK’s sporting culture. Spectators turn out in huge numbers to watch both in the UK and abroad. Football attendances in England are huge even for the divisions below the Premiership and the England cricket team effectively carries its own crowd around to such far flung places as Australia, the West Indies and the Subcontinent.
The UK’s love of sport is also seen vicariously in the fact that those countries which have their ultimate origins in the British Isles also score high on the sporting front. The USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand all came in the first twenty in the Rio medals table.
Why did the UK struggle for medals before the lottery money come along? It needs to be remembered that competitors were amateurs before the late 1980s. The amateur ideal was immensely strong in UK, especially in England. Shamateurism did exist in some sports such as cricket and rugby union, but those running Olympic sports in UK were generally very tough on competitors making any money out of their sport. Much of the rest of the world, especially the Soviet Bloc, were not so fussy and there were many competitors who were in reality full time sports men and women. When the amateur status was abolished for the Olympics the playing field became if not level much less tilted against countries such as UK.
Then there are drugs. Of course UK is not without its drugs cheats but overall it is one of the cleanest drug free countries with as rigorous testing regime as any. In recent times drug testing has become smarter and World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) has been increasingly effective through the testing for drugs in urine samples from years ago. Rather like DNA samples attached to crimes the retention of urine samples give the possibility of someone being caught long after the offence was committed. The attitude towards state sponsored drug use also hardened. Wada recommended a ban of all Russian competitors from the Rio Olympic Games. This was not accepted by the Olympic authorities, but substantial numbers of Russian competitors were barred. It is a foundation on which the stamping out of illegal drug use in sport can build.
What lottery funding has done is release the untapped sporting potential in UK. As the funding will continue and the Rio Olympics have shown that the London Olympics was not just a home Olympics flash in the pan there is very reason to believe that British success at the Olympics will continue. Other nations will doubtless attempt to up their game but the British have a precious base in the natural sporting culture of the country. That is not something which can be manufactured either by the propaganda and directed activity of dictatorships like China or overt attempts at linking sport to patriotism in states which have some real claim to be democratic and free societies.