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06/11/2006
OLYMPIC GAMES NEWS
 

Extract from Times Online

New Page 1
The Times October 25, 2006


Click on TimesOnline Logo for Original Article
 

Olympic Games: a rich man's playground?


 

YES - Matthew Syed says the equation is simple: no money, no chance

THERE is a pernicious myth surrounding the Olympic Games. We have convinced ourselves that it is a gleaming symbol of meritocracy, a place where sportsmen and women achieve through talent rather than privilege. New Labour, for example, has embraced London 2012 as representative of its commitment to “sport for all”. It is time to wake up and smell the claptrap.

 

Research undertaken by The Times has revealed that 58 per cent of Great Britain’s gold medal-winners at the Games in Athens went to independent schools. We further estimate that across the past three Olympics, about 45 per cent of medal-winners went to the non-state sector. That is a higher proportion than last year’s intake at Cambridge.

Considering that only 7 per cent of the population attend independent schools, and making the not unreasonable assumption that talent is evenly spread, this is a shocking indication of how Olympic success is driven by wealth as much as by ability. Anyway you cut it, the 93 per cent who attend state schools are chronically underrepresented.

But this is as nothing when one considers the global imbalance in the allocation of medals. India, for example, a country that boasts almost a fifth of the world’s population, won a paltry 0.12 per cent of the medals in Athens: one out of 826. Africa, a continent supremely rich in sporting talent, won 4 per cent.

It is not difficult to understand why. When Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat, developed the modern Olympic Movement, he demonstrated an almost comical indifference for the economically disadvantaged by packing the supposedly inclusive festival with rich man’s sports.

The legacy of his bias is still with us. Rowing, for example, has 14 medal events, more than badminton, table tennis and volleyball combined. Sailing has 11; equestrianism six. This preposterous allocation has not only excluded the socially disadvantaged in the West, but has also effectively disenfranchised much of the Third World.

Take sailing. In the Finn event, in which Ben Ainslie won gold in 2004, there were no crews from Africa or Asia and only one from South America at the recent World Championships. This is hardly surprising when, according to the Royal Yacht Association (RYA), it costs at least £10,000 to buy a decent boat. Ainslie may be the best on the planet, but it is a very different planet to that inhabited by most of us.

Because they are so exclusive, such events are necessarily uncompetitive. In the Yngling event for women, for example, there are only four crews competing in the UK at present and only 34 crews attended this year’s World Championships. An insider told me that there are probably fewer than 100 competitive crews in the world. You may as well have an Olympic event in flying private jets.

For the record, there are 500 million volleyball players and 300 million table tennis players worldwide. Even squash has more than 15 million. According to well-placed insiders, squash was denied entry into the Olympics last summer on the grounds that it is not globally representative enough. Talk about double standards.

The World Sailing Federation lists proudly all the African nations that are affiliated, but a few phone calls were sufficient to demonstrate that some of the national associations are little more than small groups of rich ex-pats.

A disturbing consequence of the Olympic medal allocation is that it has skewed sports funding. The RYA, for example, not only receives £5.5 million of lottery money annually for its elite athlete programme, but also gets public cash to run OnBoard, a project that purports to encourage youngsters from modest backgrounds to get involved in sailing.

It is difficult to conceive of a sport less suited to mass participation. The original idea of OnBoard was to subsidise the cost of involvement — until it was realised that this would effectively bankrupt the governing body. Instead, nine regional development officers (it hopes to increase the number to 24) spend their time persuading children in schools to spend their own money at local sailing clubs that often charge commercial rates.

When I phoned my local OnBoard officer, I was put through to the duty manager of the Queen Mary Club in Ashford, Middlesex. He told me that it would cost £200 to enrol a child on a half-term programme and £25 per hour to hire a boat thereafter, in addition to annual membership subs. If your child really enjoys it, he said, you could pick up a decent boat for a “few thousands pounds”.

If the RYA thinks that this scheme is accessible to the kids on the nearby estates of Stanwell, they are even more deluded than the suits at Sport England who are putting £1.2 million into the project over the next two years. Would it not be more effective to focus public money on sports that are genuinely accessible to all?

Sailing, rowing and equestrianism had a combined total of 186 medals up for grabs at the past two Games but not a single medal was won by an athlete from a low-income nation (as defined by the World Bank). Is it not time for the IOC to slash its medal allocation and include sports that do not require a sizeable bank balance? In kabbadi, the wonderful Bangladeshi game, for example, all you need is space.

Elitism, harking back to the decisions made by a French aristocrat at the turn of the last century, still pervades the Olympic Movement. Things will change only if the IOC confronts its patrician bias. In the meantime, the Olympics remain a rich man’s festival.

NO - Matthew Pinsent says that talent is still more important than wealth

IF YOU take a 4-year-old to a farm and give them a handful of carrots to feed the animals, pretty soon one life lesson is effectively demonstrated. No matter how much the child likes the cute piglet or shy white horse, the big, brutish animals will eat the lot — and then chomp them out of your pockets if you get too close. As much as you try to throw the carrots, to be fair all round and make sure everyone gets a taste, the dominant animals will drive off the others.

So too with the Olympics. No matter what the array of medals on display, someone will try to scoff the lot.

When the modern Games started in Athens in 1896, a Briton on holiday was drafted into the tennis doubles and promptly won gold. The Americans had a golden era, then the Eastern Bloc countries. Now we are staring at Chinese domination. They didn’t top the medals table in Athens, but they certainly will in Beijing — and for the foreseeable future. They would laugh at our class-based sensitivities and public-school strengths. For them it’s straightforward: if you want to win, you have to invest.

But buried within the Games is still the genuine chance of winning on talent. Matthew Syed may scoff at the odds, but Sir Steve Redgrave, Kip Keino, the Williams sisters, Dame Kelly Holmes, Amir Khan or dozens of Cuban boxers wouldn’t agree.

As a global movement, the Olympics makes a pretty good fist of being equitable — it’s hard to compare like with like, but what chance a poor country winning the football World Cup? Whatever global yardstick you use there is simply no getting round the fact that the richer countries will grab more.

There are certainly some sports in the programme that are more universal than others. But if universality is king, what, save track and field, would make the Syed Games? Reducing the medal allocation for rowing, sailing and equestrianism may free up space and precious metals for other events, but with what do you take up the space? If kabbadi is the best option it is a laughable one (besides which, the Chinese would immediately unveil a kabbadi squad of 300 professionals and win the thing).

As underrepresented as table tennis may be in terms of medal numbers, how do you increase it? Once singles, doubles and mixed have been decided, what then, a gold medal for round-the-table? The reality is that there are no unrepresented sports in the schedule that are easily accessible to poor countries and to criticise the sports that are in based on expense is harsh. The Games are as close to a global sporting celebration as you can get.

What is show-stopping in this country (a rowing race at one in the morning, anyone?) passes without mention in another. What gets a nod on the Olympic coverage here — Greco-Roman wrestling, handball, taekwondo — gets another nation to rush back from work to sit on the sofa all night.

Where for us rowing is considered an elite sport for public schoolboys, is the same true of Germany, Brazil or China? No, it’s not. Does the funding for the sport in those countries base itself on its history and heritage or its medal chances? If we start cutting back on sports because we feel not enough people take part, then those gold medals are simply going to be won by other nations not bothered by the demise of the Britain equestrianism, sailing or rowing team.

Britain will slip back down the medals table and no doubt run into a barrage of press criticism about why we can’t win anything any more. We’ve been there within living memory — Atlanta 1996 — and we don’t want to go back.

I’m all for considering sports to be included that are going to spread the medals farther, but these are issues that the IOC struggles with all the time. Indeed it applies regular pressure to almost all of the international federations to increase the numbers of participant countries and produce league tables measuring popularity, tables that athletics and swimming always top.

Baseball and softball were voted out of the programme for London 2012 — proof that there is real concern about not making the Games more regional. As part of that process all sorts of sports were considered for inclusion and none were voted in. As far as I know, no one put forward kabbadi.

But alongside the pressure, the IOC provides a solution — it ploughs millions of sponsor dollars into scholarships so that talented individuals deprived of any kind of sporting structure can get the most from their skills.

The IOC, of course, faces an uphill struggle. The Games operate in a modern world where all sorts of things are not equal between countries. To single out the Olympics for continuing or accentuating the gap is more than a little harsh.

The solution for us is not to start feeling guilty about the medals we are winning. If we don’t fight just as hard for the carrot being thrown in our direction, then another bigger, feistier animal will eat it first.

SCHOOL STANDS A CLASS APART

LOW-INCOME COUNTRIES
(as defined by the World Bank)

Population: 2.4 billion
Annual income per person: £309
Number of medals in rowing, sailing and equestrianism in past two Olympics: 0
Surface area: 29.3 million km2
Number of times hosted Olympic Games: 0

ETON COLLEGE
Population
: 1,300 boys
Annual school fee per person: £24,990 (plus optional extras)
Number of medals in rowing, sailing and equestrianism in past two Olympics: 5
Surface area: 1.6km2
Number of times hosted Olympic Games: Will host rowing and flat-water canoeing in 2012

PRICE OF ACHIEVEMENT

Squash
Racket (as used by Peter Nicol, former world number one): £150
Specialist shoes and clothing
: £125
Competing on global circuit
(transportation of player and racket): £5,000 per year
Total: £5,275

Sailing Yngling
Yngling Keelboat (as used by the England team, sponsored by Mirabaud): £50,000
Specialist Clothing
(top of range design to help with streamlining and waterproofing): £500
Competing on the global circuit
(transportation of the boat to training venues, etc): £25,000 per year
Total: £75,500