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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(as defined by the World Bank)
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
Population: 1,300 boys
Annual school fee per person: £24,990 (plus
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
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
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