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Sports Think Tank - Olympic success – to what end?

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Olympic success – to what end?

Posted: Thu, 12 Jul 2012 10:57

Olympic success – to what end?

UK Sport announced their Olympic medal targets last week, with their stated ambition being to secure 48 medals, in at least 12 different sports. UK Sport's confidential 'tracker boards', the source of much pride, are showing high levels of green (a good thing!) which is leading some to question whether a top four finish in the medal table with 48 medals is ambitious enough given that Team GB came back from Beijing placed fourth in the medal table with 47 medals.

But the questions that need answering should be a) at what price do these medals come and b) why should this be considered a justifiable investment? The short answer to the first question is £264,143,753. This is how much UK Sport's own website says has been invested during the four years in the run up to the London 2012 Olympic Games.

A third of this funding has come from the private sector but that still leaves close to £200 million that has come from the public purse. And when taking the private and public sector contributions together, the final calculation says that some £5.5 million has been spent on each Olympic medal which is won, should UK Sport achieve their target of 48 medals.

But, dear reader, to what end?

This question does not aim to criticise the body making these investments in any way. UK Sport's job is to deliver Olympic success and it has done a fantastic job in ensuring that this British team is as well prepared and as well-equipped as any team that has ever gone to the Olympics. The 'no compromise' policy which UK Sport has introduced, and the structures which have been put in place under Peter Keen, the former Performance Director, are the envy of the world.

But there is a legitimate question which needs to be answered about why this money is being spent in the first place. Just why are hundreds of millions of pounds, that could be spent on schools, hospitals, social care and all manner of other things, being spent on trying to secure a bronze medal in a sport which the British public often won't have the slightest interest in? This is money that could be spent of furthering participation, targeted directly at grassroots and school sport. Furthermore, why are we funding sports with no medal prospects whatsoever this summer? Why is more than £6 million being spent on synchronised swimming and handball when this country has no track record of success in either sport and neither is targeted with achieving a medal at London 2012?

There are plenty of potential answers to the key question here but it is far from clear that the answer has ever been properly articulated by successive Governments. Given the massive increases in funding over the last 12 years, one might hope to have seen some sort of theory expounded.

No one will be cheering Team GB (or Team UK as it should properly be termed) louder than me come the Olympic / Paralympic Games, and I will take delight in every one of the 64 medals we win (now there's a realistic target) but I would dearly like someone to tell me why we have spent all this money on trying to win these medals.

Is this about inspiring British youth to take up sport? Are we trying to improve our national standing and our international prestige? Is this meant to improve public happiness? Or is this just a cunning plan designed to get more gold into the UK, to make up for all those reserves that Gordon Brown sold at record low prices?

Each of those – almost – can have a case made for it as a means of justification. But in the absence of such a case being made, and without our being able to judge this investment on those terms, this level of spending looks somewhat profligate.

Nick King, Co-Director of the Sports Think Tank

Tags: Olympics, legacy, UK Sport, London 2012

Comments (4)

1. Andy Reed said on Fri, 13 Jul 2012 11:39:

Good challenging post. I personally see a role for the nation to invest in elite sport - but it has to be for a clear public policy purpose and not just because every other nation does it and feels right. I hope it generates debate at a national policy level. Of course it is much harder now to 'cut' funding to our elite athletes post Olympics. The question about which NGBs and athletes get support also needs a public debate.

2. Richard Bolam said on Fri, 13 Jul 2012 21:33:

Yes, it will be difficult to cut funding to the elite but with diminishing funding (as the consensus seems to be) it will result in even less for the grassroots. Without a thriving grassroots there will be fewer elite. In some sports the pyramid is already very narrowly based with long spikes at the top.
As an extension to the debate, some believe that the 'elite' are those in the running of the NGBs; they appear to get an over large share of the funding. And the only ones who can affect this are not the grassroots but the politicians or their appointees. Unless the NGBs are abandoned by the grassroots. How likely is that?

3. Alex said on Tue, 17 Jul 2012 20:23:

Good post - my view simply that a nation has an identity beyond simple GDP figures, it has a duty to invest in its cultural identity, of which sport is probably a part. I don't think you can simply stop funding some sports because we traditionally don't do well or because they aren't mainstream, that is already recognised in the differing budgets for different sports. I fear what will happen post olympics to sport budgets, not just from government, but from sponsors who will have seen the Olympics as a natural end point to their funding...that loss of money from the private sector will be quite painful to many athletes. This year - in terms of funding - is probably as good as it will get.

4. Ed Jones said on Fri, 20 Jul 2012 12:48:

Interesting. Fair points well made Nick. It would be interesting to do a proper cost-benefit analysis of the medal hall afterwards. Presumably there’ll be some we win with comparatively little investment. But will those also be the ones with comparatively little return (ie, in events that people don’t care much about that wont inspire participation or national prestige etc).

If you cant measure it, it doesn’t matter – as the saying goes. How do you (and should you) measure the ROI in sport at the elite end? Clearly anything we spend public money on should have a measurable return/public benefit.

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