After the Olympics: British sport?
by John Humphrys in Commentary and Editor's picks
Mon August 13, 3:02 p.m. BST
As the country basks in the arguably unexpected afterglow of the nation's Olympic success, John Humphrys asks, what future for British sport?
It wasn’t supposed to be like this. The traditional way of doing things is for British sportsmen and women to try valiantly but fail and then for the rest of us tetchily to ask what’s wrong with British sport. You can almost imagine Danny Boyle pondering whether to make fun of the stereotype in his much-praised pageant of British life that launched the London Olympics.
But that’s not how it’s been at all. Team GB has had its best Olympic Games since 1908; it’s won more gold medals than anyone ever imagined; British sportswomen have shown they’re just as good as the men; and GB has ended up an unimaginable third place in the ranking of nations. So much for Germany, Australia and the rest.
So what’s gone right? And what can be done to maintain the momentum behind British sport and British sporting achievement that the country’s success at London 2012 has created?
The first and probably most important thing to say is that it’s the sheer hard work, dedication and raw ability of those who culled so many medals that must be celebrated as the cause of the success. All those years of slog have paid off.
But it’s also the case that the country has invested in its athletic superstars as never before.
Some of the money has come from lottery-funding. Indeed when John Major’s government set up the National Lottery in the 1990s, one of the then-Prime Minister’s main aims was to generate more cash for spending on sport. (Twenty years later it’s even won him a laudatory leader in The Guardian which he no doubt wryly enjoys as a first.) In the run-up to 2012, a four-year funding programme costing £235m was spent to ensure that the elite of British sport would stand a chance of delivering glory for the host nation.
Some people will say that elite sportsmanship of this sort is all very well but it only really amounts to providing the nation with something to brag about, while what really matters is making sure that down at the grassroots there is opportunity for anyone who wants to (and especially the young) to play the sport they love and make us all, in the process, a healthier nation.
But Lord Coe, the chairman of the London Organising Committee, Locog, and himself, of course, a gold-winning Olympic athlete, says the two things shouldn’t be regarded as so distinct. "The greatest driver in participation is what goes on in an elite stadium. When you get that spike [of interest], you have to create that supply of infrastructure, both human and physical, that allows you to absorb that."
In other words, the enormous public enthusiasm witnessed at all the main Olympic venues and in the following the games has had in the media, will evaporate unless we find ways to turn it into something solid and lasting. Over the weekend the Prime Minister promised that this elite-funding would be maintained, at least up to the Rio Games in 2016.
As ever in such matters, though, there is disagreement about what harnessing this great wave of enthusiasm actually means. One side thinks it must be exploited simply to get more money out of the Government (and in this they have already succeeded – the Rio promise commits money beyond a date the Treasury like to promise anything). The other thinks Olympic mania must be used to change our culture.
Those making the cultural point argue that it’s the spirit of competitiveness that needs to be fostered on the back of Olympic success.
In the past, they argue, we have been too unwilling to recognise the value of competitiveness. David Cameron himself seems to think this. He said last week: "We need a big cultural change, a cultural change in favour of competitive sports. That’s what I think really matters. The problem has been too many schools not willing to have competitive sport and some teachers not willing to join and play their part."
This point of view was endorsed by those who pointed out that at the last Olympics, in Beijing, half of Britain’s medal winners were from public schools. The implication was that state schools have a prejudice against competitiveness.
But this view has been strongly challenged. Opponents of this line of thinking say that it’s a red herring and a very old one at that. The Thatcher government in the 1980s thought the same thing, held an inquiry and discovered there was no truth in it. Furthermore, the facts of the London Games don’t bear it out.
The likes of Bradley Wiggins, Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford, Mo Farah and many more simply disprove the point.
What really gets up the nose of those who think that David Cameron has got it completely wrong is that his Government axed a scheme intended in part to promote competitive sport in state schools.
Back in 2010 as part of the Government’s search for savings in order to cut the deficit, his education secretary, Michael Gove, stopped Labour’s £162m-a-year School Sports Partnership scheme, which financed inter-school competitions, made it possible to introduce new sports into the school games curriculum and increased the proportion of school pupils getting into a sweat for at least two hours a week – up from 25% in 2002 to 86% in 2009. In other words, they say, the Government has been short-sighted in cutting funding for the very thing it now says it wants to promote.
Defenders of the Government say that’s all very well, but at a time when everyone agrees that spending has to be cut because of the need to reduce the deficit, such savings cannot be avoided. Even a former Labour MP wrote to the papers last week to say that the last Labour government had "wasted over £1bn trying to impose a sports system on our secondary schools which largely failed". He said independent sports clubs were doing a perfectly good job anyway.
What worries many is the effect of spending cuts on sport in primary schools. Dame Kelly Holmes, a double Olympic gold medal winner at the Athens games in 2004, and now a government adviser on school sports, says that primary schools need designated PE teachers. Many at the moment have none. The Prime Minister is poised to make an announcement on this too, such is the pressure Olympic success has now put him under.
Perhaps more controversially is the Government’s abandonment of Labour’s ‘target’ that all schoolchildren should have two hours physical education a week. The Government claims it still wants schools to provide this but creating a target just makes for unnecessary paperwork and promotes a culture of box-ticking, it says.
Having axed the school sports survey too, though, it has no way of knowing whether or not this is happening, its critics argue. Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has waded into the row by saying he favours two hours PE or sport a day (never mind a week), just like he had imposed on him at Eton.
What’s clear is that after the undoubted success of London 2012 and of team GB as contestants at it, the future of sport has become a hot political potato. All politicians will want to claim they have the right policy not only to maintain the success of our elite sportsmen and women but also to make our children healthier through better sport in schools. And most of all they’ll have an eye on the voters, the couch-potatoes who have cheered on our Olympians from the side.
What’s your view?
- Did you enjoy the London Olympics and do you think they were worth the £9bn we spent on them?
- Were you surprised by the success of Team GB?
- What do you think was the cause?
- Do you think it’s right to spend money on elite sports or do you think we shouldn’t be so keen just to win more medals than other countries?
- Do you think there has been an anti-competitive culture in state schools or not?
- Was the Government right or not to axe Labour’s School Sports Partnership?
- How much time do you think schools should devote per week to games and PE?
- Should more be done to promote PE in primary schools?
- Do you think taxes should be raised, if necessary, to provide more money for sport?
- And what single thing would you advocate to promote sport in Britain?