Members of Team GB pose for pictures as they arrive back home. Photo: Steve Parsons / PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved. Team GB’s second place in the Rio medals table is nothing less than staggering. It is only 20 years ago that the squad returned with a solitary gold from Atlanta ’96 clinging on to 36th in the table. This sporting nation is now ranked alongside the Olympian superpowers of USA and China. If it hadn’t been for the partial International Olympic Committee ban on their competitors, Russia would have been in the mix too, but this still remains a remarkable Team GB medal haul.
Unlike the football World Cup, the Olympics medal table is by and large an indicator of global economic and political power. When it comes to the Olympics, the more you have to plough into sport facilities and training for promising young athletes, the better you’re likely to do. Conversely, the superpower nations of USA, China and Russia have not come close to claiming a single men’s Football World Cup title between them. The Olympics is a different story. So how has Great Britain, not a superpower in the same league, ended up on top of the olympic pile?
20 years ago, as well as Atlanta '96, there was also Euro '96. This England's last semi-final appearance at a tournament. Scotland went out at the group stage, and apart from in France '98, have failed to qualify since. Wales and Northern Ireland each had magnificent campaigns this summer, but apart from that their records have been pretty dismal. For a sport that (despite all the evidence) we still like to think we dominate, the contrast with Team GB's recovery over those same two decades is startling.
The reasons are not so much to do with a can-do ethic of ‘further, faster, higher’, than a victory of social democracy in a climate of neoliberalism. Yes, that’s right. Via the Lottery, all the most successful Team GB olympic sports are state –subsidised. A huge investment, £350 million over the olympic cycle, or around £5.5 million per gold medal won. But the values of social democracy that pervade this sporting success go further. The funding is subject to democratic rigours of collective regulation and accountability. The Olympic Sports Committee, a public body, controls the regime their athletes train and compete under with a relentless pursuit of olympic success as the pinnacle of all achievement, if necessary at the cost of other competitions and honours.
The total opposite of this is of course English football. Here neoliberalism rules. Far more money is splashed about. £350 million? That wouldn’t be far off just one Premier League club’s transfer and wages budget for a single season. And for what? The “best league in the world” is going backwards in terms of mounting a serious challenge to win the Champions’ League. And as the recent Euro 2016 Final proved the finest players in Europe, and this was also true of the World Cup 2014 Final too, the world as well, by and large play outside of England too. In classic neoliberal fashion the ‘richest league’ in the world has been wilfully mistranslated into the ‘best league’ in the world.
But the biggest marker of this failure, of course, is the England football team. All the riches in the world and they cannot get past Iceland. They could not even get out of their group at World Cup 2014. The sport’s governing body, the FA, has engineered the total deregulation of their own sport. Every club out for their own end. It’s an unremitting patern of private money chasing individual gain, with no collective endeavour, zero accountability, and hands-off governance. The result is a catalogue of failure.
No olympic sport would permit such an abdication of responsibility. Thus the big result from Rio can’t simply be measured in the mountain of gold, silver and bronze medals, but in Team GB’s social democratic values beating the free market failure of English football hands down.
However the social-democratisation of Team GB is flawed in one crucial respect. The £350 million bill has given those that enjoy their sport from the sofa a glorious two-and-a-bit weeks. A quadrennial celebration of sport few will forget in a hurry. But while there will be a spike of interest in doing some of these sports, without the infrastructure and funding to meet the largesse splashed out on the elite levels of sporting prowess, these effects will be short-lived. This isn’t to diminish the achievements of the gold medallists. But we need a political conversation – this is about political choices – that makes the connection between the success of a social democratic sports culture for some with one that is available to all. We need to recognise that while TV viewing figures soar, the front page celebrations of olympic success become a daily occurrence, and the gold medal feelgood factor hits the heights, none of this is enough to sustain a fundamental change in sporting culture. Team GB has helped prove what an impact public expenditure combined with regulation can have when pursuing a collective end. And precious few complain; we wallow in the athletes’ successes as if they were our own. Because in a way, they are.
But this race towards a thriving sports culture won’t truly be won until olympic-level resources are mobilised towards creating a sports and leisure culture that serves sport for all, and not just for some. If public expenditure is can be used to fund winning gold medals then it can be used to fund the return of school playing fields, build public swimming pools, construct jogging and exercise trails too.