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True sport is about much more than counting medals PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 21 August 2008

Britain's Olympic winners are to be lauded. But the state should always put popular participation ahead of solo, elite efforts

Ed Smith

After a bumper crop of Olympic medals, Gordon Brown was quick to celebrate a "golden weekend for British sport". No doubt the prime minister has been living every moment of the games - perhaps swinging over to one side of the sofa as he tacks through choppy waters with our sailors, or kicking his legs under the desk with our cyclists - but not everyone has been won over by Team GB's triumphs.

As Matthew Syed, a double Olympian and distinguished sports writer, argues: "Success in rowing, sailing and track cycling can essentially be bought by siphoning off money from the public purse and handing it to the athletes who are then able to train like professionals ... Success in sport - like in the agricultural market - is easier when it receives huge state subsidies." So are these Olympics evidence of a healthy sporting culture in Britain, or the reverse?
To the win-at-all-costs lobby, sport is a glorified branch of the manufacturing industry. It is about how many units of victory we can produce, how many gleaming medals and trophies emerge at the end of the conveyor belt. The means of production matters less than the quality of the output. Sport, it is argued, is central to national self-esteem. This demands not only talent, hard work and organisation, but also serious cash. The success of the British cycling team, which benefits from huge government-sponsored investment in the latest technology, proves that the state can give sports a helping hand. Sport is too precious to be left alone by the state.
Panglossian nonsense, counter the critics. Nearly 60% of Britain's medallists at Athens in 2004 went to independent schools. Chasing cherry-picked Olympic dreams in which the winners are the privileged, cynics say, is a misappropriation of the public purse. After 11 years of New Labour, British sport seems less meritocratic than ever.
The Chinese Olympic team has been similarly criticised for ruthlessly targeting funds towards only those events where they have realistic medal chances. Where is the romance in sport, China has prompted people to ask, when sporting triumphs are predestined on the accounting spreadsheet?
At the root of this debate is an uncertainty about what sport is for. Is it simply about winning and national pride? Or is it far more complex, where the end result is only one part of what really matters?
Sport appeals to us at different psychological and social levels. Most obviously, sport is a drama in which we are fascinated by what will happen next, but we also relish the sense of tribal belonging and shared sociality.
Equally importantly, sport is a source of inspiration. Sometimes it is the story, not just the result, that we remember. And the stories we remember best are those that touch our sense of the human struggle - the underdog fighting the odds, the ageing master staving off physical decline, the battler who never gives up. Great sport taps into those timeless human narratives.
Sport is at its best when athletes inspire us by digging into their deepest reserves of physical and mental strength. By the end of this year's Federer v Nadal final at Wimbledon, the epic nature of the contest belittled the final result. They had both already won.
Just like the arts, we want sport to have a shape, a narrative we can believe in. That is why sport will never escape its moral and romantic dimension. Who had access to this playing field? Were others unfairly left behind? Are we really watching the best in terms of talent and temperament? Those questions provide the prequel to the story we are watching in the stadium.
But looking for heroism in every winner is as flawed as finding villains in every defeat. Let's not make out every medallist to be something improbably rare. They never asked us to.
The proof about whether these Olympics have witnessed a true British sporting renaissance will come later, as we watch whether there is any trickle-down effect. Elite sport should inspire new fans to play games themselves. Among the greatest legacies a sportsman can leave is to inspire people to take up and express themselves at sport.
The strongest (though rarely articulated) argument for playing sport is that competitive games, especially team sports, can work against a smallness of spirit. I believe that sport's elevating quality should be available to as many young people as possible.
Clearly, our Olympic medallists have shown great skill and nerve. But imagine how much greater still our success could be if more children had access to proper coaching and training facilities at the cutting edge of competitive sport.
That is the story Gordon Brown should follow up. But why would a Labour prime minister want to pay huge sums to fund team sports in state schools when he can associate himself with gold medals in sailing for next to nothing?

Ed Smith is the captain of the Middlesex county cricket team and author of What Sport Tells Us About Life

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