Australia’s cycling star, Anna Meares, said of Britain’s triumphant cyclists: “They’ve got it together … but, to be honest, I’m not exactly sure what they’ve got together.” The French and Germans were heard to murmur likewise. One interpretation could be that murky word “cheating”, although Meares strongly denied that she had ever suggested this. Given the recent history of the Olympics and the fierce pressure on British athletes, the accusation is pardonable. I doubt if it is true. What Britain “got together” was the money. Is that cheating?
I have intermittently enjoyed the Olympics on television. Mostly it is hours of flatulent BBC staff killing time by interviewing one another, interspersed with a few seconds of mostly baffling hysterics. Clare Balding appears in perpetual shriek: “Oh my God, I think our great British paint is drying faster than the Russian and the Colombian paint – but we must await a decision from the judges.”
Then on Tuesday night the BBC went bananas. At 10 o’clock we were denied important news – of Anjem Choudary’s conviction, of swingeing tax fines and of possible “special status” for Britain outside the EU. Instead we had to sit for an hour and a half, waiting for three minutes of BBC pandemonium as British cyclists yet again pedalled fast. We had to watch while the BBC aired pictures of its own commentary box punching the air and howling. These were not so much journalists as state cheerleaders. I was touched, like everyone, by the Jason Kenny/Laura Trott “golden love bond”, but how many times did I need to see them in tears? It was a total collapse of news values, the corporation peddling tabloid chauvinist schlock.
Throughout the cold war, Soviet bloc nations used sport as a proxy for economic success. With the connivance of the International Olympic Committee, they turned what used to be an amateur sport into the equivalent of a national defence force, hurling money and status at their athletes while the IOC turned the Games into a lavish field of the cloth of gold – at some poor taxpayer’s expense.
The west used to ridicule the communists for this. Their athletes were derided as state employees, civil servants and cheats. Of course many took drugs. Winning was what mattered to the Soviets, the state media being monopolised to convince their people that their “system” was better.
Since Atlanta in 1996, Britain has followed suit. The poor performance of British athletes was considered by John Major as a comment on his government. He demanded medals, and lots of them. The subsidy to “elite” sport was increased tenfold, from £5m to £54m, while popular sports facilities were closing. Money was directed specifically at disciplines where individuals could win multiple medals rather than just one, away from field athletics to cycling and gymnastics. It worked. The medals tally at Sydney 2000 rose from 15 to 28.
A UK Sport graph tracks the precise link between government grant (dressed up as lottery money) and Olympic medals. By 2012, this had risen to £264m, delivering 65 medals (just over £4m a medal). For Rio it has been £350m for the Olympics and Paralympics, with the target that Britain become “the first host nation to eclipse our London 2012 medal haul”.
Team GB's Olympics success shows UK can thrive outside EU, say Brexiters
No surprise, it is working. The best coaches were hired. Talent was ruthlessly selected and nurtured. Money was lavished on research, equipment, clothing and peak performance timing. The French and Germans noted that the British are doing far better in Rio than at recent world championships. Here clearly is one field in which British state investment knows how to pick winners.
Iain Dyer, Britain’s star cycling coach, talks like a Formula One boss. “We peaked in our research and innovation. The helmets were the 2012 ones, but the bikes are new, and different components and strategies are used for the first time.” Aerodynamic suits with magic chevrons are everywhere.
Rod Carr of UK Sport is equally open. He relates how the mix of penalties and incentives since Sydney led, in the case of gymnastics and swimming, to each sport thinking afresh and coming back with an investable proposition.
Athletes are unique among public servants in enjoying a hypothecated tax to give themselves up to £28,000 a year “to concentrate on training”. Poor countries can eat their hearts out.
I am thrilled by personal success, by Mo Farah’s 10,000m, Charlotte Dujardin’s horsemanship, Wayde van Niekerk’s 400m and Simone Biles’ mesmerising gymnastics. They are a joy to watch. But I do not mind their nationality. The nationalisation of sport – the hamfisted draping in the union jack after breasting the tape – so clearly diminishes the individual achievement. Ever since its introduction by Hitler at the 1936 Olympics, such chauvinism has infused democratic as well as authoritarian regimes. Olympic Games are like wars, foreign adventures offering regimes a salve to domestic woes. Athletes are recruited to the flag like soldiers. They are declared “heroes” and showered with honours.
For years, the Olympics were corrupted by shamateurism and drugs. The IOC, with British representatives present, knew perfectly well what was happening, but turned a blind eye. The most honest gold medal of recent years should have gone to the British media, alone in relentlessly revealing corruption and cheating in international sport. Yet it was accused by Britain’s Lord Coe of “a declaration of war on my sport”. When this was seen to be rubbish, he did not resign. He was declared an expert on sports ethics and appointed to the IOC. The Russians who blew the whistle on athletics doping are now forced to hide for their lives somewhere in America. These are the realities that should sit alongside the “heroism” of today’s games.
None of this explains the BBC, which has brought Rio close to a British National party awayday. The Chinese had it right. They used to dedicate their medals to the Chinese Communist party and people, who after all had paid for them. As for the accusations against Britain’s cyclists, the response is simple. Who needs to cheat with drugs when medals go to money? Perhaps the best answer is for countries that have no money to be allowed drugs, to level the playing field. They are cheaper.