Great Britain’s Olympic investment pays off, but at what cost?

Britain's Mo Farah celebrates winning the men's 5000-meter during athletics competitions on Aug. 20. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)

That’s it for four years, sports-loving people.

Like almost all great sporting endeavors, the Rio Olympics ended with passions stirred by success rewarded respectfully and disappointment accepted civilly; at least, that’s the aspiration. To the armchair athlete, it’s been an uneasy mixture of thrill and discontent.


Certain achievements defy easy description, notably U.S. swimming phenom Michael Phelps’s amazing, career-ending haul of medals. Immediately before the games, the doping scandals affecting the Russian team threatened to undermine the whole affair. And for us Brits, finishing second at the medals table (on gold medals, third overall) has been an astonishing feat, a triumph even above the performance at our own 2012 London Games, and this at a time when the country has been rattled politically and is looking ahead uncertainly.

For Brits, on any measure this has been a remarkable achievement. It used to be said that the kiss of death for any sportsperson from these four nations was to be labelled the “British Hope”; a sure-fire guarantee of coming 87th in a field of 86. We would try to pretend to take pride in our gentlemanly under-achievement, taking refuge in some vaguely Corinthian slogan asserting that simply taking part was as honorable as winning.

In Rugby Union, one bit of lore that salutes this attitude recalls a British and Irish Lions team captain getting bested, if not splattered, by his South African Springbok opposite number. Frustrated by the lack of any on-the-field retaliation, an Irish member of the team complained about the captain’s impassiveness. “I wanted to make him feel a cad” was the Brit’s only explanation.

We’re a lot more ruthless now in matters sporting, no matter how un-British that may feel.

The unlikely hero of the changed attitude is the mild-mannered former Prime Minister John Major; he, who—on leaving Downing Street after his defeat by Tony Blair in 1997—headed straight to his beloved Kennington Oval cricket ground to spend a lazy sunny afternoon in London watching Surrey’s cricket match. It was Major who decided that something had to be done after looking upon the miserable return—one gold—of the British team at the Atlanta Games two decades ago.

The then recently-launched National Lottery became the source of new funding, now accounting for almost three-quarters (central government makes up the rest) of the backing for elite sports. Team Great Britain, preparing for Rio, got almost £350 million. Top coaches and the best facilities have been procured. Only those sports that looked likely to “medal” (a new verb) attracted funding. Only successful sports in 2012 had money thrown at them for 2016. It was a no-compromise approach, in other words, not so British.

The payoff might seem obvious as Team Great Britain stepped up to the medal table in every Olympics since the dreadful showing in Atlanta, but questions remain over whether these new Olympic heights filter down to the grassroots or encourage British kids to be fitter, healthier or more virtuous. Mass participation in athletics has declined since the London games, and local and school sporting facilities have lost funding.

Do some restored national pride and two weeks of TV entertainment justify the investment in Olympic glory? The cash lavished on these elite athletes certainly allowed them to achieve wonderful personal goals but arguably did no more than boost the morale of a sofa-bound country that might even be broken up by the time of the next Olympics.

The games were less successful in other important ways. Rio’s stadiums all too often looked half-empty. But it’s outside those theatres of athleticism that we really need to look. The U.K.-based relief and development agency, Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, has drawn attention to a “huge missed opportunity” to improve the lives of the country’s poorest. One reason for those empty seats was their cost; ticket prices were well beyond the vast majority of Rio’s citizens’ reach. Over 25 million Brazilians live in poverty, while funding to protect indigenous people, the most vulnerable to climate-change and illegal logging and mining extraction, fell by 33 percent during the Olympic build up.

In his monthly universal intention for August, Pope Francis invited everyone to reflect on how “sports may be an opportunity for friendly encounters between peoples.” Sports could be a manifestation of the best of humanity—sportswomen and men striving to make the best of their God-given talents. If the poor remain excluded, however, that hasn’t happened. And we must not forget that the second part of the quadrennial games begins now, the Paralympics, during which athletic achievement should rightly be even more lauded.

David Stewart, S.J., is America’s London correspondent.

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