Thursday, March 09, 2006

2012: A Cash Oddity

As sharp-eyed readers will have observed below, a small-scale row has broken out over reports that the government has earmarked £770m of taxpayers money to ensure Great Britain finishes fourth in the 2012 London Olympics medal table.

Now fourth may not seem a good target - after all it's traditionally the worst place to finish in Olympic events, as it's just outside the medals - but no amount of money will get us near the United States, nor for that matter Russia or China (the latter of which should be even stronger after hosting the games in Beijing in 2008). And considering the 2004 Athens Olympics saw one of Britain's best performances at a summer games - and we came
tenth - a fourth place in 2012 would require a massive jump in our medal haul. And to do that, we need to throw money behind our athletes - now.

But organisations like the
Taxpayers Alliance claim that, to finish fourth it's likely Team GB would need to win 60 medals - meaning the investment would work out at £13m a medal. And when you look at it like that, the figures don't seem to add up.

But those for whom sport is a passion will tell you that any money ploughed into facilities and young athletes ahead of the 2012 games will leave a ripple effect for years to come. Let's say, for example, that the country's archery or trap shooting facilities are redeveloped with that money, enabling a handful of talented archers and shooters to develop into world class athletes, who go on to win medals in London. Those facilities will then be around for future generations to take advantage of, and the same archers and shooters who claimed medals in 2012 may well go on to match or better their achievements four, or even eight, years on. The same could be said for track and field athletes, cyclists, etc, etc, meaning that the cash-to-medal ratio drops down to around £4m a medal. Not ideal, obviously, but a far better investment than it seems on face value.

Guardian columnist
Simon Jenkins argues that "an obsession with sporting excellence (as with military prowess) is a feature of authoritarian regimes. Public money is blown so the leader can bask for a couple of weeks in a handsome stadium and thrill as burnished bodies, muscles rippling, bring to his feet literally piles of gold."

But Jenkins forgets the human side of sport - the athletes themselves. The obsession with sporting excellence comes first and foremost from within budding young sports boys and girls, who dream of one day emulating their heroes. But when, for example, the British swimmers who competed in the total shambles that was the 1996 Atlanta Olympics had to sell their swimming gear just to afford to get home, it's clear that some areas of British sport - which, whether Jenkins likes it or not is just as much a fabric of everyday life as education or the health service - suffers from
chronic underinvestment. And, even though the government denies they've even set a target for the 2012 games, any money that gets pumped into the system ahead of the 2012 games, or through the Talented Athlete Scolarship Scheme (TASS) has to be money well spent - particularly if it leads to plenty of gold, silver and bronze medals being won by British athletes on home soil.


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