I t feels a bit like a good Christmas dinner. It’s been an enjoyable family affair. The food and wine have been excellent. Yet there comes over you the nagging feeling that it’s all been a bit too much. You’re bloated. I’m talking of course about the Olympics, now all but over for another four years.
They’ve been tremendous, barely credible. Have we really won more gold medals than China, more than anyone except the USA? But why is this remarkable triumph tinged with something like nostalgia for the Games of Time Past when British gold medallists were so rare as to be unforgettable, when you could get all our medal winners into a taxi? Now the gold, silver and bronze boys and girls would fill a couple of charabancs, with the latecomers told it’s now “standing room only”.
Without in any way wanting to question, or detract from, the talent, hard work, commitment to long and arduous training, determination, sacrifices and character of our Olympians today, we all know what has made the difference. It’s money, and money skilfully directed to particular sports, those which seemed to offer the best chance of success. Many of the Olympians of the past who didn’t return with medals were themselves talented, hard-working determined etc. But what didn’t they have? They didn’t have the backing and organisation made possible by the flow of money into elite sport.
It’s first the National Lottery which has made this transformation possible. So thanks to Sir John Major whose idea it was. The journalist, Sir Simon Jenkins, was complaining this week that we had become like the Soviet Union: stuffing our geese (though this wasn’t just how he put it) with public money so that they might lay golden eggs. He was wrong of course in one particular. The Lottery isn’t public money. Public money is cash compulsorily extracted from us by Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs. The Lottery isn’t a tax. Lottery money is freely given by us in the hope that we may win a substantial prize. No matter: it is Lottery money directed to those sports where opportunities for British medal-winners are identified which has made our success in recent Games possible. This is rough on some sports and those who play them. There’s not much money for table tennis, for instance, but there has been loads of money for cycling, rowing and, more recently, gymnastics. And the medal count demonstrates that it’s money successfully invested and spent. Sir Steven Redgrave, who in a boat with Sir Matthew Pinsent, collected our only – yes, only – gold medals at Atlanta in 1996, declared the other day that we were now the top rowing nation in the world. The same may be said of cycling, a sport in which Chris Boardman won one of the six bronze medals Britain got in Atlanta.
Of course some of our winners in Rio owe nothing to the Lottery, or indeed Olympic money. Andy Murray and Justin Rose are stars of self-supporting fully professional sports, both quite recently re-introduced to the Olympics. There are still some who think they don’t belong there, and that the Olympics should be reserved for sports where a gold medal represents the summit of a career or ambition. There’s something in this argument which of course applies to some other sports too, football for example. It was advanced by some of the world’s leading golfers who chose not to go to Rio, ostensibly because of fears of the Zika virus which didn’t deter anyone for whom the Olympics really mattered.
I guess that Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth etc may be feeling some regret now. What is pretty clear is that once a sport has been included in the Olympics, taking part matters. I would guess that Murray prizes his second Olympic Gold as highly as anything he has won.
The Olympics remain a wonderful carnival of sport, and, yes, they do bring the world together and make for friendship between athletes and peoples, if not, alas, States. Of course there’s a dark side as there is in most human activities. There’s corruption, both financial and physiological: exemplified in Rio by that poor booby of an Irish official accused of trying to sell tickets allocated to him at a higher than market price, and by the State-sponsored doping of Russian athletes, and the Olympic movement’s readiness to allow cheats previously convicted of doping offences back into the Games.
But for most of us, worldwide, these Rio Games have been a joyous time. And if you want to end on a mean note, then step forward the Internal Revenue Service of the USA which taxes American athletes on the metal value of the gold, silver and bronze medals they have won. That’s something our own dear HMRC hasn’t yet cottoned on to, and might even be ashamed to attempt.