Wednesday 15 August 2012

Bigger and Browner

In his speech at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Gordon Brown appears to have managed to state the obvious without understanding the obvious conclusion to be drawn.  Referring to the successes of the UK’s team in the Olympic Games, he said:
“And the Olympics is pretty clear to us that, by the pooling of resources in, say, cycling, we managed to do what if you just divided the money and put a 10th to Scotland and a 10th to Yorkshire and so on you could not have achieved the same results.”
He also said:
"When we pool and share resources for the common good, it's often the case that the benefit is far greater than would have occurred if we'd just summed up and added up the parts.”
It’s impossible to argue with his logic, which basically amounts to saying that bigger countries can have access to a wider pool of talent and can choose to concentrate resources rather than spread them more thinly.  What it doesn’t say - but certainly implies – is that what happens to the parts isn’t important, only the overall total.
It’s basically the same as the economic policy followed by his Government – concentrate resources in the South East in ways which improve the overall average even if those on the periphery lose out, and call it success.
He’s not following it through to its natural conclusion though.  Just think about the pool of talent and the resources available if the EU were to combine and send a single team to the Olympics.  If you just want to measure ‘success’ in terms of a ranking in the medals tables, then bigger is almost always going to be better, isn’t it?
The reason that doesn’t occur to him is that he is, however rational and logical his position might appear to be, starting from a prejudiced view about what the ‘right’ unit is.
Oh, and by the way, why the ‘Edinburgh Book Festival’?  Wouldn’t it be a bigger and better event, able to call on more talent and ability, if it were renamed and held somewhere else?  Like London, perhaps…


Pete said...

We have a publication here in Los Angeles "The British Weekly" One of the contributors gleefully, as in the past, loves to point out that the British Commonwealth wins more medals than America. Great fun of course and it's true that the larger the pool the more individual successes there will be.
How Gordon Brown could twist that into an argument for the status quo in the UK is beyond me. Regardless of political differences I had more respect for his intelligence than that.

Alwyn ap Huw said...

That bigger countries can have access to a wider pool of talent may sound logical but it doesn't always work out in practice. In 1988 East Germany won 102 medals including 37 golds and West Germany had 40 medals with 11 golds (a total of 142/ 48). This year the united Germany got 44 medals 11 of which were gold.

Anonymous said...

That's true Alwyn, although the East Germans did have two advantages - talent spotting and elite coaching that were decades ahead of other countries, combined with a pretty systematic approach to doping!

The biggest challenge the Olympics posed to the SNP was not the statistical success of Team GB, but the fact that medal-winners like Andy Murray and Chris Hoy were happy to drape themselves in the union flag, and play alongside other Brtitish athletes in successful teams. This was a pretty clear demonstration of high-achieving Scots comfortable with multiple identities and loyalties.

Alwyn ap Huw said...

Yes, Annon, East, West and United Germany's Olympic success rates have / had nothing to do with separatism / union, it was all to do with different political attitudes. The East felt that there was capital to be made from proving that it was bigger, stronger, higher than its western neighbour and took a political decision to prove that was so and over invested in sport, to the detriment of other services.

What worries me about Gordon Brown's comment is that it stinks of an East German attitude – that its medal numbers that count towards a nation's status, rather than the more English trait of playing along and playing the game!

I would hope that an independent Scotland and Wales would follow the English role.

Unfortunately Team GB 2012 has been very un-English – it has been almost Soviet in it's pursuit of Gold Medals!

I hope that this is just s a "home game blip" – if not the all Welsh, Scottish, Cornish, Manx, English - British athletes should despair!

Anonymous said...

Sport has always had tremendous political symbolism, and it's not just totalitarian states that have invested heavily it in.

The Australians famously created their well-funded institute of sport after doing badly in the Montreal Olympics; Japan has recently spent billions of yen on a national training centre; apparently even the Germans are now reopening some of the former GDR's athletic infrastructure.

Team GB's improved performance goes back to the aftermath of the Atlanta Olympics of 1996 - where they only won a single gold medal - and the Government's subsequent decision to make National Lottery funding available to elite sport.

From an athlete's point of view, presumably all this investment is a good thing. If you've got serious ambition to win medals, you'll want the very best coaching and training facilities. According to Steve Cram, this was the kind of thing that transformed Mo Farah's prospects after Beijing.