The newspapers are full of praise for the athletes from the UK who took part in the Rio Olympics, and rightly so. The performance of many of them was outstanding and deserving of the praise being heaped on the individuals concerned. However, whilst assessing the success of individual athletes is comparatively straightforward, assessing the overall performance of countries is rather less so.
The Western Mail highlighted one aspect of that in this article on Saturday, pointing out that, on the basis of the population of Wales, the nation performed very well indeed, coming in second overall on the basis of medals per head. It would not give an independent Wales a very high ranking in the official medal table, of course, but that merely highlights that countries with larger populations are likely to do better, overall, than countries with smaller population. Having a lower position in the medal table takes away nothing from the successes of any of the individuals concerned.
But it is clear that, for some, the overall ranking is the more important measure. On that basis, I saw another alternative table last week. This one shows how, if the EU had competed as a single team, it would have overwhelmed all the other competing terms, finishing miles ahead of anyone else. Again, calculating the rankings in this way takes away nothing from the successes of any of the individuals.
Reactions to both of the alternative tables have varied, inevitably, but what they demonstrate is that most people start out with a view about what is the ‘right’ basis for competing, and it seems unlikely that that preference is based solely on a desire to be seen as one of the worlds’s sporting superpowers. There are more political factors at work here.
And that brings me to another point. One alternative table that I’ve not yet seen (and I don’t know how easy it would be to produce) is a ranking based on the amount spent to win each medal. If one were to be produced, I suspect that the UK would be quite a long way down in terms of value for money, with the team having a very high cost per medal. There is clear evidence that targeted spending can and does produce results in terms of medals, if that’s what’s important.
At one level, that may not matter. Any state is perfectly free to decide how much to invest in its sportsmen and women, and to set a target for how many Olympic medals it wishes to win as a result. That’s more or less what John Major’s government did some years ago, and over time that focus has produced more medals. It’s rather less clear, though, that it’s increased participation in sport; indeed, there is plenty of evidence that participation may be falling as facilities are closed or reduced in the light of spending cuts elsewhere. Increasingly we have a well-funded elite and a poorly funded remainder, as a result of a deliberate act of government policy (and by successive governments of both colours).It leads me to wonder whether the objective is more to do with ‘bread and circuses’ than any real concern for sporting prowess and performance.