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The Olympics: Celebrating Success or Jingoism? – Stuck in Draft #2

I wrote this over a year ago, and never quite got around to publishing it. Hence it now forms part of my Stuck in Draft series.

And so another Olympics have concluded and from where I sit it has been a success.

Let me clarify that a little. Team GB has undoubtedly been successful. But there’s a much wider context when you look at the Olympics.

These include:

  • The cost to the host nation of holding the Olympics
  • The IOC
  • The wider geo-politics of the Olympics (e.g. Russia’s participation)
  • The commercialism
  • The zika virus
  • A green diving pool
  • Competing nations’ reactions

And there are many more besides.

It’s clear that hosting the Olympics is just ridiculously expensive, and it will be interesting to see what happens in upcoming Olympic cycles. Brazil probably thought it could afford the Olympics when they won in 2006, but ten years on, and the world economy had changed not least in Brazil itself.

So while state employees weren’t being paid, and poverty is endemic, millions are being spent, perhaps unnecessarily. Winning both the World Cup and Olympics in a short space of time seems one too many global sports events at the same time.

Beyond that we’ve had the spectre of empty seats in nearly every arena. We know that tickets are vastly expensive for the local population, but surely filling those seats should be a massive priority for any organising committee? Give the tickets away if need be. Surely you make some money back on over-priced snack concessions.

It’s somehow hilarious that Irish IOC member, Patrick Hickey, was arrested for ticket-touting when from several thousand miles away it seemed that availability of tickets really wasn’t a problem (with the exception of the Maracaña for the men’s football final).

And with a reported 12% of Paralympic ticket sales sold so far, there’ll be even more blue empty seats next time around. Recall that Brazil sent the fourth largest team to London in 2012 and were 7th on the medal table. Those would suggest that it’s taken seriously.

The IOC have shown themselves to be essentially unreformed. They couldn’t take decisive action against state doping carried out by Russia, leaving it to the Paralympic Committee to show who had some balls. Sadly the Paralympics are suffering a dire shortage of cash. The IOC is rolling it, but don’t expect any bailouts. “Nothing to do with us squire…”

And they treated the whistleblower of state-sponsored Russian doping, Yuliya Stepanova, with distain. Already in hiding in the US, and not allowed to compete at these games (plenty of other ex-dopers did compete), the president of the IOC, Thomas Bach actually said the following: “We are not responsible for dangers to which Ms. Stepanova may be exposed.”

So to the average Brazilian, the Olympics may or may not have been a sideshow – at least until they won the men’s football final with a Neymar penalty, or the men’s volleyball final. But that doesn’t automatically make the Olympics per se a bad thing.

The British team has done superbly, exceeding the medal total for 2012 – something that’s never previously been achieved after a home Olympics.

They finished second in the medals table (the table being unofficial, and weighted towards gold medals), notably ahead of China.

There are two key reasons for these things: lottery money and China under-performing.

Lottery money is significant. At £4m a medal, there seems to be a fairly direct correlation between Olympic success and the amount a nation invests. In the UK this is funded by state lottery run by a for-profit organisation, Camelot. Most know that when they buy a lottery ticket, they know that some of their cash goes to these athletes and their programmes.

Indeed 25% of lottery money goes to “lottery projects” of which sport gets 20% – so about 10p of every £2 ticket.

And of course, we know that the money is targeted at sports who achieve returns on investment: cycling, rowing, yachting and gymnastics for example. Medals are targeted at almost all costs. In the track cycling, many wondered why the GB team had done poorly at the World Championships in London earlier this year, but so well in Rio. The fact was that even though the World Championships were on home turf, the team had focused on peaking their performances in Rio. If that meant under-performing before then, then so be it. Funding is dependent on Olympic success and no other!

Is that the right way of doing things? Probably not. If GB is unlikely to win medals in your sport no matter what (e.g. basketball), then don’t expect any cash coming your way soon. And while it’s great that we support our athletes and allow them to train rather than hold down multiple jobs while they compete in a world that is mostly unprofessional, that doesn’t necessarily help at grass roots levels. Those pitches and swimming pools still need to be there and accessible.

The scariest single statistic I’ve read in the last few week is that 52% of children leave school unable to swim 25m unaided. That’s simply shocking.

And what about China? Well they under-performed badly, and no doubt there’ll be inquests into why. Possibilities include a natural down-shift following a home Olympics. Everyone raises their game to perform well at home, later metaphorically breathing out when the games are over. GB seems to be bucking that trend, but Tokyo 2020 will be interesting.

There’s also the changes happening in Chinese society. Olympians are bigger stars now – and that brings with it distractions when you perhaps have some money when once you didn’t.

Finally, the cat and mouse game of drugs cheats and drug detection continues. Who knows if that is a reason.

The fact that a peak audience of around 7m people watched the British women’s hockey team defeat the Netherlands on Friday night, or that 2m stayed up until nearly 2am on Sunday morning to watch Mo Farah win the 5000m, shows that the Olympics do bring us together as a nation like no other sports event.

Newspapers are full of Olympic pull-outs and “Gold Medal special editions.” Welcome home parades are being planned for Manchester and London. The BBC Sport website saw record views with 68.3m unique browsers in the UK alone, compared with 39m in 2012.

Something to do with a post-Brexit proudness? I doubt it. If anything, the Olympics gives Britons a two-week holiday from unending political turmoil.

Are we getting value for money for our Olympic success? I’d answer yes. It’s not the be all and end all of what we need to do for sport on a wider level. The broader Olympic “legacy” of 2012 does not seem to have emerged in terms of participation. But I know I’m a lot happier seeing lottery money being spent on gold medals than public money on things like useless “garden” bridges across the Thames.

Finally, is the coverage celebratory or jingoistic? BBC coverage of the Olympics was clearly skewed towards events that the GB team does well in. How else to explain primetime Taekwondo? If you’re a fan of handball or archery, you had to look to the digital channels.

But we’re probably no different to any other nation in that regard. From speaking to friends across the Atlantic, it would seem that from an NBC perspective, there were no other nations aside from the US competing in any event! Then again, with so many US medalists, which you’d expect US TV to cover, that wouldn’t leave a lot of time for anything else.

At least we don’t get the X-Factor style sob-stories attached to every single athlete. How they overcome adversity to get to these games. Etc etc etc.

If I had a criticism, it would be a few too many montages that ran way too long, and were aired way too many times. And when commentators cross the line and become fans, that becomes awkward. That’s especially the case where they’re essentially hoping the non-British competitors make a mistake and get that dive wrong, or fail to clear that fence.

It’s always a problem when many of the commentators are either ex-competitors, and quite often friends of the athletes.

And there’s often too much expectation shown. Despite their quality, we can never be certain in events like Track Cycling or the 10,000m that our guy or gal is going to deliver the goods. Yet they sometimes were presented as nailed on certainties, and that’s simply not the case.

One other thing from a UK perspective.

Can’t we just shift Eastenders to BBC2 for a couple of weeks? It would stop a lot of needless channel changing. Stick the Ten O’Clock news there too. Then there wouldn’t be complaints about the news being delayed (complaints from people who for some reason had access to BBC 1 but curiously not the BBC News Channel, which was happily broadcasting the news at 10pm each night).

Sadly, I’m not sure that this will be an issue in four years’ time since the timings of the games will mean nothing live in peak, and it’s unclear how much digital coverage the BBC will be able to provide under their deal with Discovery/Eurosport.