On the Significance of Team GB's Olympic Success

Image: ©Cor Vos 

The BBC’s coverage of this year’s Olympics has clearly been done on the cheap. On BBC1 & BBC2, Clare Balding has spared the Corporation the expense of hiring excess commentators by gamely covering every single sport single-handedly. Sadly, if amusingly, she has also economised on her research into the various sports on display. On one memorable occasion she described gymnastics as “like diving, but on dry land”. On another, she asked Sir Chris Hoy why the velodrome is banked, which at least gave us an opportunity to admire the still-chiselled muscles in Sir Chris’s face as they rippled in a manful but fruitless attempt to avoid grimacing. Remarkably, BBC4’s coverage has clearly attracted an even tinier budget, comprising as it does a bloke sitting at a card table on Copacabana beach, apparently using the Periscope app on his iPhone to broadcast his interviews of passing holidaymakers and sanitation workers. One can’t help but wonder whether he had to sleep on the beach too.

The BBC’s financial challenges may be contrasted with the now notoriously luxurious position of British Cycling, which has – we have been repeatedly reminded – received over £30m in public funding during the current Olympic cycle. The source of this largesse is, of course, the UK’s National Lottery, which was created in the wake of Team GB’s pathetic performance in the Atlanta Games of 1996, where the brave boys and girls in red, white and blue took home a single, solitary gold medal. The Lottery was intended (among other things) to help avert this kind of national humiliation, by identifying elite athletes then providing them with the necessary income, coaching and facilities to allow them to compete seriously for medals.[1]

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And, for cycling at least, the results have been spectacular. It is worth briefly reviewing the statistics.

The modern summer Olympic Games have been held twenty-eight times (though the IOC insists on ignoring the three occasions on which the Games have been cancelled, and refers to Rio 2016 as the “XXXIst Olympiad”). Over this period, as of the time of writing, the United Kingdom has won a total of 847 medals, 263 of them gold.[2]

In the five summer Olympiads since (and including) the 2000 Sydney Games – the first to take place after British Cycling started to receive Lottery funding – Team GB’s cyclists have won twenty-five gold medals: almost ten per cent of the country’s all-time total (to say nothing of the team’s successes at other events, including world championships and Paralympics). For comparison, Chris Boardman’s win in the individual pursuit in Barcelona in 1992 was the first British cycling gold since the one won by tandem team Thomas Lance and Harry Ryan in Antwerp, 1920.

Perhaps most remarkably, this success has been sustained despite significant changes in the line-up of events from one Games to the next. One of the principal reasons for British Cycling’s original focus on track cycling was that the Olympic programme of the time included many endurance events, which, with their focus on (relatively easily trainable) physiological performance over tactics and chance, present a lower risk profile than the chaotic sprint disciplines. But there are no pure individual endurance events at all at the 2016 Games, yet Team GB has taken home almost as many medals as ever.

Such unprecedented but sustained success rarely goes unaccompanied by complaints from disgruntled losers, especially ones who had previously been used to winning. Representatives of certain countries – notably Germany’s Kristina Vogel and French sprint coach Laurent Gané – have pointed to Team GB’s relatively poor showing at recent world championships, and heavily implied that the improvement is down to doping (Australia’s Anna Meares made superficially similar comments before hurriedly denying she meant to imply the British had been up to anything improper).[3]

But this doesn’t make much sense. If Team GB can dope for the Olympics, why not dope for the worlds as well? And anyway, there is a perfectly sensible alternative explanation, which everyone at British Cycling was willing to offer when asked: their focus is wholly on the Olympics, to the extent that not only does every rider plan and structure his or her training so as to peak for the Games, but riders don’t even get the best equipment at other events lest the opposition get a look at it and figure out its secrets.

But a different form of sneering has become fashionable among the mainstream sports media. Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian[4], neatly exemplifies it.

Firstly, Jenkins suggests, “As for the accusations against Britain’s cyclists, the response is simple. Who needs to cheat with drugs when medals go to money?”

It is, of course, dreadfully lazy to think money is all that matters. Compare tennis. According to author Rasmus Ankersen[5], the UK government, sponsors and the Wimbledon organisation provide the Lawn Tennis Association with around £60m every year. A large chunk of this budget has been spent on providing leading young players with coaches, equipment and facilities (including the National Tennis Centre in Roehampton, which cost £40m to build but was closed down in 2014, only seven years after it opened). No other national tennis association anywhere in the world has this kind of budget. But the only truly elite-standard player the UK has produced in recent times, Andy Murray, was coached in Spain. By his mum.

By the same token, cycling teams in other countries have also received substantial sums, yet have achieved nothing like the same success. In the four years to 2016 the Australian elite track programme, historically one of the strongest, received A$34.1m from the taxpayer, around two thirds of British Cycling’s corresponding budget. Yet in Rio Australia’s track cyclists produced only a silver and a bronze to compare with Team GB’s six golds, four silvers and one bronze.

More generally still, it is, surely, remarkable that Team GB has finished second in the medals table, behind only the United States. In particular, it is hard to believe that even the lavishly funded UK Sport, which funnels Lottery cash to the various governing bodies of different sports, has been provided with more resources than its counterpart organisation in China.

So medals do not simply “go to money”. But there is more to Jenkins’s complaints than this. He wants to suggest that the combination of gold medals (especially in cycling), state funding and chauvinist, pro-Team GB commentary means that we have “turned Soviet”. He disapproves:

“We had to watch while the BBC aired pictures of its own commentary box punching the air and howling. These were not so much journalists as state cheerleaders . . . Throughout the cold war, Soviet bloc nations used sport as a proxy for economic success . . . The west used to ridicule the communists for this. Their athletes were derided as state employees, civil servants and cheats. Of course many took drugs. Winning was what mattered to the Soviets, the state media being monopolised to convince their people that their ‘system’ was better.”

Complaints about BBC journalists being obsessed with British success are, of course, entirely justified – just as they were in, say, 1972, when TV critic Clive James singled out Frank Bough for the “never-failing entertainment value of his deathless hunger for a British victory”, or in 1976, when (James again) “David Wilkie won a gold medal and [commentator] Alan Weeks had an orgasm”.[6] The reality is that if Team GB had performed back then as they have more recently, Auntie Beeb would have shown no more restraint than it does today. What is more, anyone who has been to any other major sporting nation knows that commentators everywhere focus on domestic success. Certainly, it is obviously wildly silly to suggest, as Jenkins does, that the BBC, with its card tables on the beach and interviews with Copacabana bin-men, has “brought Rio close to a British National Party awayday”.

But what of Jenkins’s other complaints? Firstly, anyone who thinks it was only the Soviet bloc who “used sport as a proxy for economic success” should look into the ways in which the failing dictatorships of, say, Argentina and Spain ran football. Secondly, it is true that many Soviet-bloc athletes had fake state jobs (often with the armed forces), which left them ample time for training and recovery. But the Soviets did not invent “shamateurism”. Many “amateur” western athletes had generous employment arrangements of their own, and received (more or less overt) sponsorship, appearance money, generous expenses, non-cash (but easily saleable) prizes and (later) “trust funds”, none of which were available to their Soviet-bloc counterparts.

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And, of course, many athletes took drugs. But, again, contrary to Jenkins’s implication, this was certainly not restricted to athletes from the Soviet bloc. And, since we are on the subject, nor has the West been particularly consistent in its demonisation of dopers. A few examples:

  • The use of steroids in sports was pioneered by the US drugs giant Ciba, under the direction of physician John Bosley Ziegler.[7] Ziegler claimed (without corroboration) that the catalyst for his work was a conversation with a Russian doctor accompanying the Soviet team to the 1954 World Weightlifting Championships, who apparently admitted that his athletes were taking testosterone. Ziegler believed his own work in developing steroids and supplying them to a wide range of American sportsmen and women in an attempt to catch and overtake the Soviets was no more than his patriotic duty. (Perhaps ironically, the testosterone derivative with which he is most closely associated, methandrostenolone, or Dianabol, was the principal drug later administered to East German athletes.)
  • At the 1972 Games, discus world record holder Jay Silvester carried out an unofficial poll of athletes and reported that “All the throwers and weighlifters and heavies of any ability in these Olympics have taken or do take the illegal anabolic steroids”.[8]
  • Harold Connolly, hammer thrower, admitted at a 1973 US Congress inquiry that he had been on steroids from 1964 until 1972. Nonetheless, he was inducted into the National Throw Coaches Association Hall of Fame in November 2005, and in 2006 his alma mater Boston College unveiled a statue in his honour.[9]
  • It might fairly be objected to the above stories that steroids were not banned at the relevant times. But they, and various other performance enhancing substances, certainly were banned by the time of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. So, before the Games, the U.S. Olympic Committee ran an informal drug-testing program. The thirty-odd athletes who tested positive were not sanctioned, much less banned from the Games, but merely informed of the result. In the words of Dick Pound, former president of WADA and a IOC member, "They were allowing athletes to check their clearance times".[10]

Further, anyone who suggests that Soviet bloc countries were the only ones who used the Olympics to “convince people their ‘system’ was better” needs to do some homework on how the 1964 Tokyo and 1972 Munich Games[11] were used by their hosts to show off what western values had done for the economies of the vanquished Axis powers. South Korea originally applied to host the 1988 Olympiad in order to advertise the benefits of their right-wing authoritarian regime, only for that regime to collapse just months before the Olympics, partly because it felt unable to crush political demonstrations for fear of being stripped of the Games.[12]

Jenkins’s attempted belittlement of British Cycling’s achievements via a comparison with those of the Soviet Union is, therefore, rather confusing. In fact, triply so. Firstly, as discussed at length above, there is nothing specifically “Soviet” about the phenomena he complains of. But then, in addition, he lays the blame for these developments not at the door of the Soviet Union, but rather (in accordance with Godwin’s law[13]) the Nazis. And finally, he appears to believe that, ever since, the problem has infected not just authoritarian regimes of both left and right, but democratic countries too. So:

“I am thrilled by personal success, by Mo Farah’s 10,000m, Charlotte Dujardin’s horsemanship, Wayde van Niekerk’s 400m and Simone Biles’ mesmerising gymnastics . . . But . . . the nationalisation of sport – the hamfisted draping in the union jack after breasting the tape – so clearly diminishes the individual achievement. Ever since its introduction by Hitler at the 1936 Olympics, such chauvinism has infused democratic as well as authoritarian regimes.”

But the simple reality is that each “individual achievement”, far from being diminished by “the nationalisation of sport”, is inseparable from it. And the reasons for this are visible only dimly, if at all, in Jenkins’s screed.

As discussed in our last Polemic, the Olympic movement was in deep financial crisis for most of the post-war period. One reason for this was the obsession with amateurism, which meant that, in its original form, the Olympic Games comprised a bunch of sports nobody cared about being practiced by non-experts, justified by a never-satisfactorily-articulated claim that this somehow bolstered international peace and understanding.

What ultimately turned the Olympics into the massive spectacular we have today was the acknowledgement, in 1986, of the de facto professional status of elite athletes from countries of all kinds, which in turn opened the door to, firstly, the inclusion of the major money-spinning pro sports such as tennis and football, and, more importantly, the economic exploitation of the Games through sponsorship.

But what filled the gap between the original, truly amateur but not terribly popular Games and today’s marketing behemoth was not simply “nationalism”, but global competition between immensely resource-rich ideologies. It was, indeed, the Nazis who started it, but after WWII both Eastern and Western superpowers joined in with gusto, both sides employing every device available in the attempt to inch ahead of the other. 

The collapse of the Soviet Union changed the dynamic, but not the essential nature, of Olympic “competition”, with countries such as China and South Korea seeking to showcase their countries’ virtues via the hosting of, and performance at, the Olympic Games – just as the United States, West Germany, Japan, and, yes, the USSR, East Germany and the rest of the Soviet bloc had done before.

But, pace Jenkins, Team GB is entirely different. Team GB obviously does not compete to prop up an unpopular regime, nor to present a political “system” or even their “nation” as superior, much less as a “proxy for economic success”. They just want to win medals. The original incentive wasn’t even to show off the country: as noted above, it was simply to avoid humiliating failure.

But in order to achieve even this negative goal, the team’s athletes have to beat others from countries, including the US and China, who do take a distinctly “ideological” approach. And to do that, they need the same level of resources, the same focus, and the same degree of professionalism. It does not follow that they need any motivation beyond the purely sporting.

The National Lottery provides Team GB with ample resources, but it is nonsense to say, simply, that “medals go to money”. There is, quite simply, far more to it than that: money may be a necessary condition of success, but it is far from sufficient. The media’s fawning obsession with British athletes and their medals is indeed risible, but this is neither new nor unique to Britain. There is nothing particularly “Soviet”, or even authoritarian, about exploiting sport for political or (for that matter) “nationalist” ends. And neither Team GB nor British Cycling can realistically be accused of it anyway.

Conquista is no waver of the Union Jack. Nor are we blind to the failings of British Cycling, either as a governing body for cycling generally or as a manager of elite athletes. But we always admire outstanding achievements by dedicated athletes and those who support them. There is nothing in Jenkins’s complaints to justify making an exception for Team GB’s triumphs in Rio.

Nonetheless, those complaints remain interesting, for highlighting something about our attitudes to, and the relevance to us of, elite professional sport. And that will be the subject of our next Polemic.


[1] For a brief but useful history, see “London 2012: how Team GB's fortunes turned around after disaster in Atlanta”, The Guardian, 24th July 2012

[2] http://olympic-medal-count.pointafter.com/l/47/Great-Britain

[3] See, for example, “Rio 2016: Team GB hit by accusations of 'very questionable' cycling success by German champion Kristina Vogel”, The Independent, 17 August 2016 

[4]This Olympics hysteria shows that Britain has turned Soviet”, The Guardian, 17th August, 2016

[5] The Gold Mine Effect, Icon Books, 2012

[6] Visions Before Midnight, Picador 1977

[7] See, e.g., “The Man Behind the Juice”, slate.com, February 18th 2005.

[8] Paul Dimeo, A History of Drug Use in Sport 1876-1976: Beyond Good and Evil (2007), p.81

[9] op. cit., p.79

[10]Doping at the L.A. Games? Ignorance was bliss”, LA Times, August 4th, 2009

[11] “The West German Government was eager to take the opportunity of the Munich Olympics to present a new, democratic and optimistic Germany to the world, as shown by the Games' official motto, "Die Heiteren Spiele", or "the cheerful Games" (Wikipedia, 1972 Summer Olympics)

[12]When the Olympics Fostered Democratic Progress in Asia”, LA Times, July 18, 2001

[13] “Godwin's Law states that as an online argument grows longer and more heated, it becomes increasingly likely that somebody will bring up Adolf Hitler or the Nazis.” urbandictionary.com 


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