Do you have to be a rich athlete to win Olympics medals?
The Olympics are supposed to bring together nations and peoples – as also the people of the host nation. For the last three weeks, Britain has become used to calling itself Great Britain, and with good reason: after a hesitant start in the medals tally (when it immediately slipped into the usual grumbling mode), the country has done superbly to finish third after the US and China.
Politicians, led by Prime Minister David Cameron and London Mayor Boris Johnson, have both encouraged and sought to tap into the general mood of joy and there’s the expectation the legacy of the Games will continue long afterwards. The main legacy, away from economic benefits to rundown areas, is that British sports will reach all corners of society.
But data released in the midst of the celebrations has given cause to pause and rethink policies. The news is that Team GB has been and is dominated by athletes from privileged private schools – a situation that is widely seen as unacceptable.
Figures show a third of Team GB at the Beijing Olympics was privately educated. Out in the real world, however, only 7% of British children go to private schools and colleges. At Beijing, athletes from private schools accounted for nearly 40% of British medal winners, and 50% of gold medalists.
Calling for an urgent overhaul of school sport policy, British Olympics Games chief Lord Colin Moynihan said every Olympic sport should aim to have the same ratio of state-to-private school pupils as football. “Football is different, it is an interesting example. The balance of professional football is that around 7% of players come from the private sector, which is an absolute mirror image of society.”
In Britain, education is often taken as a key indicator of privilege – in general, children who study in private schools also go to top universities and land highly-paid jobs. Indicators in other countries, that may have a less well-developed government school system, may be different.
It’s a political debate that is a bit unfocussed at the moment, but the interesting aspect of it is that no one seems to be happy with this state of affairs. Rowing and equestrianism have been fingered as the two most elitist of sports — and both are sports where Team GB tends to do extremely well.
In contrast, British track and fields are dominated by athletes who tend to be from poor backgrounds and from African or Caribbean heritage.
It goes without saying that particular sports by themselves are not elitist – the real question is whether children and youths who do not come from wealthy families also have access to those sports. In India, the debate is slightly different: you cannot call wrestling, hockey and boxing elitist by any stretch of the imagination. But the question of access is slightly different: a good sporting diet needs money and training needs state-of- the-art equipment.
In Britain, both rowing and horse-riding are way outside of what is on offer at most government schools. Private rowing or riding clubs too are very expensive and tend to be located in well-heeled areas. Of course, every Game will throw up some extraordinarily courageous athletes – London 2012 saw the inspirational figures of Mary Kom and Mohammad Farah.
But in general if there’s an unacceptable level of class divide within a nation’s sporting achievements (using locally-significant indicators), then that must be recognised as a problem – one that must be analysed and addressed.
In Britain, policymakers are being urged to look at two particular areas in trying to find solutions. The first is to promote sports in government schools. Prime Minister David Cameron has been talking about the need for government schools to make competitive sports compulsory. In what is hopefully the first step, he has made this compulsory in primary schools, starting off with team games such as football, hockey and netball.
But his government has been criticised for scrapping a scheme which set a target of two hours per week of physical education. Cameron said too often schools considered the two-hour target to be the maximum limit and that they introduced all kinds of activities, such as Indian dance.
Cameron, taking a political line, has sought to turn the debate on its head, blaming government schools for not doing enough. “Sport can change lives. So why is that in so many schools sport has been squeezed and facilities run down?” he said. “The result is that independent schools produce more than their fair share of medal winners and too many children think taking part in sport just isn’t for them. We’ve got to change that.”
Experts are also calling for the government to support community-level local sports clubs – of which boxing clubs are perhaps the best example. These neighbourhood clubs are key to encouraging children and youth from poorer backgrounds to take up sports. But their incomes have fallen 15% since 2004, according to the Charities Aid Foundation.
“The financial pressures facing many community charities, running sports clubs, maintaining playing fields and keeping local facilities open, mirrors the difficult financial climate facing many charities,” said Richard Harrison, director of research at CAF.
Some of these issues have been raised in India in recent years, albeit less directly and in far more polite terms. One case in point is the increasing acknowledgement that athletes such as Mary Kom deserve much more state patronage in order to make India a more sporting nation.
Private support too is key. One of the London 2012 medal winners – wrestler Yogeshwar Dutt – is supported by London-based steel magnate L.N. Mittal’s sports charity the Mittal Champions Trust. The legitimate question is why many more Indian corporate houses aren’t stepping up similarly, putting their hands up and setting up initiatives to help Indian sports.