Can you buy Olympic gold?

For the past 8 years (or may be longer) some of the ill gotten gains from the UK’s national lottery has been going towards funding sports excellence in the UK.  At the Athens Olympics four years ago the results were ambivalent.  The overall performance (as measured by medals awarded – especially gold) was not as good as at the games four years earlier in Sydney. 

Using the same criteria, the Beijing Olympics have been a huge success for Team GB even though GB competitors are unlikely to fare especially well in the Track & Field events.  As of day 10 GB has had it best performance (16 golds and 31 medals) since 1908 when there were just 22 countries competing, tug-o-war was one of the events and GB competitors were the only entrants to some events.

So while it may not be possible to buy a medal with hard currency it does does seem likely that it is possible for a country to buy medals by investing in sports.  The USA, with its long and deep tradition of providing university scholarships to rising stars in across all sports, has been at the forefront of providing the means for athletes to put off the day they have to focus on a career long enough to excel in their chosen events(s).  Its no surprise that Michael Phelps attends the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor (lovely town, used to live there).  Where else could he focus long and hard enough to be able to win 8 golds – a fantastic achievement.

But UK state funded universities (UofM is a private school) cannot in good conscience spend so much on so few and, perhaps as a result, the university route to sporting excellence was never going to work.  Maybe Loughborough is the exception that proves the rule.

Instead, the use of lottery income to fund sport seems to have been a success. 

But as with so many British things, its an effort driven from the centre and is unlikely to be resilient.  In the US, in line with the general ethos of the nation, universities vie with one another to attract the best and brightest a model that has produced gold in Olympics after Olympics.

In the UK funding is centralized and its likely to mean the motivation to keep funding sport will founder when those few individuals currently pushing to promote sports move on to other roles or the pressure to use lottery funds in different ways become too great.  The ill thought through bid and appalling under-estimate on the costs of staging the 2012 Olympics is meaning that lottery funds currently ear-marked for athletes will be diverted to pay big businesses to build the infrastructure needed for the event.  So by the time of the 2012 event, the contractors will be able to walk away with olympian amounts of money but our nation is unlikely to repeat the performance in Beijing.

This perspective may prove unnecessarily pessimistic.  However, if not and lottery funding of sports does dry up over the next four years resulting in a less impressive performance it will be a further indicator that countries can buy Olympic gold.

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