Four years’ ago, the Olympic Games came to Global Cement’s home town of London. The event generated much excitement and a sense of pride in the city, even before the Games had started. At the time I was lucky enough to be living just yards from the route of the cycling road races - could Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish really be cycling on the same road that I commuted up every morning? Yes they could!
London 2012 provided the opportunity for ‘Team GB’ to win more medals than ever - host nations can enter every sport regardless of their actual ability level. And win it did. Team GB took ‘home’ 29 Gold, 17 Silver and 19 Bronze medals, enough to come third in the medal table. Cue great celebrations and big features in the Sunday papers. Surely this was a truly momentous event, never to be repeated. Except then...
The fact that Team GB surpassed its London medal haul at Rio 2016 took many by surprise. Yet it shouldn’t have done. Funding, channelled from the Government and the National Lottery by UK Sport, had increased in every Olympic cycle since UK Sport’s World Class Performance Programme was initiated in 1997.
A plot of funding versus total medals and Gold medals won is shown in Figure 1. At Atlanta 1996, Team GB had come 36th in the medal table with one Gold and 15 medals. After funding of GB£59m (Euro69m/US$78m) was allocated to Sydney 2000, Team GB won 28 medals. Fast-forward to Beijing 2008 and the haul increased to 47 medals, but only after a cash injection of GB£235m (Euro276m/US$310m). In London the investment rose to GB£264m (Euro310m/US$350m), resulting in 65 medals, and for Rio it went up to GB£274m (Euro322m/US$362m), giving rise to 67.
However, the return on investment (Figure 2), so crucial for those in the cement sector, has been lower than Sydney 2000 for every subsequent Olympic cycle. By crudely dividing UK Sport’s investment by the total medal haul, we see that Team GB spent at least GB£4.1m/medal in Rio and more than GB£5m/medal at a particularly expensive Beijing.
When it’s put like that, should we be surprised that UK athletes have performed so well? Don’t get me wrong, the achievements of the individual athletes are beyond any ‘normal’ person, but many other developed countries choose not to spend like this and many others simply can’t. This opens a range of difficult questions about the traditional British sense of fair play and about the value of the individual athletes’ achievements in the light of a massive spending advantage. This was most succinctly highlighted by French coach Antoine Vayer in his ‘£ycling’ tweet. Also, why should the UK spend money on elite sport like this when 20% of the population is listed as ‘inactive,’ failing to do 30 minutes of exercise per week!? Shouldn’t we build more public facilities and properly fund grass-roots sport?
The answers to the above are not clear cut, but UK Sport’s strategy is certainly as brutal as it is effective: Hit your target, and your sport gets more money. Miss them, and your funding is sent elsewhere. This is clearly ‘concentrating on core assets,’ a phrase often found in the annual reports of major cement companies in recent years. Many have needed to be brutal with their use of resources in the past decade just to survive, giving a temporary advantage over the competition. Will others eat into Team GB’s advantage? Find out in Tokyo!