Leading article:Sportsmen give us a good run for our money

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Why all the hand wringing? Suddenly half the nation seems to be convinced first that the Olympics is boring and, second, that Britain is in terminal, lamentable sporting decline. Commentators are muttering that the Games have been uninspiring this year. And everyone else is moaning about our paltry medal performance. John Major has proposed a new Sports Academy to solve the problem. Meanwhile, Tony Blair has called for an urgent review to improve our future Olympic performance.

Yet both complaints are nonsense. The Games are as great as ever, and British sporting prowess is as respectable as ever. If we want to be brilliant, rather than just respectable, we should shove our hands in our pockets for the extra cash to match other countries' sports investment. But if the public (understandably) can find better things to do with its money, we should all stop whingeing and just enjoy the Games instead.

So Linford didn't get his gold in the 100m. So Sally dropped out of the hurdles. So we didn't see a single British face on the judo podium this year. So what? The Olympic Games are a brilliant spectacle, regardless of the fate of our British competitors.

Consider the incredible twists and tumbles of the gymnasts. Korbut and Comaneci, eat your heart out. Today's gymnasts leap higher and spin faster than yesterday's heroes ever did. Think of the drama and brute strength of the weight-lifting. The Russian Andrei Chermerkin won the gold medal by lifting an astonishing, record-breaking 260kg. Carl Lewis leapt 8.5m to win his ninth Olympic gold medal. And Charles Austin defied gravity, soaring over 2.39m in the high jump.

If we are disappointed with the Games, it can only be because we set too much store by the performance of a few athletes swathed in the Union Jack. We would presumably have condemned Euro 96 as a boring waste of time and money had England been knocked out in the first round.

But we shouldn't get so depressed about British sport. With our medal tally just staggering into double figures, we have admittedly performed worse than in previous years. But we shouldn't overreact. Some of our best performers this year were carrying injuries; Gunnell, Holmes, Jackson, Obree. It's a shame, but it happens.

You can't judge the state of British sport on the basis of one Olympics. Our worst performance this century took place in St Louis in the US in 1904. We won no gold medals at all, and only one silver, and one bronze. Pathetic huh? Yet only four years later in London, we won a spectacular 56 gold medals, 50 silver and 39 bronze. It was our best performance of the century (although it did set the world complaining about the bias of British judges).

Half a century on, in Helsinki 1952 - the performance that Atlanta has been compared to - Britain won only one gold medal, and only 11 medals in total. Yet four years later in Melbourne we picked up six gold medals - something we haven't managed to duplicate since then.

So, it is perfectly possible for the British team to exhibit widely different performances from one Olympics to the next, as generations of athletes emerge and then age. The difference between our Atlanta performance and our successes during the Eighties is rather small in comparison.

Of course we could do better. We could aspire to more than the five golds we picked up in Moscow, Los Angeles, Seoul and Barcelona. Australia has a population less than half the size of Britain's, yet it won nine gold medals in 1992, and looks set to do as well in Atlanta. But we will need money, not hand wringing, to emulate their success.

Supporting Olympic athletes is an expensive business. They need money to live on while they train full-time, specialist coaches, expert medical support, and proper facilities. Paul Palmer, one of Britain's few silver medallists this year, still relies on his parents for his keep. Young sports men and women have trouble making ends meet.

The Australians established centres of sporting excellence - top-class academies - to support their sports women and men. They have been raking in the medallions ever since. The French have invested heavily in sport - and they have 13 gold medals to show for it.

If the politicians really think it's important for Britain to do much better in the Olympics, they could follow a similar route here. Alternatively, they could shut up and leave well alone. We get the sports we want and pay for. For example, football has plenty of money to train its youngsters and transfer its stars because the public are prepared to pay to watch it, either in the stadium or in their sitting rooms.

In the US, popular support for track events has generated sporting scholarships at private universities and colleges across the country. Even here, established stars of athletics such as Christie and Gunnell can pick up plenty of cash in appearance fees and sponsorship so they can pay for their own top-class training. But the sports that struggle for funds are those which attract little attention in Britain outside the Olympic weeks; they can't raise much money from sponsorship, spectators or television deals. If the public don't have the enthusiasm to support these athletes directly, it isn't clear that they should get much taxpayers' money either.

New money for elite sports will have to come from somewhere; perhaps from higher taxes, cuts in sports facilities for the public, or lottery money that could have been spent on charities. These are serious sacrifices for the sake of two weeks of feeling good about ourselves every four years. Might we be happier enjoying our occasional Olympic successes, and spending our own money on sport for all instead?