It is now over a week since Danny Boyle’s spectacular opening ceremony washed away a good deal of my Olympic cynicism. Regardless of my personal animus towards the inherent hypocrisy of the Olympic message and how the games operate – essentially taking public money and placing it into private (corporate) hands – Boyle’s tribute to our industrial heritage, the National Health Service, and a host of our nation’s idiosyncrasies hit the right mark regarding British identity. However, it has taken the games themselves to highlight the inequalities of wealth and opportunity in Britain.
Despite the state-educated success of Bradley Wiggins, it would appear that London 2012 is to repeat the statistical bias witnessed in Beijing, where more than 50 per cent of gold medals were won by privately educated athletes. Private education (which only caters for seven per cent of British children), and the increasing disparities in the distribution of wealth, as Channel 4 News have highlighted, has resulted in those representing the UK being ‘more likely to come from the affluent, less socially disadvantaged areas of the country’.
As the media and politicians fret over what the actual legacy of the games will be, and where the no doubt reduced funding will be allocated, school sport is rightly identified as the foundation of any future successes. Numerous figures from Rupert Murdoch to Lord Coe, Baroness Campbell and Lord Moynihan have ‘put their oar in’, and Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Education, has been roundly criticised for dismantling ‘the Physical Education and School Sport programme in English schools, and especially the School Sport Partnerships’; one of the very few national policies to successfully break down barriers to participation of state-school pupils. The on-going sale of school playing fields only serves to exacerbate the issue.
Gove’s behaviour is nothing new as the well-known cricket lover and ex-Prime Minister John Major had overseen the sale of school playing fields under Margaret Thatcher (over 5,000 had been sold by 1994), only to vainly attempt redemption with ‘the personally launched initiative, entitled Raising the Game’. Raising the Game only served to highlight the issues surrounding how sport – within or outside of schools – should be funded, and how much influence government should have over this. The advent of the lottery and millions of pounds available to sport, and other cultural activities, may well be moving public money from those who purchase lottery tickets (generally the poorer in society) to those in elite sports programmes, who are statistically more likely to have already benefitted from private education and the facilities and coaching therein.
Other sports have long displayed the class-based traits under discussion, with English Rugby Union and Cricket similarly dominated by privately educated players. In cricket, the clubs with the best facilities, with skilled volunteers prepared to fill in the application forms, are most likely to obtain lottery funding. Indeed the ECB’s ‘Clubmark’ programme is only available to clubs who have their own ground – immediately ostracising poorer clubs (frequently made up of ethnic minorities), from benefits and any route for the better players to progress. This brings the issue full circle: Once again, public money, largely generated from the poor, appears to be re-directed to those less in need.
If British sport is to truly represent the egalitarian and multi-cultural Britain portrayed in Boyle’s opening ceremony in future, fundamental changes to school sport and sport funding at grass-roots and elite levels are required. Sadly, even if the political will existed, an age of austerity appears to be the wrong time to attempt such changes.