Posted by: secretperson | August 21, 2008

Olympics – Class and Elitism

I’ve not blogged in a while, but I have been watching plenty of the Olympics, and reading plenty of comment about it. So I thought I’d do a couple of Olympic themed blogs, on some of the themes that have come up both in blogs and the mainstream newspapers and TV.

I start with class and elitism.

There is no doubt that Team GB (which also represents some from Northen Ireland) has done well, claiming more gold medals than any Olympics since the start of the 20th Century (in the 1908 London games GB won 56 golds, but many medals weren’t contested by other nations). But this success has met with many cynical comments, apparently our success is based on class division and elitism.

The main criticism is that the sports Britain has taken medals in are elitist. Sailing, rowing and cycling and even swimming are, apparently, elitist sports, unaccessible to ordinary people. I think we can write off cycling, I know of plenty of ‘poor’ kids with bikes and surely swimming pools are easy to access. But it is true that sailing takes a certain amount of investment, a dinghy can be in the thousands new, but hundreds second hand. Rowing is something that is generally more popular in public schools.

But does that reduce our achievements when we beat other countries ‘priveleged’? I think not, so the question is whether lottery funding has favoured these ‘elite’ sports over more accessible ones. As far as I know funding was based on chances of medal success, so it is not rich against poor in this country that is the question, but rich countries against poor countries. Did we won only because we faced a smaller field? Well obviously it helps, there isn’t much money in these so competitors rely on funding to compete at the top level. However Ben Ainslie, the ‘three blondes in a boat’ and the rest, weren’t bought medals by the BOC, they won because they were best.

Of course the medal allocations were also criticised before all the medals were out. Before the track win for Christine Ohuruogo and the three boxing medals we are now guaranteed. Surely these count as accessible, acceptable, working class sports.

The other question, related to the much despised ‘elitism’, is whether money is best spent on potential medal winners, or on grass roots sport. This obviously presents a false dichotomy, but we can look at the priorities. Should government funding (and we know the lottery is heavily influenced by government priorities) be aimed to get as many medals as possible, or allow as many people as possible to try sport? The current strategy of helping those who have reached the top through there own efforts would only be complemented by widening participation, therefore having more chance of finding that unique talent that can win a gold medal. And the public success of British athletes can inspire children to try there hand at sport. Investment at sport at all levels complement the other levels.

It has been suggested that there is/was a culture against competetiveness in state schools. I have heard stories of the sports days where everyone is a winner, but if this is true hopefully one result of the olympics will be the realisation that winning is the point of sport. Not meaning to undermine personal bests and say that winning is all and everyone else doesn’t matter. But the joy of sport is its competetiveness, in trying to win. The world is competetive, and sport can teach that. If we all compete we can all do better, the last man in the 100m final was driven to run as fast as he did by competition. He still went faster than he would have done with everyone walking arm in arm and no winners. And team sports teach that co-operation and competition are not mutually exclusive.

Let us hope rather than class war inverted snobbery, what we draw from the olympic success is the real benefits and lessons that we can learn from sport.



  1. What fucked up sports in state schools wasn’t and isn’t the feeling that losing is unfair (it is in life, games are supposed to be enjoyable and not taken seriously) but the fact that so many school playing fields were sold off.

    Sadly the only class war that’s being going on has been by the tiny super-rich elite against the great mass of working people. I wouldn’t mind it being inverted…

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