As someone who can be a bit of a curmudgeon at times, I have a tendency to be cynical but the Opening Ceremony for the London Olympics was fantastic. I felt proud to see the quirky show Britain put on and proud of how we saved the surprise. It was a fantastic antidote to the show of strength by Beijing. The lighting of the cauldron was a great realisation of the theme of inspiring a generation. There was tremendous symbolism in the opening sequence with rising factory chimneys and steam engines though.
The medal forecast for Great Britain is around 48 medals and fourth place in the medal league table. As a nation that continually punches above its weight its interesting to think about what that means -how can a little nation be so good at sport? You may think that the biggest driver of success would be population – that it increases the percentage chance of a natural athlete. This view has been long-held; that ultimately it comes down to inherent talent. Matthew Syed challenged this in his recent book Bounce. He puts forward a powerful case that actually practice is the key to success.
This would suggest that economic factors play a far bigger part in sporting success. to practice you need facilities available and the time to allocate to your sport. Research suggests that in this country we have average participation in sport compared to the rest of Europe. About 32% of Britons claim to play sport or take exercise regularly compared to 55% in Finland and 19% in Latvia. There is a drop off in activity once school finishes but Government funding and National Lottery funding for elite sport allows those with the practiced talent to continue to the next level. So the economic strength of the UK gives us the freedom to participate in sport in the first place.
Goldman Sachs published a report on the economics of the Olympics -a fascinating and accessible read: http://www.goldmansachs.com/our-thinking/topics/global-economic-outlook/olympics-and-economics-.pdf . They highlight that research suggests Olympic success is a function of GDP per capita and hosting. It furthermore suggests that sports such as Cycling, Judo, rowing and Swimming are the most affected by wealth with Pentathlon, Diving and Weightlifting the least affected. Being the host nation increases the chances the most in Gymnastics, Swimming and Cycling. The economic argument explains why countries with relatively small populations like Australia and Canada do so well in the Olympics and why countries with large populations like India and Bangladesh struggle. Most importantly it explains why Great Britain, the 22nd largest country in the world by population but the 6th largest by total GDP, can do so well on the medal table. In terms of GDP per capita the only major nations ahead of Great Britain in 37th place are United States and Germany. China ranks 124th but that’s a whole different story.
It seems that Britain has to thank Cecil Rhodes, the East India Company, and James Watt as much as Sir Clive Woodward and Dave Brailsford.