Aug 13 2012

The Peevish Olympic Spectator

As a follow up to being a Peevish Physicist, I thought I’d be a Peevish Olympic Spectator too.

Since Team GB started scaling the heights of the medals table I have been gripped by patriotic fervour; I am an armchair critic able to pontificate on the rules of various sports: keirin is a cycling event involving chasing a moped, that turn in the womens backstroke looked a bit poor, Usain Bolt normally stops trying a few yards short of the line. Each morning I have checked our national progress in the medal table.

The medal table is interesting: the US and China are riding high, a function of their large populations and the importance they attach to the games, although early in the games the US position was driven by its performance in the pool. The Russians were doing poorly to start with but only on the basis of gold medals – the table is ranked by number of golds won. Australia have done less well than recently but again a shortage of gold medals has emphasised this. Looking back, Great Britain has bobbed around 10th position in the table since 1928 with a disastrous 36th position in Atlanta 1996 and a 4th position in the most recent games in Beijing – this year we have finished 3rd!

Before the games had started I was something of a cynic: it’s an expensive exercise ~£10bn with dubious financial return. Companies like mine have scaled back activities during the Games, in part to avoid partners getting dragged into the predicted but perhaps not real “travel chaos” in London. Prior to the games it was predicted that non-Olympic tourism to London would be reduced.  The law has been re-written to protect brands sponsoring the Olympics not just from other companies but from the public, in view of this the spectacle of people being criticised for selling their Olympic torches on ebay was rather ironic. The sailing is taking place near where I grew up, in Weymouth, and the locals find themselves mightily disrupted. It’s been distressing to see the British media anticipating gold medals for British athletes to the extent where a silver or gold is almost seen a failure: “why didn’t you get a gold?”, in China this function is carried out by the state.
As the games come to a close politicians have developed a sudden enthusiasm for competitive games to be taught at school. Personally, I think this is an awful idea, PE lessons were the bane of my school life as I invariably was picked pretty much last for any team game, and once playing a team game I was invariably treated like the person you least wanted on the team. What I needed from PE was a life long enthusiasm for at least some form of physical activity, which I gained rather later in life from solitary pursuits in the gym. Medal success in the Olympic Games is a matter of ability and application for athletes and will for a country, in the eighties relatively small and not particularly wealthy countries such as East Germany and Romania came high in the table because of political will – but is this really a model we want to replicate?

Britain has done a creditable job of running the Olympics, building work went to schedule, transport infrastructure has worked well, the opening ceremony was outstanding, Anish Kapoor’s Orbit sculpture has given the TV coverage a distinctive look and our athletes have even done very well in the medal table.
If I might inject my own political note: Mohamed Farah, a Somali immigrant, won two gold medals for Britain – maybe we should consider the value immigrants bring across our economy.