Monday, 29 August 2016
I've been away on holiday for the past couple of weeks so have missed most of the media coverage of the Olympics. Nevertheless I've picked up enough to find much of the British coverage extremely disquieting - indeed, not at all according to my understanding of "British values" which I acquired in my youth (we were taught to be modest and unassuming and our our patriotism should be understated.)
Without wishing in any way to detract from the wonderful achievements of all the athletes (and particularly the gymnasts and divers) I find the emphasis on national rather than individual performances distasteful. Much is made of Britain's ranking in the "medal tally - second if you count just golds, and third of you count them all.
But, as was pointed out in a Guardian graphic recently (6th August) if we count the number of medals per population per contested games, up to 2012 Finland came top with 2.30, Estonia second with 2.29 and the Bahamas third with 2.26. Britain was way down with only 0.44, but ahead of the US with 0.29. These figures will doubtless have altered slightly, but probably not significantly, when the 2016 results are included.
Then we are reminded that much of Team GB's success is the result of John Major's decision to funnel wads of Lottery cash to the training of élite athletes. Somebody has calculated that each medal has cost in the region of £5.5 million. I wonder how well the two poor countries in which I have worked, Papua New Guinea and Malawi, would have fared with that kind of money to fling around.
As Simon Jenkins pointed out in a recent article, we are now doing exactly what we used to mock Russia for - hot-housing (though I hope without illicit drugs) a tiny élite in order to bolster our international image and sustain a pretended "great power" status. At the same time our austerity-obsessed government is closing sports centres and public swimming baths and flogging off school playing fields. As in the economy, there is little evidence of a tickle-down effect as a result of success confined to the very top.
One week of my holiday was spent with other choral society singers preparing, among other things, to perform the Bach and Rutter Magnificats. We amateur singers practised together during the week with varying individual success (mine was pretty limited in the Bach -the runs were just too quick), though the over-all achievement was acceptable. However, when on the day of the public performance we met for the first time the orchestra, presumably made up mainly of amateurs, their standards, individually and collectively, were superb.
By contrast with the choir, who were mostly or "riper years ( as the Prayer Book kindly puts it) most of the orchestra were young.. They presumably had talent to begin with, but like athletes, had reached their high standards by hours and hours of dedicated practice. Yet music in schools is being downgraded because the subject is not included in the government's misnamed Ebacc, and local authority music schools up and down the country are being closed.
Rather than a focus on false prestige though the triumphs of the athletic élite I should like to see the governments "generosity" spread around to include sports and athletics at all levels for those who want them, music, and all those other arts which could benefit
The result might not lead to quite so much strutting of our stuff draped in Union Jacks at future Olympics, but it would lead to a more civilised society.