Well done Team GB but can we have a decade off the Olympics, please? | Paul MacInnes

We should not be obsessed with winning sporting medals, we should be obsessed with playing sport and getting as many people as possible to do it

It’s been a month of incredible success at the Winter Olympics. It was a month, right? It certainly felt like it, though others will know better. As for the success, that was indisputable. Five medals, one of which was not bronze, made it Team GB’s greatest medal haul at the Winter Games, aka the international sporting event we have little aptitude for given our preponderant meteorological conditions hover somewhere between “dreich” and “probably fine without a coat”.

After such unalloyed achievement, it was not surprising to find the chief executive of the British Olympic Association bouncing off the plane from Pyeongchang to bang the drum for British winter sport and (in a remarkably dextrous move) get the begging bowl out for it at the same time.

Britain’s journey to Winter Olympic domination has barely begun, declaimed Bill Sweeney. “I think we’re where we were with summer sport in 2000,” he said. It’s a reference to the Sydney Olympics, when Great Britain (as we were known then) posted their greatest medal haul since 1920. But compared with the three Games that followed, it was as a nothing. You thought that was medalling? No, this is medalling.

So where are we heading next, Mr Sweeney? On which snow-dashed highlands are we fixing our sights now? And by the way, I’m presuming you’ll be on board to see it through and collect your £279,000 annual salary en route? “If we want to progress” – and who wouldn’t want that, Mr Sweeney? – “and become a top 15” – hang on – “you need more investment.” You what, mate?

Top 15? After a best Winter Games performance on a biggest-ever budget, this is what we’re chasing? A dream that would see us move not only above Finland but also Slovakia in the medals table? One that would leave us tantalisingly close to overhauling Belarus? Blimey, that is some balls-out-of-the-box thinking right there.

I don’t really mean to mock an aspiration for 15th in the Winter Olympics medal table. I mean to mock any and all models of success defined by medals won. Yeah, that’s right. Sure, it was good that Team GB did well in 2012. No one likes to come to an event and watch their host make a fool of themselves (unless that event is a music awards show and the host is James Corden). But in general, really, can’t we aim a little higher?

The aim of any public funding in sport should be to encourage participation. That’s my feeling. As things stand, that link is not always apparent. Olympic funding from UK Sport is predicated on winning medals. A supplementary argument, and one made by UK Sport, says that if you win the medals you inspire others. Last year a survey found that the London 2012 Games inspired 7% of respondents to take up sport. I’ve heard people say that is both an awful number and, actually, when you look at it in the round, a very impressive one. Either way, if participation is the ultimate goal, emulation seems an imprecise way of delivering it.

So I say let elite sport run fallow. For the next decade, say, stick all the cash we would have spent into participation instead. Take the money (which, for a four‑year cycle, we’ll round down to a third of a billion) and spend it on 3G pitches, sports halls and multipurpose courts. Actually, spend some of it on that; spend the rest on getting people to use them.

As a mature democracy (ahem), a stark decline in physical activity is a live public health matter which should be concerning us. As a nation at ease in its skin (ahahah), the benefits of play should be apparent to us all.

So leave the funding fallow for a decade and fund participation instead. Open the trials as widely as possible, let a thousand Eddie the Eagles spread their wings. I swear this is what the nation actually wants from the Olympics anyway, people we recognise as being something like ourselves. Who defines their sense of national pride by how many medals we win?

The chairman of the BOA, Sir Hugh Robertson, does not subscribe to this view. “I think it would be a very sad day if we gave up on wanting to succeed at the Olympic Games,” the former Tory MP said this week. He went on to defend Olympic funding of skeleton (£6.5m over four years, 130 practitioners in the country) over other activities, such as the minority-friendly basketball (150,000 practitioners, not one penny). “It would be very sad if we gave up the opportunity of winning a winter medal to put in a basketball team that at the moment is going to get eliminated pretty early.”

Now I can understand if Sir Hugh is getting riled as people confuse funding for elite performance with funding for all. My scheme would eliminate all such confusion. It would also assert that getting eliminated pretty early is less of a problem than the manner of it.

And for those who remain ideologically committed to medal targets? Well, you get them back in 10 years, but ask yourself: what happens when you finally reach the end point? What happens when you win all the medals? Ennui, that’s what. Fin de siècle sentiment, leading inevitably to decadence. Nobody wants that. Under this scheme, I guarantee it will not happen.


Paul MacInnes

The GuardianTramp

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