Gold medals are illusory, world-class public facilities should be the goal | Barney Ronay

Watering the soil of cultural participation would leave a greater legacy than any number of British Olympic champions

There was a memorable moment at the emotional zenith of the London Olympics, back in that strange time when it seemed so vitally important the home Games was a success, so deeply shocking that George Michael played “new material” – oh, that new material – at the closing ceremony, and when Boris Johnson was just a … well, actually that’s pretty much the same.

I don’t like to make Super Saturday too much about me, but it was also the moment I broke the record for witnessing British gold medals in a single day. There is no hard proof that my (yes, my) tally of six in 10 hours adds up to a British gold-witnessing record. But no one else seemed to be at all three things so I’m sticking to it, don’t email me.

From the morning shade of Eton Dorney, to the mid-afternoon fever of the velodrome and on to the eruptions of the athletics, I counted them out and I counted them back in – installed for the day as a kind of all-seeing idiot-sage, the hotdog seller in the background of history as the women’s lightweight double sculls, the men’s four, the women’s pursuit team, Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all won gold medals.

The best part came just after Farah had crossed the line. The top of the stand had been filled with rows of nurses and sailors, dressed for the occasion in actual sailor suits and nurses tunics. As the crowd leapt and tumbled, gripped with a wild shared energy, some of the nurses and sailors fell into each other’s arms and engaged in what can only be described as opportunistic VE-day-style snogging – cinematically backlit, heroic against the night sky, overcome with some kind of coronational fertility spirit.

In that moment the gold medals fell like oversized ceremonial mint coins from heaven – and it was good and it was golden and it would always be golden in the gold medal glory of our golden Team GB.

Except, fast forward nine years and gold medals are bullshit. This might not be the most on-brand message as the Olympic and Paralympic Games loom into view, a moment when it is more customary to talk about things such as grandeur and human possibility, to bask in the glow of what is still most beautifully uplifting sporting show devised. But it is also true, and in a way that feels salutary in the current depleted landscape.

This isn’t about the medals themselves, or what they represent: victory, ultimacy, shared moments in time. That part of the deal, the thing the athletes do, is untouchable. For those competing in Tokyo the Games will provide the usual starburst of colour, and perhaps even a release of pressure. UK Sport has publicly abandoned its medal targets. There is talk of simply getting through this experience.

Sophie Hosking and Katherine Copeland celebrate gold on Britain’s Super Saturday in 2012.
Sophie Hosking and Katherine Copeland celebrate gold on Britain’s Super Saturday in 2012. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

For the rest of us there is an opportunity to press towards doing things a little differently. It is the gold medal culture that needs reforming, the fetishising of gold, the enthroning of the gold medal as the key measure of all sporting value, a driver of policy, resources and who, ultimately, gets to play.

This gold fixation is captured in the very watchable BBC documentary Gold Rush, which told the story – in awed, incurious tones – of how we got to this place. It is a process that began in earnest with the influx of lottery funding. The award of the London Games in 2005 ramped things up. There was a decision to focus only on the pared-down tip of the pyramid, to spend millions medal-hunting, “financially doping” in vulnerable sports, and in the process creating a flag-waggling propaganda screed of national sporting success.

None of which is anything to do with the athletes, who have simply been given the tools to flourish. But there are obvious structural problems here. Most obviously, this is not what sport is for and not what the Olympics is for.

What is the point of gold medals? What do they express? Ideally a shared physical culture, some idea of national good health. Team GB won 27 gold medals at Rio and 29 in London, a tribute to individual talent and skilled micro-management. But these medals were an elite gloss, an act of styling, success that spoke only to itself.

The classic case is cycling. Britain won eight cycling golds in the years 1896-2000 and then 24 cycling golds in the years 2004-2016. An outsider might conclude this was the fruit of some glorious bloom in British cycling culture. In reality cyclists fight against public hostility all the time. We are not the new island Amsterdam, a happy breed of sailors and nurses tootling around on their carbon-wheeled super bikes. Those medals, under the banner Team GB, are a reward for a small group operating in their own discrete bubble.

Watching Gold Rush it is striking that nobody ever suggests success might emerge organically – by creating a culture of participation, by watering the soil, providing public facilities, spreading the wealth. And yes there has been much talk of trickle down, the idea people will be inspired to participate by watching a fortnight of medals on TV.

The connection is more complex than some would make out, but the idea of a tangible legacy was always flimflam. Grassroots sport has struggled horribly. Those in poverty are falling behind even further. A sport such as basketball – which people want to play, but which offers no medal hopes – is still on the C-list.

Perhaps with a little pressure it might be possible to shift the model. Imagine the health benefits, the social benefits, the basic joy if a similar level of detail could be applied to providing world-class public facilities and developing a genuine British physical culture. Another six golds in a single day might be pushing it. But in truth, it always felt a little bit much.


Barney Ronay in Tokyo

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