The Olympics draw to a close tonight, and despite the worry and trepidation that many had before Rio 2016 the Games themselves went spectacularly well and proved, once again, to be an incredible festival of sport.
Team GB had their best Games ever, clinching more medals than they managed during London 2012 – an amazing feat considering that no host country has ever outperformed themselves in the following Olympics.
Britain’s medal haul was so impressive that we came 2nd in the overall table, behind only the USA and ahead of the Olympic superpowers of China.
Sport in this country is a part of our fabric, and the way in which Team GB are supported is phenomenal. We love to see our country’s athletes succeed on the world stage and there can be little denying just how enthusiastic most people can be when they’re talking about sport.
That’s why sporting institutions in this country have been able to secure so much funding to provide our Olympic athletes with the money they need to train and compete at the highest levels of their sports. The total spend for this year’s Olympics was a record £347 million, which is the equivalent of over £4 million per medal. While the funding undeniably brought success, whether it was worth the spend for the 366 competitors that took part in Rio is another question.
It’s easy to argue that rather than the focus being on the couple of hundred “elite” athletes, the real benefits and aim of sport funding should be on the thousands, if not millions, of people who don’t have the facilities or opportunity to take part in sport.
The facts about our public health and participation in sport make for stark reading and show that the Olympic legacy plans for our home games four years ago haven’t worked. Since London 2012, there are 400,000 fewer people taking part in sport once a week and efforts to curb obesity in this country are failing – with as many as 62% of people being at least overweight.
We know that there are health problems in this country owing to lack of physical activity and we also know that Britain in general lacks proper sporting facilities at a community level. These can be fixed together by building and maintaining new all-weather multi-sport venues that are accessible to the public. This gives people the chance to get active in their local communities all-year-round and take up new sports that they’d otherwise have no chance of taking part in.
Building these facilities would be an investment in our future sporting success but also in our national health, with the money spent being recouped on lower costs to the NHS. Imagine how much that the £347 million in Olympic funding could do when directed towards the general public rather than just the couple of hundred athletes.
Another way in which we can build upon the success of our Olympic team is to press for more high-quality sport on free-to-air TV. The viewing figures throughout the Olympics for sports that generally attract small numbers were a clear sign that there is an interest there that isn’t being served by pay-per-view TV. 9 million people watched the Great Britain women win gold in hockey – which was only a few million shy of the number that watched England’s opener in their failed Euro 2016 campaign.
This lets the children of this country see a new group of heroes and get inspired to take up new sports that might end up being their favourites. The BBC have done a sterling job at weaving their #getinspired effort into their Olympics coverage and doing their best to show people the way in which they can get involved in the new sports they see at the Olympics. Keeping this going beyond one fortnight every four years is crucial to keeping this interest alive and making a real difference to the way in which people take part in sport in this country. It’ll even help us produce our next generation of Olympians, as the kids that take up new sports and improve will eventually get their own chance on a world stage.
Rio 2016 was a landmark Olympics for Team GB, and we can all rightly be proud of the successes of everyone that took part – but rather than loading our focus on the highest of the high in sport there needs to be more consideration of a wider sports funding strategy that really provides our society with a sporting legacy worth it’s name. There’s room for both elite funding and grassroots funding, but the balance needs to be shifted. Spending money on elite athletes shows people that they can be successful too, but it means nothing if they don’t have the facilities to make that success happen.
Medals of Gold, Silver and Bronze are achievements we can be proud of, but they pale in value compared to having thousands more people being active in sport – and that’s what we need to aim for now.