There's no doubt about it. Team GB did a great job. We are now a force to be reckoned with on an international stage. For a nation with rising levels of adult and childhood obesity, where school playing fields are being sold off at a rate of roughly two per month since 2015, it's a great achievement. But why are we making such a big effort to succeed in an international sporting arena that appears to be rife with cheats, corruption, dirty politics and whatever you call Ryan Lochte? Has the balance of public sport funding swung to far towards the bling and away from the council footie pitch?
A few months ago, the newspapers were awash with stories of scandals in international athletics. The Paralympics has even banned an entire country from participating in Rio 2016, imagine that. A whole country. And that's in the Paralympics, where in 2012, the levels of drug cheating were an order of magnitude (yes, a whole decimal place) lower than at the London Olympics (0.07% participants failed drug tests at the 2012 Paras, more like 0.6% at the 2012 Olympics). Where the Olympics wanted to avoid an embarrassing political spat over it, the Paras showed clear leadership. And what happens? The Paralympics are facing a serious funding crisis. The good guys lose out. And another crisis hits international sport. Again.
For the likes of Formula 1 and Football, we've come to accept the huge salaries, banks, oil, booze and (until relatively recently) tobacco sponsorship as being a perfectly healthy way to finance sport. We're not surprised to see sportspeople selling razors, aftershave and luxury watches in glossy photoshoots. Meanwhile we read endless reports of ticket scalping, drug cheats, match fixing, FBI swoops and allegations of corruption at the highest levels. Nobody likes it, but nobody seems able to stop it, either. It seems to be simply the cost of doing business. Except sport isn't just a business, is it?
It's almost an existential crisis for sport itself. Can you really buy winning these days? In a world where an entire country can be caught cheating so badly it's banned from a global competition, shouldn't we ask if we're losing the plot? Is winning big in a world rife with cheating and corruption really the best, or only, measure of our sportsmanship? How about clearing out the crooks and doing more to ensure fairness? No wait, did I mention what's happening to the Paralympics? Bit of a coincidence, that.
There's also legitimate questions to be asked about how we measure the efficacy of public spending on sport. For example, Finland only managed one medal at Rio - a bronze - because they spend less on elite sport. But they have invested heavily in public sports projects to combat obesity and physical inactivity for the last 30 years. The results are good too. Obesity, especially childhood obesity, is declining in Finland. In the UK it's rising. The USA and China too.
Research by Dr. Dan Parnell and Dr. Paul Widdop at Edinburgh University has found that public participation in sports (particularly for young people) has actually declined significantly since 2008. Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation cites physical inactivity as the 4th leading risk factor in global mortality, and research by The Lancet has suggested, as far back as 2013, that an estimated 5.3 million deaths in the UK are attributable to physical inactivity, too. If the legacy of public sport funding is supposed to be inspiring people (especially young people) to actually play more sport and be healthier... it's not working.
At the same time UK Sport is achieving great results in elite sports, local authorities (especially those in the poorest areas of the UK) are reducing opening hours, cutting staff and closing public sports facilities. Additionally, the NHS has picked-up about £940 million pounds worth of inactivity-related cases per year. And rising. Is the medal haul at the Olympics a good return on our public sports investment compared to that? It would be great to have elite success and maintain public sports facilities but right now the balance is too heavily weighted towards generating a public feel good factor as opposed to a healthy feeling public.
Let's hope Team GB wins big in Tokyo 2020. And let's hope the Paralympics pulls through in a couple of weeks. It's important not to be cynical, there are signs that international sport is through the worst of it. Okay, so that's looking good. If the nation's sporting brains can achieve all that, getting more of us off the sofa and out for a jog or a swim shouldn't be an Olympic effort... should it?
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