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We are the Champions: What the Olympics tells us about industrial strategy

25/08/2016 17:39 | Updated 25 August 2016

As BA2016 touched down at Heathrow yesterday it marked the final moment of the Rio Olympics. What a come down it has been since the closing ceremony; watching a documentary about Donald Trump last night - although it was amazing, insightful and scary, and that was just the impersonator - was a poor substitute for revelling in the passion, power and patriotism of the last couple of weeks. No more feats of athletic prowess, no more moments of high drama, no more agony nor ecstasy - at least until the Paralympics in a couple of weeks' time. It's all over.

Of course there will be reverberations for a while to come. Just how many gongs can be handed out to the team? Will Laura and Jason sell the wedding pics to OK! or Hello? By what convoluted means will politicians wrap themselves in the Olympic flag over the next few months? Is Mo going to race in Tokyo and over what distance? And what exactly will the BBC do about Sports Personality of the Year? The questions ‎are endless.

One thing that should now, thankfully, die away is some of the froth, the Silly-Season-Collides-With-Major-Sporting-Occasion nonsense that was an irritating and often enraging ‎accompaniment to the Games. The grotesque sexism of reporting on Helen Skelton's choices of clothing, the hideous homophobia of blaming Tom Daley's 'choice' of sexuality for him bombing out of the diving, and the utter banality of questioning whether this or that presenter was good, bad or indifferent (though for what it's worth, Balding, Skelton, Chapman and above all Leon Taylor were great). The Olympics yet again saw newspapers, desperate to fill their pages, reported the speculation and insults of social media as if they all had equal validity and indeed any intrinsic value - when in almost all cases they deserved no further air time.

Another thing none of us will miss is ‎the efforts of media writers, bloggers, tweeters and others to mash together the two big events of the summer - the Brexit vote and the Games. This was and is absurd. Britain's success in Rio had nothing to do with us rediscovering our national pride post-Brexit, nor was it the result of European funding. As several sensible commentators have pointed out, our medals were won as a result of a deliberate and well-funded campaign, with money thrown at the problem and a highly ruthless approach taken to targeting the money where they would deliver the best return on investment.

‎This is the most convincing parallel that can be drawn, and the lesson politicians should learn. Theresa May, Philip Hammond and Greg Clarke might observe that planning works, it is possible to pick winners, and an industrial strategy could well lead to Olympian results. But they should also see that sustainable success requires lots of money, spent over the long term, and it requires money for infrastructure as well as the day-to-day. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell should note that ruthless targeting is a critical part of the story, and that not every industry can be saved.

In fact all politicians should heed that lesson. No matter how much money we might have spent on some sports we would never be world-beaters; the same is true of some industries. Trying to save our steel industry is the equivalent of trying to win a Gold for basketball - it won't work because there are other people far, far, out in front, and we will simply be wasting our money. No, we need to focus instead on the industrial versions of sitting down sports, sectors where we are expert and where we can build a competitive advantage: pharmaceuticals, engineering, creative industries, financial and allied services. That will be the way to ‎get us to the top of the economic medal table, and the best lesson to learn from Rio 2016.

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