Britain's Olympians are a Class Apart

15/07/2012 23:31 BST | Updated 14/09/2012 10:12 BST

There's less than three weeks to go until the Olympics, and Britain is fast approaching a state of fevered apathy. After the ceremonial drizzle of the Jubilee and Scottish Andy Murray's inevitable defeat at Wimbledon, we're practising shoulder shrugs, eyerolls, and throwing our hands up in exasperation for the climax of Britain's glorious summer of 2012.

More than 14,000 athletes from 375 Olympic and Paralympic teams will compete in London in 300 events. Such a diversity of nationalities competing on the world stage will be, cynicism aside, a fantastic spectacle, and the champions will be decided on merit having tested themselves against the best in the world.

Scratch at the egalitarian sheen of the modern Games, however, and there lies a gaping class chasm. Figures from the Department of Media, Culture and Sport show that in the 2008 Olympic Games around a quarter of Britain's athletes came from independent schools, compared to just 7% of the population as a whole. Our elite athletes are elite in more ways than one.

No-one can seriously deny that class is a huge part of British society: that academic achievement is linked to wealth, whether through private schools' smaller class sizes, extra tuition, or simply having the luxury of a non-working parent to help with homework and a quiet place to do it, is an unavoidable reality. But that class privilege can also boost a child's chances of excelling at the triple jump or the 400m should shock us.

This pattern isn't unique to sport. It's mirrored, sometimes to ludicrous degrees, across many other aspects of British life, from journalism, to politics, to law. The lack of loans available for the postgraduate study required to enter many of these professions is far more scandalous and damaging to social mobility than the increase in undergraduate tuition fees.

But few think of sport as a bastion of privilege. It should be one of the last remaining aspects of modern life where there is a level playing field. Sporting talent is doled out regardless of background, and physical prowess isn't dependent upon going to the right school - just look at the England football team (of the Euro 2012 squad, only Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was independently educated).

Yet the opportunity to develop that talent is anything but equal. The DCMS has a scheme called the School Games, to try to encourage kids to do more sport, inspired by the prospect of these elite athletes competing on our shores - but little over half of schools have signed up to it. The others either didn't think it worthwhile or lacked the facilities.

There will always be some events that are weighted towards children from well-off families. It would be difficult to practice sailing in inner-city Birmingham, and I can't see equestrianism taking off in Toxteth. But unless you believe middle-class children are innately physically superior, the skewed make-up of Team GB should be a wake-up call that reminds us of the hurdles in the way of so many children, simply because of where they're born.

Like the rest of the country, I'll be supporting Team GB from my sofa, desperately finding excuses not to use the Tube while the Games are on. The background of our sportsmen and women won't affect that support - but it will be there, at the back of my mind.

The Olympics gives us a brilliant opportunity to correct this by using the interest generated by the Games to ensure all schools can support the next generation of sports stars, whatever school they attend. If we seize this chance to level the divots and bobbles of privilege in sport we can build a legacy worth celebrating. If we squander it, we're all in for the high jump.