I’m on my annual staycation and I inadvertently stumble on a copy of The Scotsman over breakfast. With a listless dread I turn the pages when, on page four, this scoop jumps out at me: “Clare Balding’s Favourite Rower Revealed”.* I immediately alert the rest of the house and soon people are crowding around me, jostling. As people come to their senses and the full consequences of the story hits-home, some lie, slumped, stunned. Later we are told that: “Balding’s fellow BBC presenter Gabby Logan chose boxer Nicola Adams as her favourite Olympian, while Hazel Irvine chose 1972 Munich Olympics sensation Mark Spitz.”
The sheer inanity for much that passes for news is frequently more disturbing than alleged political bias. It’s more pervasive.
This summer it’s reached a peak with saturation Olympic coverage allied to a hyper British nationalist fervour on the back of the Brexit vote – and with some even arguing that our success is because of the Brexit vote and ‘our’ new-found patriotic fervour. Of course we know that it’s to do with the millions of pounds being poured in from the lottery, a neat exchange between millions of Britain’s poorest people to a handful of elite athletes. In the London Olympics, the rowing was based at a place called ‘Eton Dorney’, or, as you know it ‘Eton’.
Now we have the endless parades and wrap-around news coverage, now we have the clawing demands for knighthoods and gongs for all of them.
I don’t doubt the courage, incredible commitment and skill of these athletes and competitors. Good luck to them and well done Team GB. But we really don’t need this. British Olympic success is being twisted for the most crass political ends.
Theresa May said the other day that:
“Team GB reflects what the Union can achieve when we’re all on the same team and when we work together… When you look at the four nations, we are greater than the sum of our parts”.
Next, the Tory MP for South Derbyshire – Heather Wheeler – thinks something called the ‘British Empire’ won the 2016 Olympics.
Each medal in Rio has cost £5.5m of public funding. This a massive public investment on a handful of – often already privileged people – when we should be channelling money to focus on the many, rather than the few.
The argument that this spectacle encourages grassroots participation is spurious. Health experts tell us that ordinary people in Britain now do less than 30 minutes of exercise per week. That’s even less than we managed before London hosted the Olympics.
As the Independent reports:
“The discrepancy between the impressive achievements by Team GB and a lack of motivation in the population at large is increasing. The number of adults playing any sport has dropped since 2012. In the poorest areas like Yorkshire and Humber, 67,000 fewer people are involved in sport. In Doncaster the decline is over 13 per cent, whereas in well-heeled Oxford, it’s up 14 per cent.”
“Team GB reflects what the Union can achieve when we’re all on the same team and when we work together… When you look at the four nations, we are greater than the sum of our parts”
If you factor in the reality of life in Rio de Janeiro, this really is the global Hunger Games.
You can’t early make the sort of investment UK Sport, which decides how to allocate tax and lottery money, has done and still find resources for proper grassroots, mass-participation and community sports . UK Sport’s strategy is to back winners, to seek the rare handful of people who can achieve at an international competition level, and it works. Now the vast bulk of this cash will go to specially selected 14-25 year olds – future winners – and they also find funds for a discrete group of what they call “podium level athletes”.
There’s a neat symmetry here too. As money floods in to pay for the spectacle at the cost of the community, so too is genuine news displaced for ‘sports news’. No doubt the Olympics is a big global event but the main news channels top item today, and yesterday and probably tomorrow, will simply be that these people are getting on a plane and flying home. Doubtless this will be followed by a stream of banal interviews asking them ‘How do you feel?” “How does it make you feel?” It’s this convergence of celebrity, inanity and spectacle that makes me numb with a dull anger.
There’s something desperate about the need for all this. There’s a lacking, something absent that drives British gasping needy over-reach. The athletes success should be enough. They have their medals, hard-won by dedication few of us can even comprehend. They don’t need to be knighted. They don’t need to be anointed by the British Empire and used as political pawns in a new nationalist frenzy.
As we face a childhood obesity epidemic and rampant diabetes and diet-related ill-health, a failure to invest in sport and healthy-living matters. So what are we going to do about it? Let Them Eat Cake.
* Clare Balding’s favourite ever rower is Katherine Grainger.