Britain’s Olympic success and the lessons for the climate crisis


There are two big stories on the news this morning: the Olympics and Team GB’s success and the IPCC report concluding that there is no doubt that human carbon emissions are the cause of the climate emergency. I think the Team GB success tells us something about the way in which we need to tackle the climate emergency.

Sport isn’t for everyone, and not everyone supports athletes on the basis of which country they come from, but there is an important lesson here.

In 1996 Great Britain won only one gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics. In total the team won 15 medals. It was a triumph of Thatcherism. The athletes who had come of age under the Tory government of the 1980s either never made it to the Olympics, or had to undergo such hardship that they were not able to perform to their best. Competitors had trained in their shower room to recreate the humidity of Atlanta. Others had to sell their kit after the Olympics to repay loans. Great Britain finished 36th in the medal table. The team was less successful than Ireland. It is an excellent demonstration of where a free-market approach gets you – in a situation where no one can make a quick profit.

The ‘Team of Shame’ sparked a review of how the UK approached Olympic sport. The outcome was funding from the newly created National Lottery being diverted to support athletes, the creation of a rigorous plan to identify future competitors, and unforgiving analysis of which sports could offer more medals. It’s easy to win lots of medals in sports like rowing and cycling, which is why Team GB has focused on those. More popular sports where it’s harder to win medals got less support. For instance, there are only two basketball gold medals, and you need a team to win them. Whereas Chris Hoy was able to bring home 3 gold medals from the 2008 Olympics.

In cycling, the team took the approach of identifying minor improvements, and letting these accumulate. The cumulative effect of small changes – the accumulation of tiny gains was decisive. This was not a substitute for the big changes – funding competitors and creating a performance programme. But it built upon it.

This focus on what would be most effective resulted in a substantial turnaround, with Great Britain finishing a clear third in the medals table in 2012. If the 16 year cycle to the 1996 Olympics had destroyed Great Britain’s capacity to win, the 16 year cycle from 1996-2012 delivered a massive turnaround. The team moved up 33 places in the medal table.

So what does this have to do with the climate emergency?

Well the approach to dealing with climate change has been similar to the Great British team’s approach to the 1996 Olympics. First of all it was up to individual action – just as individual athletes were meant to support themselves to succeed, so we were all meant to make individual choices to save the planet. This was never going to work either in sport or in lowering carbon emissions. We are at the crisis point now. We need to change. And that means making a plan and supporting the action that needs to be taken. It means identifying the things that will work – like putting a stop to fossil fuel extraction. And it means ignoring the things that are a distraction – like speculative carbon extraction technologies.

We need to get the big picture right. That means the appropriate support for change. What we sometimes call a ‘Just Transition’ – something similar to the Team GB funded programme for athletes. And we need to hone the things we do within that to create an accumulation of tiny gains.

In 1996 many people thought it was too difficult to change the Great Britain approach to the Olympics. Which it would have been if we left it to the free market. Instead, the UK government decided to do something that it rarely does: resource a plan and stick to it. And the results have been clear.

The Olympics are not life and death. The climate is. It is time we learned from success and got a plan together.


Comments (9)

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  1. Roger Gough says:

    “It’s easy to win lots of (Olympic) medals in cycling and rowing”. Yours is a spiteful, ignorant and racist comment. Johnny Foreigner wins them as well you know. Would you say the same about Scotland’s gold medal caber-tossers?

    1. Tom Ultuous says:

      Johnny Foreigner
      NOUN British informal, derogatory
      1. a person from a country other than those which make up the United Kingdom
      2. a personification of people from a country other than those which make up the United Kingdom
      For a thousand years we British have peered at Europe from behind our coastal forts that were specifically built to keep Johnny Foreigner out.

      Little Englander trapped in Scotsman’s body alert.

  2. Alasdair Macdonald says:

    For 13 of the 16 years from 1996 – 2012, there was a Labour Government. It was following Thatcherite policies, but with a smiling face, but, to be fair, it did redistribute funds quite significantly, particularly towards education and towards health. Perhaps that is a factor in the change during that period?

    Of course the principal beneficiary of the London Olympics was the loathsome Mr Boris Johnson who was then Mayor of London and who shamelessly used the opportunity for self-promotion. However, he realised that there was kudos in playing the ‘True Brit’ card, as, of course did the Tory campaign managers and, so, in a time of ‘austerity’, funding continued, but, probably, at the expense of things like welfare payments.

    Nevertheless, I think the author makes a valid point that co-operation beats ‘competition’ and ‘the market’, in delivering programmes which are for the common goodrather than for the pockets of a few rentiers.

  3. Tom Ultuous says:

    Do you not think it’s a bit late for tinkering Peter? What I’d like to see is cross-party agreement on making the country vegan over the next 5 years. The world would then split into vegan countries and meat eating countries. Those who didn’t love their children enough to go without meat would move to a carnivorous country. Eventually the vegans would declare war on the carnivores for destroying the planet. Hopefully the vegans would win and the world would be a much better place for all species. Otherwise and we get the same result as doing nothing.

  4. Mouse says:

    The response to climate change isn’t a sport, it shouldn’t be paid for through a lottery funding system thought up by John Major, and it doesn’t require minor gains. It requires major changes in society.

    1. Colin Robinson says:

      Aye, so Everyman and his dog keep saying. But no one seems to be able to tell us just how those major changes are going to be effected in practice. Nagging and Henny Pennying are just not going to do it.

      1. Mouse says:

        I agree. I think major changes will only come about when your house has a half-meter of sea water in it, or it has burned down, and only for those effected. The social media age makes it very difficult for politicians to make unpopular decisions, and stick with them. We sold the car and didn’t buy another one, but I can’t see that catching on.

        1. Colin Robinson says:

          Aye, but I suspect that those of a more authoritarian bent – those of good faith – are angling to use government to make folk sell their cars and otherwise conform their behaviours to their righteous will. Plus ça change…

  5. babs nicgriogair says:

    Interesting perspective!

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