Saturday was the best day for Great British Olympic achievement since London in 1908. By Monday morning Team GB lay third in the medal table, an improved standing at half way on the Beijing games of 2008. As we enter the second week the jingoistic hyperbole that has surrounded BBC coverage has reached stellar levels (and justifiably so, I do not want to sound churlish) but until Sunday the media overlooked a significant difference between the types of sports at which nations excel - the influence of private schooling on medal success.
Team GB do seem very good at securing medals in sitting down sports - such as equestrian events, sailing and rowing - while the other top nations, such as China and the USA, are stand out in non-sitting down sports. Of Team GB's first 37 medals, 66 per cent were in sitting down sports. At the same stage China and the USA had over 121 medals with a sitting down element of a mere 7 per cent.
The distinction may seem trite at first and few Team GB supporters will raise an eyebrow at the difference. Gold is gold, no matter what the sporting activity. How thrilling it was to see Mo Farah bring the roof off the Olympic Stadium by winning the 10,000 metres gold medal, Jessica Ennis win a superb heptathlon, and Greg Rutherford jump to glory. But why are we British so good at some sitting down sports? Is it because some of these sports are more likely to be accessed by private educated athletes?
This conclusion rings true given the findings of Lord Moynihan, Chairman of the British Olympic Association. He revealed that 50 per cent of Team GB gold medalists at the last Olympic games in Beijing were from independent schools. In fact at Beijing 40 per cent of our medalists and over a third of all our competitors were privately educated. You can't get away from the British class system. It is estimated that nearly one quarter of Team GB at the 2012 Olympics was educated at fee-paying schools.
Sir Chris Hoy, already with one gold under his saddle in London and currently joint leading Olympic athlete of all time, studied at the private George Watson's College in Edinburgh. Yachtsman Ben Ainslee went to the private Truro School in Cornwall. All the Beijing GB equestrian team were privately educated. Private schools devote more of their curriculum to sport, especially sitting down ones. They employ top coaches and can afford superior facilities to the state sector, especially in sports where the cost of participation is relatively excessive (sailing and equestrian events).
Reflecting on our achievements four years ago Lord Moynihan described the Beijing medal profile as one of the 'worst statistics in British sport'. Half of Britain's medals at Beijing came from just 7 per cent of the population. He expressed the hope the London Olympic legacy will be to try and roll back the private school domination in Olympic competition. Imagine what could happen at future Olympics if the sporting talent out there in the 93 per cent of the population at state schools was fully exploited. Lord Moynihan urged government to ensure that sport is more highly prioritised in state schools with the focus on access and achievement. It is not only Team GB which is class based, 7 of the batsmen in our test team facing South Africa went to private schools, and over 66 per cent of England rugby team received fee-funded education. One of the problems in state schools is the lack of emphasis on sport in the week day curriculum compared to the private sector, and the tendency to encourage non competitive sporting activity.
There is some evidence that in the London Olympics State schools may be showing slightly more success than in Beijing. In rowing for example, Moe Sbihi won bronze in the men's eight. Moe attended a comprehensive school that was part of a programme launched a decade ago to develop elite rowers. In London 50 per cent of Team GB rowers were state educated, a huge leap on the 2008 profile. However, the recession may further inhibit state school sport expansion. This month the Charities Aid Foundation revealed that the income of sports clubs had fallen by 15 per cent since 2004. Research by the Labour Party has shown a 60 per cent fall in the time allocated to organising sports in State schools since 2008.
As Peter Wilby explained in Aside from football, sport in Britain is still a game for the elite, an excellent appraisal of the British class system and contemporary sport: 'The alumni of fee-charging schools have maintained, and even strengthened, their position. When success becomes more dependent on attainment at school, whether academic or sporting, the children of the privileged are best placed to prosper. On starting school, their physical development, as well as their language development, is ahead of their peers'. It is then enhanced by lower pupil-teacher ratios, more highly qualified teachers and coaches, and better equipment and facilities'.
The legacy of the London Olympics must include the broadening of access to sport in our state schools and greater investment at the grassroots. Then perhaps we might compete in future Olympics at an even higher level especially at non sitting down sports. But will government take heed? Will they inject the necessary resources in a time of austerity? Will the sponsors, who have so assiduously supported the London Olympics, finance state education sport to a significant degree after the closing ceremony? Investment is needed and a new vision, something on a par with the hope of Danny Boyle whose impressive inclusive and multi-cultural opening ceremony stimulated the public imagination. Our Olympic and sporting future may depend on it. The coalition should begin planning and delivering an overhaul of sport in our schools the day after the games. The sporting legacy of the London 2012 depends on a prompt response. State sport education must not be left in the blocks.
Find out more:
- An insight into how comprehensive schools have generated olympic success read John Harris' article Ennis, Farah, Murray: here ends the state school myth .
- Since coming to power in May 2010, the Coalition Government has approved the disposal of more than 20 school playing fields despite a pledge to protect sports pitches from development.
Dick Skellington 6 August 2012
The views expressed in this post, as in all posts on Society Matters, are the views of the author, not The Open University.
Cartoon by Catherine Pain