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The Social Democratic Team GB v. Freemarket English Football

7976310763_8470c7d8f2_zMark Perryman outlines what  Great Britain’s Olympic success does and does not mean

Team GB’s second place in the Rio medals table is nothing less than staggering. It is only 20 years ago that the squad returned with a solitary Gold from Atlanta ’96 clinging on to 36th in the table. This sporting nation is now ranked alongside the Olympian superpowers of USA and China. If it hadn’t been for the partial IOC ban on their competitors Russia would have been in the mix too but still this remains a remarkable Team GB medal haul.

Unlike the football World Cup, the Olympics Medal Table is by and large an indicator of global economic and political power. These superpower nations, USA, China and Russia, cannot claim a single men’s Football World Cup title between them or have come anywhere close, mostly. The Olympics is different.  So how has Team GB ended up on top of the Olympic pile?

20 years ago apart from Atlanta ’96 there was also Euro ’96. England’s last semi-final appearance at a tournament, Scotland went out at the Group Stage and apart from France ’98 have failed to qualify since. Wales and Northern Ireland each had magnificent Euro 2016 campaign this summer but apart from that the record has been pretty dismal. For England and a sport which, despite all the evidence, we still like to think we rule the world in, the contrast with Team GB’s recovery over those same two decades is startling.

The reasons are not so much to do with further, faster, higher – than a victory of social-democracy vs neoliberalism. Yes that’s right. Via the Lottery all the most successful Team GB Olympic sports are state-subsidised. A huge investment, £350 million over the Olympic Cycle, or around £5.5 million per medal won. But the values of social democracy that pervade this sporting success go further. The funding is subject to democratic rigours of collective regulation and accountability. The Olympic Sports entirely control the regime their athletes train and compete under with a relentless pursuit of Olympic success as the pinnacle of all achievement, if necessary at the cost of other competitions and honours.

The total opposite of this is of course English football. Here neoliberalism rules. Far more money is splashed about. £350 million? That wouldn’t be far off just one Premier League club’s transfer and wages budget for a single season. For what?

The ‘best league in the world’ (sic) is going backwards in terms of mounting a serious challenge to win the Champions’ League. And as the recent Euro 2016 final proved the finest players in Europe, and this was also true of the World Cup 2014 final too, the world as well, by and large play outside of England too. In classic neoliberal fashion the ‘richest league’ in the world has been wilfully mistranslated in to the ‘best league’ in the world.

But the biggest marker of this failure of course is the England football team. All the riches in the world and they cannot get past Iceland, or at World Cup 2014 out of their group. The sport’s governing body, the FA, has engineered the total deregulation of their own sport. Every club out for their own end. Private money chasing individual gain, no collective endeavour, zero accountability, hands-off governance. The result is a catalogue of failure.

No Olympic sport would permit such an abdication of responsibility and thus the big result from Rio can’t simply be measured in the mountain of Gold, Silver and Bronze medals but Team GB’s social democratic values beating the freemarket failure of English football hands down.

However the social-democratisation of Team GB is flawed in one crucial respect. The £350 million bill has given those that enjoy their sport from the sofa a glorious two and a bit weeks. A quadrennial celebration of sport few will forget in a hurry. But while there will be a spike of interest in doing some of these sports without the infrastructure and funding to meet the largesse splashed out on the elite level this will be short-lived. This isn’t to decry the Gold Medals. But we need a political conversation – this is about political choices – that makes the connection between a social democratic sports culture for some with one that is for all.  To recognise that while TV viewing figures soar, the front page celebrations of Olympic success become a daily occurrence and the Gold Medal feelgood factor hits the heights none of this is enough to sustain a fundamental change in sport and leisure culture.

Team GB has helped prove what an impact public expenditure combined with regulation towards a collective end can achieve. And precious few complain, we wallow in the success as much theirs, the athletes’, as ours’ too.

But this race won’t truly be won until those resources are mobilised towards creating a sports and leisure culture that serves sport for all, and not just for some. If public expenditure is good enough to fund winning Gold Medals then isn’t it good enough to fund the return of school playing fields, build public swimming pools, construct jogging and exercise trails too.

Philosophy Football’s unique, strictly unofficial, Team GB Rio Medals Table T-shirt  is available from here

Mark Perryman, co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction, aka Philosophy Football, and author of Why The Olympics aren’t Good For Us and How They Can Be


  1. Thomas Croft says:

    The author of this piece might also have mentioned the staggering achievement of Leicester City FC, in transforming themselves from relegation fodder to Premiership champions over the course of one season. Ranieri took a group of essentially bargain-basement players (some of whose extraordinary talents had been overlooked by other clubs), and forged them into a winning team whose ethos was based upon everyone working for each other in a collective endeavour towards a (literally) common goal. Sure, at the point of delivery, football is essentially a competitive sport, but as with our Olympic success, achievement in this case was reached by recognising and nurturing individual talent, while encouraging it to develop within a mutually supportive framework – one where everyone knew what they were capable of, and what was expected of them, and delivered it to their full potential. As Ruskin once pointed out, cooperation is always to be desired as the basis for a healthily functioning society, in preference to cut-throat competition, and in recognition of this it was heartening during the Olympics to hear so many GB athletes openly acknowledge the efforts of the back-room staff who had helped get them onto the podium.

  2. 1819 says:

    Thanks Mark for a well put idea. Is it possible that what we are seeing is not actually a vindication of a social democratic approach over a neoliberal one, but quite the opposite?

    I haven’t done an analysis, but anecdata suggests that most (by no means all) of our medals were in events where individuals competed alone. The Olympics favour solo events, but still I’m not perceiving the same level of dominance by Team GB in team sports at Rio. And a number of the teams where we normally do well such as rowing and cycling are more like units (in that they reward synchronisation more than co-operation). Hockey is the stand out exception.

    Therefore the neoliberal argument would be that the most able individuals have been supported predominantly in the sports that have been most successful. The money (and the neoliberal would argue it’s not State money but money contributed voluntarily by the public to “good causes”) has flowed in almost social Darwinian terms. Indeed, it could really be the survival of the fittest – the fittest athlete.

    So I wonder if a more illuminating comparison between football and elsewhere would be with cricket and rugby union, where our fortunes ebb and flow but generally the lesson has been to invest in developing young talent.

  3. Barry Hearth says:

    Tessa Jowell is on record as saying that John Major is the reason for Team GB’s success, he brought the lottery into being………..
    Maybe something to do with how poor Labour have been at elections in recent years.

  4. Bazza says:

    Good piece but the funding comes from part of the National Lottery gambling pot which some argue is a tax on the poor but of course many of us play because it’s a slim chance of escaping capitalist drudgery.
    And of course the global corporations do well out of the games and we have the usual poor uprooted and displaced.
    But I do love the games as a potential celebration of humanity and I loved the performance of the GB Team including back up staff because of their hard work but I also cheered other athletes and underdogs and for example loved it when the Brazilian judo althete won gold as she came from a slum.
    Sport for All is a good slogan and perhaps we need socialist policy – tax the rich, corporations etc and fund the great and good of sport AND the grassroots!
    So well done GB and all the athletes but part of me knows its not really a level playing field and imagines that perhaps somewhere in the World possibly in Ethiopia or something is the best cyclists in the World, struggling on a rickety bike.
    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every country could invest as a proportion the same amount on their athletes.
    I love this potential celebration of diverse humanity but offer some food for thought!

  5. Mark says:

    Hi some really good comments here.

    My view is that we can, and should, celebrare both ends of the sporting spectrum. Those Gold Medals are the pinnaxcle of human achievement, the contrast with the failure of fremaeket English football is startling and illuminating. but what do they mean when swimming pools are shut, public playing fields in a state of disrepair, jogging and exercise trails not being built, leisure faciitues that thrive are privately owned and expensive to use. A true ‘sporting superpower’ would address this. A social democraric politucs certainly should.

    We should challenge the idea that Olympic success will in any way challenge falling levels of sport and leisure activity. To argue that if it is good enough to spend public money on elite sport why not on people’s sport.

    Use the fremaeket failure of Ebglish football to challenge the idea of deregulation. Our Olymoc success is largely down to the regulatory governabce of sport, the same is also true of rugby and cricket. Leave it to the market and England lose to Iceland, a winning argument in England at least!

    As for the medals table. Yes it is subject to economic power, far more than in football. Because most Olympic sports aren’t truly global, they are elite sports dependent on heavy investment in facilities, equipmentm coaching and more. Rowing being the most obvious example but plenty more.

  6. Doug says:

    How many medals were won in sports that required expensive specialist equipment i.e. that most countries couldn’t afford? Or sports where the number of medals on offer was excessive compared with others e.g. the traditional athletics, dominated by countries whose success the rich countries, TV companies and corporations want to keep to a minimum.

    How many British athletes winning medals went to public school and/or university?

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