Sunday, January 18, 2009

Olympics: hubris of participation and education

The Natural History Museum’s main hall, with its statue of Darwin and huge dinosaur, is a great room, and having dinner there is a great experience, except when Seb Coe is the after dinner speaker. In a room full of Ministers of Education from around the globe, he managed to deliver a masterclass in appalling delivery and teaching. He droned on about the causal effect of the Olympics on education. By the time the overproduced, cheesy video was shown all on my table were on their mobiles, texting, updating Facebook or whatever.

The Olympics are a politician’s wet dream – lots of pomp, free events, free tickets and worldwide publicity. Now if they were honest and simply saw the Olympics as a means to build some new sports facilities, hold a competition and have some fun, well maybe that would fly. But no, Seb Coe and company have to get transcendental about mass sporting participation, inspirational educational opportunities and young people fulfilling their dreams. In these difficult times at least some brave commentators are questioning the huge expense and hullabaloo of the Olympics and whether it has any real and sustainable effect on participation in sport, and education in general.

My gut feel is that it’s turned into the Frankenstein of sport; something that was fundamentally good but now a huge, sometimes corrupt, sometimes drug fuelled, over-commercialised, nationalistic junket.

Olympics and politics
My earliest memories of the Olympics are from Mexico in 1968, where hundreds of students were gunned down in the Tlatelco massacre. Three Olympic cheers for education! It was also the games in which Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their black power salutes. From then on I can remember lots of East German athletes of indeterminate gender throwing, lifting, jumping, running and generally behaving like the drug-fuelled brutes we now know they were. In 1972 we had the Munich massacre of eleven Israelis and three Palestinians, and two black 400m runners banned for life for acting casually during the Star Spangled banner. In Montreal 1976 most African nations boycotted the games after New Zealand rugby team toured apartheid South Africa. The Moscow Games in 1980 were boycotted by 60 countries led by the US, protesting at their invasion of Afghanistan. Boy did history repeat itself. After the massive cost overruns at Montreal only Los Angeles bid for 1984. They won! This time 14 Soviet bloc countries boycotted the games in a tit for tat move, proving that entire nations can behave like spoiled kids. Seoul in 1988 had only 7 countries boycott, but a Korean boxing coach attacked a referee, and although other matches were still going on in the other rings, Korean officers turned off electricity of the amphitheater and went home. 1992 saw Atlanta host hugely commercial games, selling their soul to coca Cola. It was also the scene of a bombing that killed two and injured 111 by a US citizen who was against ‘abortion’ and ‘the homosexual agenda’. It attracts people of fine moral character, the games! Since Atlanta, with Sydney and Athens, we have seen games that swipe badly needed resources away from services that matter, leaving people to pick up the tab for years later, with little to show other than a clutch of poorly used sports venues. Beijing was the biggest PR exercise in history, a vehicle for a nondemocratic state to establish itself as a perceived world power.

Olympic impact on education
There are two separate arguments in relation to the Olympics and education:

1. That it significantly increases participation in sport
2. That sports’ people are ideal role models
3. That it has a positive impact on other educational goals

1. Participation
What I witnessed at Beijing was the UK excelling at sports where we sit down. When it comes to sitting on a horse, bike, rowing or sailing boat we’re fast as hell. In a cynical approach to funding we pour money into sports in which few actually participate, because few can afford the equipment. It’s a wizard wheeze to exclude almost every developing country and compete in minimal participation sports, where there’s a maximum number of medals and a minimum number of competitors. In practice, our participation in sport is falling, not rising, and the responsibility for the participation is splits across too many Government departments to be workable.

I live next to a large local park and deliver my kids to a sports centre four times a week. What I see is football, rugby, tennis, badminton, martial arts, basketball and a few runners. You need only look at the sports on TV to see that football, rugby, snooker and darts are our favourite spectator sports. The Olympics are, for some sports, almost the only reason they seem to exist, for few take any interest in them for the three years between Olympic events. What children have pictures of horse riders, velodrome cyclists, rowers, sailors or ever swimmers on their bedroom wall? I’m not saying these are not worthy sporting pursuits. I do question our winning medals as having much impact on overall sports participation. My own feeling is that the money spent on the Olympics would be better spent on the ground in community sports programmes and schools.

2. Role models
I also have my doubts about sports’ people as role models. The behaviour of sports people is no more exemplary than most ordinary young people, and in many cases worse. Premiership footballers beating people to a pulp outside Macdonalds, fighting in nightclubs, crashing cars, even worse killing innocent drivers and pedestrians. For every Linniker there’s a Gazza and Barton. In fact few would regard the often drunken antics of footballers, rugby players or cricketers with anything but predictable weariness, stalled in their teenage attitudes, they abandon their education early for a sport that dumps most of them in their late twenties.

Then there’s the drugs. First there’s the recreational Diego Maradonna cocaine snorting variety. Doping drugs have also been in regular use at the Olympics since 1904and the revelations of supposed athletes such as Ben Johnson, Nina Kraft, Justin Gatlin, Marion Jones, Tim Montgomery, Jerome Young, Irina Korzhanenko, Dwain Chambers and so on, hardly make for healthy heroes. It’s a cat and mouse game and everyone knows it’s endemic. An amazing seven horses failed drugs tests in Beijing.

Our current Olympic medal winners have shown themselves to be quite feckless outside of their sport. Their appearance on Sports Personality of the Year showed that the programme is just one big oxymoron. Chris Hoy’s ads on TV are as wooden as his head. This year’s Christmas ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire?’ was the subject of ridicule as our Olympic heroes crashed out on questions that a ten year old would have known. In one case, lampooned mercilessly by TV critics, two of our intrepid yachting medal winners failed to answer the early question, ‘In what field is Ann Wintour known?’ Now that ain’t easy, but the empty headed yachtswoman in the chair said, ’I should know this as I had supper with her last night’. Now how vacuous was that social occasion! She got it wrong.

3. Olympics and education
The Olympics is not a major force for educational good. It’s a blatantly instrumental, political event that barely manages to suppress the nastier side of nationalism. When sport is the only thing a person has it can be an ugly destructive force. Physical education is important and I’d hope that we can increase the amount of young people exercising or participating in sport. But many experience the downside of this push at school. They are pushed into physical participation when they are often too introverted or embarrassed to cope. Many look back at PE with horror at school.

The little girl who was deemed too ugly to sing? Is that the message we want to give our children? If actual talent takes anything away from this push towards physical perfection, it’s censored.

I love sport. Tennis is the only sport I actually play, but I’m a sports fan and watch, in particular, football, tennis and basketball. My preference is for sports that develop outside of the Olympics, and let’s face it, most of the world’s major sports have a paltry Olympic presence. Some are not there at all. I’m for the Olympic but on a smaller scale with less of the participation, role model, educational hubris.


Harold Jarche said...

I too, love sports, but I only watch games where I personally know the players (except for the Tour de France, which is my yearly treat of spectator sports).

Another point that really bothers me about the Olympics is how much they cost each city. It took Montreal 30 years to pay off its '76 debt and Vancouver has just borrowed $1B to cover the shortfall for 2010. I see no reason to support the "The New Lords of the Rings".

Anonymous said...

FYI...Mexico is still in North America

Donald Clark said...

Agreed Harold. Sydney and Athens have both had post-Olympic financial problems. In these days of falling property prices and recession, London will undoubtedly 'pay' in many ways for the 2012 games.

Donald Clark said...

Fair enough. In my mind I meant that cultural block south of the US, largely Spanish speaking. My Mexican friends feel more cultural affinity to Central and South America than the US.

wallr1968 said...

There have been major improvements in the numbers of school aged children taking part in PE & school sport. A recent survey of school sport ( revealed 90% now participate for 2 hours. This cant be attributed to an 'Olympic' effect because the infrastructure to deliver it, was put in place prior to London being awarded the games.

The key challenge now though is enabling those that enjoy it and have become 'switched' on by sport, to continue to participate out of school in sports clubs. Unfortunately, investment in our community sport system has been sadly lacking and we continue to place unrealistic demands on our sport volunteer workforce. Agreed the Olympics will have limited direct impact on this in terms of participation, but another concern post 2012, when sport is no longer flavour of the month, is whether the structures put in place will be sustainable.

Donald Clark said...

Spot on. More direct interventions in schools and in community support for sport would be a better approach. I've seen this with my own children, who have been inspired by a local Tae Kwon Do coach to go on and compete at National and International level. These local sports enthusiasts are the real heroes and are often ignored by government (and schools). I'm for a more integrated approach between schools and community providers to get every child doing a sport or regular exercise.

Anonymous said...

The costs are prohibitive and the facts do look gloomy, but for a country like India where sports is never an easy option, events like this one bring the infrastructure.

There is learning too as children are exposed to different sports and sometimes figure out what interests them.

Without excessive frills the events are worth a watch and these events should be taken seriously as these can act as important diversions for many who might otherwise be engaged into destructive pursuits such as fanatic beliefs. Sports can become a positive outlet and Olympics, which are telecasted world wide can have a mild distracting influence on chaotic regions.

Donald Clark said...

I agree. the problem with the infrastructure argument is that it tends to be a concentration of high-end stadia and facilities in the capital city. Little trickles down to the rest of the country. London has just finished Wembley Stadium and we're about to build several more at enormous costs in terms of land purchase and capital investment.

If the Olympics were spread around a country, this I think would have a better catalytic effect on sports in general.

Anonymous said...

In these extraordinary times where the UK taxpayer is borrowing hundreds of billions to buy up banks and probably several other sectors the cost of the Olympics looks a stretch. How about we give it to China again. They have all of the shiny new stadia and facilities ready to go.

Donald Clark said...

Inspired Chris! they're none to bad at longwinded opening ceremonies either.