Elitism in the Olympics

With an remarkable haul of gold medals so far, Team GB have made an impressive impact upon the sporting world and have continuously strived to improve their personal records. But such success comes with shortfalls, many have criticised the availability and access of our most prominent sports, and argue that some of these sports are significantly elitist and only available to those from wealthier backgrounds. Whilst the success of state school pupils such as Bradley Wiggins and Jessica Ennis attempts to dispel this myth, the majority of inner city pupils have no access to sports such as rowing, sailing and equestrianism. Is it a hard truth that a lot of the sports, like most things in our society, are only truly available to the upper classes, or is there equal access for all? Furthermore is this access extended internationally, or do smaller countries fail to compete in these so called elitist sports.

The main idea behind the Olympics was to inspire a generation, inspire them to play sports, compete, and win. However it is becoming increasingly apparent that many of these sports are simply unavailable to the majority of British school children. Imagine a school in the middle of Hackney, only a few miles from the Olympic park, there is no playing field, no rowing river, no stables, and no boats to sail on. This is the harsh reality of inner city state schools, under-funded and lacking significant sporting resources. Conversely, private schools who educate 7% of the population, have accounted for 44% of the medals Team GB have won. This figure itself demonstrates the large disparity between state schools and independent schools in their ability to provide a variety of sports. Without the necessary resources, state schools are unable to even get children involved in sports such as rowing and sailing, as there is a considerable lack of access. Independent schools such as Millfield in Somerset has trained seven 2012 Olympians, all of whom could afford the rather costly £10,000 per term boarders’ fees. Furthermore the school is able to recruit ex-Olympians and expert sport coaches to match its Olympic standard facilities. States schools can only hopelessly compete with independent schools such as these, who can afford the resources and facilities needed to ‘inspire a generation’. So it would seem that the Olympics are less meritocratic than you’d expect, and a lack of access prevents state school children from even participating in certain events.

Prime Minister David Cameron recently announced that there needed to be a “cultural change” towards sports, to encourage more competitive sports to be played in schools. This is somewhat hypocritical seeing as the coalition has already sold off 20 inner city playing fields, despite their pledge to protect them. Furthermore Cameron called on teachers to make more of an effort to teach sports in their spare time, hardly fair considering the on-going cuts to their pensions and education budgets. The government can’t expect teachers to do everything, and they can’t blame teachers for not producing more Olympians. What is to blame is the lack of funding for state schools to increase participation into these elitist sports. There is already a thriving sporting culture across Britain, but more of an effort needs to be made to improve access for everyone to sports that are currently only for the few.

The problem of elitism is not limited to the UK either, internationally there are growing calls to make sports more available to poorer countries. The lacks of African nations in rowing, sailing, cycling, fencing and equestrianism are a testament to this. As argued, these sports have extensive equipment costs and many nations simply can’t afford to compete in them. In addition many of these sports are seemingly overrepresented, in Rowing there are 13 medals to be won, compared to the 2 in Basketball. It appears that there is a reluctance to diversify the Olympics and include new sports, particularly those played across India and China (by millions of people), and instead continuing the comparatively less popular equestrian events. Eminent Zambian sports sociologist Dr Oscar Mwaanga remarked that the Olympics serve to humiliate the poorer nations. Countries that are unable to recruit sporting experts, and provide Olympic standard facilities, are subsequently unable to compete in any sports that don’t have low entry costs.

With the success of Team GB, it is easy to lose track of the harsh realities of sporting equality. That said, the determination and perseverance of our Olympic athletes will certainly inspire a generation by creating new roles models for children to aspire to. But without the necessary facilities and resources, new talent will never truly be developed and many Olympic sports will unfortunately only be available to those who can afford it. Fortunately this subject hasn’t gone completely unnoticed, and many Olympians have rallied to improve access and funding for all. Regrettably the government seem slightly less helpful, announcing empty promises to secure facilities and emitting the usual rhetoric in which people must work harder and improve sporting culture.

One response to “Elitism in the Olympics”

  1. Richard says:

    I think this is a fair conclusion – that investment in facilities needs to accompany the inspiration of the Games, to get more people into these sports. But I do wonder about the sustainability of encouraging people into sports that require such expensive equipment and facilities.