Baron de Coubertin back in 1896, under the auspices of a fledgling IOC, organised the first modern games which were held in Athens. 14 nations and 241 athletes competed in 41 events. The city of Athens and a private trust fund helped pay for the games with any monies outlaid to be recouped by ticket sales and a commemorative stamp.
The athletes were all amateurs and the principles were aimed at personal achievement rather than national success. Faster, stronger, higher.
The games lurched through the early part of the 20th century. The St Louis Games in 1904 took place alongside the Worlds Fair, when there were 650 athletes, of which 580 were from the United States.
Nationalism of the worst kind was evident at the Berlin Games of 1936. Political boycotts have been a feature with particular note of 1980, and 1984 when the Russians and Americans boycotted each others games. Only Great Britain, France, Switzerland, Australia, and Greece have been present at every Olympics.
The blur between amateur and professional athletes was already meaningless by the '80s. The prestige attaching to the bidding cities and by default the respective countries was regarded as a rich prize, until it was realised that the economic cost is actually now considered to far outweigh the commercial benefits. Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney and Beijing all suffered a negative financial effect. London’s games were some of the cheapest to stage of modern times and those Games probably accrued a small commercial/tourism benefit to the City.
However as the bidding process for future games takes place it is notable that the competition to win the games is now seeing less cities bidding. Tokyo, in 2020, only had to compete with three other cities, to win the host city title. For 2024, so far only 2 possibly 3 cities are expressing an interest.
What value does Olympic success bring, and does it matter?
Whilst there is obvious national euphoria in the UK about the success of Team GB, there does need to be an analysis of how success is achieved.
China is an example of state influence over sporting achievement. For years China has enjoyed “State sports academies” where children from an early age are trained intensively and this reaped its rewards at the Beijing and London Games but as the middle classes have grown there has been a clear resistance for parents to give their children over at an early age to the intensity of physical training doled out at the sports schools, The result is that China has seen their haul of Gold Medals substantially diminished at Rio from the earlier glories of Beijing and London. At Beijing they had won 51 golds, London 38 golds.
In 1990 there were 3,687 sports school academies in China, and that number is now down to 2,183. The country with 1.4billion people, state involvement and a political drive to be seen to be the leaders and better than other countries, particularly western countries, is therefore one of the Olympic under achievers.
The UK, at its worst had a haul of one gold medal at the Atlanta Olympic Games of 1996. Since then a steady increase in state funding has seen Team GB drawing from a population of some 66million people, now enjoy unprecedented and disproportionate success at the Beijing, London, and now Rio games.
The Department for Culture, Media, and Sport, which to my mind, smacks a little of Orwell’s, 1984, together with the National Lottery, have this year raised and distributed £543 million into “UK Sport”.
UK Sport, whose tag line is “world class success” then distributes those funds: £61 million is used up by “PARTNER INVESTMENT”, £387 million into “WORLD CLASS PERFORMANCE INVESTMENT, £70 million into UK SPORT PROGRAMMES, and £25 million into “GOLD EVENT SERIES”. These monies filter into the respective National Governing Bodies of the various sports, and they organise on an 8 year cycle of World Class Programmes. Some 1300 elite athletes in their chosen fields then enjoy the benefit of the structured and well scrutinised funding.
The state involvement is specifically there to maximise performance and success. Success is measured by medals won, the number of medallists developed, and the quality of the systems developed.
Financial support per athlete is typically worth around £36,000 to £60,000 per athlete “at the podium level”, and £23,000 to £40,000 at the “podium potential level”….dependent on the sport.
On top of this athletes can further be awarded “Athlete Performance Awards”….
BAND A; Olympic and world medallists up to £28,000 pa
BAND B; Top 8 finishers in the above up to £21,500 pa
BAND C; Likely to be in the above within 4 years up to £15,000 pa