Should we be inspired by elite sport seen in the Olympics, revel in the cult of the sporting elite, or instead do more to support the ordinary person?
For a short while during the Covid pandemic, our heroes changed. Elite sport was forgotten, the cult of the hero was changed. No longer did we worship sporting superstars, or even rockstars. Instead, it was those fighting on the front line whom we celebrated; health care workers and carers. So in the UK, every Thursday at 8 pm, people were invited to stand outside their front doors and clap for 'our carers.' And people did, in their millions. But it was not a UK specific thing.
In fact, the origin of clap for carers lies with Annemarie Plas, an immigrant worker from the Netherlands who said she was inspired by "the applauding and thanking of caregivers in other countries."
She said: "I hope we can hold on to the gratefulness we felt at the beginning of this year for these unsung heroes."
You can trace the origin back even further. On January 28th 2020, the Guardian reported on inhabitants of Wuhan leaning out of their apartment windows shouting "add oil", which the Guardian explained, meant "keep up the fight."
Of course, now that glorious celebrations of nurses and other care workers has seemingly backfired in the UK, where nurses have been offered a below-inflation pay rise.
This all begs the question, do we glorify the wrong people?
As well as glorifying individuals, such as the stars who grace the athletics track, the swimming pool, and the Tokyo Olympics' gymnastic arena, perhaps we should make heroes of everyday people, whose collective action makes the world a better place.
According to records, the Olympic Games were invented in Ancient Greece and began in 776 BC. Not that the Greeks were aware that they lived before the birth of Christ. Their calendar began in the year of the first Olympics.
And during the festival of sport, the land was at peace; states at war with each other entered into temporary peace treaties.
When the Olympic Games were resurrected in 1896, the man credited with its foundation, Pierre De Coubertin, was motivated to encourage amateur competition, rekindle the idea of a sacred truce between nations and promote greater cultural understanding.
Coubertin considered that "the struggle to overcome one's opponent was more important than winning."
Other individuals who helped create the revival of the Olympics included William Penny Brookes, who believed sport was the best way to prevent illness.
So, struggle is more important than winning
And this idea that the struggle is more important than who wins is important. That, in part, is why the early Olympics were all about amateur sport
In the movie Chariots of Fire, Harold Abrahams, who won gold at the 1924 Olympics, came under criticism from one of the Dons at Oxford University for trying too hard. "Abrahams, there is a growing suspicion in the bosom of this university, and I tell you this without in any way decrying your achievements in which we all rejoice, that in your enthusiasm for success you have perhaps lost sight of some of these ideals," said the Master of Trinity, played by John Gielgud, with a hint of antisemitism.
But we know that sometimes the courageous athlete who loses heroically can become a hero from Derek Edmond to Eddie the Eagle Edwards; there can be great glory in finishing last.
And in Chariots of Fire, the Gielgud character was presented as the fool, and maybe rightly. However, over the years, the amateur has been sucked out of more and more sport.
Up until the late 1960s, Tennis was primarily an amateur sport — Wimbledon went professional in 1968. Even the legendary Rod Laver was an amateur for most of his career.
Track and Field only became dominated by professional athletes from the early 1990s.
The Olympics remains an amateur event, but professionals take part — for Djokovic and the stars of the track at the Tokyo Olympics, sport is their day job.
But even the amateurs largely rely on funding — In the UK, the introduction of a National Lottery in the early 1990s provided sport with a new funding source.
Between 1960 and 1996, Team GB averaged four gold medals for each summer Olympics. Since 2000 when the full benefit of lottery funding kicked in, the average per game was 19.
Money creates sporting success
And what is wrong with that? Our sporting heroes inspire us; they give us someone to aspire to, don't they?
And many use their fame to try to help do good, such as Marcus Rashford supporting the provision of school meals for financially struggling families. On other occasions, the challenges faced by athletes such as Naomi Osaka with her very public fight against mental health issues, or Simone Biles's issues at Tokyo, show our sporting superstars human frailties, which in turn can sometimes support ordinary people like you or me who may face similar problems.
And sport can do good in so many other ways — remember Jesse Owens.
But it can be counter-productive — imagine the negative impact if Owens had been defeated by a muscular Nazi athlete at the Berlin Games of 1936, recall the drug cheats.
Sport often seems to reflect the issues in society and can shine the public spotlight on problems previously ignored.
And if we forget about the reduced emphasis on amateur status but can conclude that the Olympics promote peace, cultural underestimating, and support the health of the larger population, then we can all say that the Olympics, whatever they cost (within reason), are worth it.
But then there is the inconvenient fact that as Team GB's Olympic success has grown, obesity rates in the UK have also increased. Now before anyone jumps to conclusions here, this is not a related fact but keep reading to get the context.
In Finland, there was a time when the state-supported its athletes and the result was incredible success at the Olympics relative to the country's population. There was, for example, four time gold medal winner Lasse Viren, but these days, according to this report, Finland instead focuses its money on other areas. As a result, today, the country boasts "one of the most active old-age populations with better health as opposed to a number of countries, for example the USA, UK, Australia etc with far more gold and far greater rates of obesity and less healthy aged populations."
So, should we, instead of spending money on the Olympics and subsidising athletes, spread those resources across the population? After all, the British rowing team received over £24 million in funding and we only achieved two medals, neither of them gold in Japan.
Supporters of the Olympic Games talk about the legacy, the infrastructure that is created. And sometimes that works, other times it doesn't. Sticking with the rowing idea, how many 'normal' people benefited from the investment and how many people even considered taking up rowing as a result?
When you consider how the 1976 Olympics almost bankrupted Montreal, and ditto for the Athens Olympics of 2004, it is quite easy to conclude the money would be better spent on something else. For example, the British BMX team managed to win two golds, one silver and a bronze medal while funding their own trip to Japan. You'll see a lot more kids on BMXs than you will rowing up and down the Thames.
But maybe we overlook something; the Olympics are great entertainment— and what is wrong with that?
You might think the author is anti-sport; let me assure you that is not the case; there have been occasions when I thought I might die from excitement— for example, Mo Farrah winning the 10,000 metres in 2012 and clashes between Ovett and Coe in 1980.
And if some countries over-spend; that is not the fault of sport; it is the fault of politicians who see status in winning Olympic bids. So, rather than looking at what many consider as elitist sports, like rowing and equestrian, perhaps the funding should be focused on bringing more of our young people into sport that they can actually do, like BMX.
We may even end up with more success as well as healthier children!
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