Which is the key to Olympic success: Competitiveness or public investment?

London Olympics are finally finished and Britons have two things to celebrate: first, everything went quite well and London didn´t collapse; and second, Team GB made an outstanding performance, their highest achievement ever in Olympic history. British athletes got a total of 65 medals, 29 of which were gold, 17 silver and 19 bronze. Only the Americans and the Chinese got back home with more metal around their necks.

The debate about the reasons for this success began some days before the closing ceremony. Everybody agrees that the crowd played an important role cheering with their Union Jacks for their newly appointed heroes (most of whom, let´s be honest, were perfectly unfamiliar to the average Brit until last month). But, what else made a difference apart from this environmental factor? And, therefore, what policies should the UK Government pursue to continue along this path of Olympic glory?

Prime Minister Cameron made his assessment public a few days ago: The lesson to be learned from the Olympics is that Britain must foster competitiveness in schools, and teachers should accept the challenge of carrying out “a big cultural change” to keep the flame alive.

Frankly, if the only problem was money, you’d solve this with money,” he said. “The problem has been too many schools not wanting to have competitive sport, some teachers not wanting to join in and play their part. So if we want to have a great sporting legacy for our children – and I do – we have got to have an answer that brings the whole of society together to crack this, more competition, more competitiveness, more getting rid of the idea all must win prizes and you can’t have competitive sports days.

On the other side of the discussion we have those who consider that the importance of public investment cannot be understated. Kelly Holmes, double Olympic medallist and a Government school sports adviser, called for the maintenance of a two-hours-a-week program of compulsory school sports (with the consequent economic costs in hiring enough teachers), a target established by the previous Labour Executive and that Cameron dismissed as “just an unenforceable aspiration”. Paradoxically, the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, also contradicted Cameron by suggesting students should do “a compulsory two hours of sport every day” to secure the sporting legacy of the London Olympics.

Considering the cost of Olympic gold, and after the poor results of British Olympians in Atlanta 1996 (15 medals, only one of which was golden), Britain began a set of plans of public investment in sport infrastructure and coaching, as well as financial support to high-performing sportsmen and women. A substantial part of this funding came from lottery tickets. For Will Hutton, writing in The Observer last Sunday, Team GB has unintentionally proved that austerity doesn´t work and that a reconfiguration of Government’s economic policies is urgently needed:

British sport embraced a new framework of sustained public investment and organised purpose, developing a new ecosystem to support individual sports with superb coaching at its heart. No stone was left unturned to achieve competitive excellence. The lesson is simple. If we could do the same for economy and society, rejecting the principles that have made us economic also-rans and which the coalition has put at the centre of its economic policy, Britain could be at the top of the economic league table within 20 years.

So, which is the key to Olympic success, then? Is it competition among youngsters? Is it public spending? The rush of Cameron and others to offer their interpretation and explanation of the same fact (that British sportsmen and women have done a great job running, jumping and diving) confirms the relevance of framing. What do we mean by framing? Robert Entman (1993) provides a pertinent definition: “To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described”. For those who wonder what the legacy of London Olympics will be, there you have a possible answer: A very exemplifying case study for researchers of framing in public policy making.


Koldo Casla



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