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The Business of (Olympic) Sport

By any measure, the Olympics and Paralympics in Rio have been an astonishing success. Following on from the dizzy heights of the 2012 London Games, it was hard to see how Brazil, a troubled and incredibly unequal country, with poor disability rights and an interest in sport, only if it’s football, could put on a viable Olympic, let alone Paralympic Games.

But somehow, the impossible was achieved; again and again. A propos nothing, the Para in Paralympic, strictly (pedantically) speaking, means, ‘in tandem’, a parallel event to the Olympics.

As in 2012, the Paralympics in the UK were covered by Channel 4 on television. Apart from a few appalling presenters and a mass of ad breaks getting in the way, they offered us an amazing spectacle of world-class athletes, with varying levels of disability, performing at the highest levels.

The coverage was predictably partisan and occasionally sacharine when it concentrated on the backstories of British athletes, rather than showing sports that did not involve the plucky Brits. This, however, (focussing on backstories) seems to be the only way for current television coverage and some of them are quite unbelievable.

Take, for example, Alex Zanardi, a former Formula One champion, who lost both his legs 15 years  ago in a horrendous CART racing crash in Germany. He won two Paralympic gold medals and a silver in 2012, in the hand-cycling time trial and road races. In Rio he won a gold and a silver.

Alex Brooker, one of the presenters on C4’s The Last Leg, was moved to tears when he was asked on the programme about his highlight of the Games and spoke about Zanardi.

“The great thing about Alex is not that he’s a world-class hand-cyclist, but his attitude to disability is unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. I’ve been disabled all my life and I’ve complained about it when I wanted. I come on here celebrating my disability and I’m confident, but I’ll never fully be completely okay with it.

“Able-bodied people at home will watch the Paralympic games and be inspired by it – but as a disabled man, he inspires me.”

Menardi’s story story is the stuff of films, as is that of Achmat Hassiem, who in 2006 was taking part in a lifeguard training practice near Cape Town, when he saw a 5-ft long great white shark, heading towards his brother, Tariq.

He thrashed the water to attract the shark’s attention, who bit off his lower right leg. He is now a medal-winning Paralympian swimmer for South Africa and a shark conservationist, saying; “Losing a leg is nothing to losing a brother.”    

Understandably then, backstories are often the thing in the Paralympics, but too much can come across as patronising; too much storytelling and not enough sport. C4 were not too bad in this regard, but what we got was a lot of British stories, a lot of British sporting activity and an awful lot of British celebration; banging on about Team GB winning gold all the time became tiresome, which sort of brings me to the topic of business in sport.    

 By the time the closing ceremony began in front of a sellout crowd at the Maracanã on Sunday night Britain were second in the standings with 147 medals. There were 64 golds – making it their most successful Games since Seoul in 1988 – 39 silvers and 44 bronzes. Britain won medals across 15 of the 19 sports, golds in 11.

Hannah Cockroft won a hat-trick of titles in the Olympic Stadium. Bethany Firth was similarly dominant in the Aquatics Centre. Dame Sarah Storey, with her 14 golds, is the most decorated female British Paralympian of all time.

Jonnie Peacock easily defended his T11 100m title. Ellie Simmonds is the first SM6 swimmer to race below three minutes in the 200m medley. Will Bayley jumped on a table tennis table.

Kadeena Cox, another new face, became the first British Paralympian to top the podium in two different sports since 1984. The 25-year-old, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis two years ago, won cycling gold and athletics gold, silver and bronze. She was the flagbearer for the closing ceremony.

Amid the praise there is a caveat. Russia, banned by the International Paralympic Committee because of evidence of state-sponsored doping traditionally perform brilliantly well. We used to ridicule the communists for using sport as a proxy for economic success. Now, with the vast sums thrown at Team GB and athletes declared ‘heroes’, we’re copying them.

Although some competitors expressed surprise at Team GB’s success in both games, the reason is quite simple; money and loads of it, thanks to the Lottery and some hard-nosed funding decisions. Sports that performed well in 2012 were rewarded with extra investment, while others had their funding completely cut.

During the Cold War, Soviet bloc nations used sport as a proxy for economic success and the west ridiculed them for it, winning was everything and state media was used to to convince their people that their system was better.

Well that’s what seems to have happened to Team GB in both the Olympics and Paralympics.

Since Atlanta in 1996, Britain has followed suit. The poor performance of British athletes was considered by John Major as a comment on his government. He demanded medals, and lots of them. The subsidy to “elite” sport was increased tenfold, from £5m to £54m, while popular sports facilities were closing. Money was directed specifically at disciplines where individuals could win multiple medals rather than just one, away from field athletics to cycling and gymnastics. It worked. The medals tally at Sydney 2000 rose from 15 to 28.

A UK Sport graph tracks the precise link between government grant (dressed up as lottery money) and Olympic medals. By 2012, this had risen to £264m, delivering 65 medals (just over £4m a medal). For Rio it has been £350m for the Olympics and Paralympics, with the target that Britain become “the first host nation to eclipse our London 2012 medal haul”. Which we did.

No surprise, it is working. The best coaches were hired. Talent was ruthlessly selected and nurtured. Money was lavished on research, equipment, clothing and peak performance timing. This is one field in which British state investment knows how to pick winners.

Iain Dyer, Britain’s star cycling coach, talks like a Formula One boss. “We peaked in our research and innovation. The helmets were the 2012 ones, but the bikes are new, and different components and strategies are used for the first time.”

Athletes are unique among public servants in enjoying a hypothecated tax to give themselves up to £28,000 a year “to concentrate on training”. Poor countries can eat their hearts out.

For years, the Olympics were corrupted by shamateurism and drugs. The IOC, with British representatives present, knew perfectly well what was happening, but turned a blind eye. The most honest gold medal of recent years should have gone to the British media, alone in relentlessly revealing corruption and cheating in international sport. Yet it was accused by Britain’s Lord Coe of “a declaration of war on my sport”. When this was seen to be rubbish, he did not resign. He was declared an expert on sports ethics and appointed to the IOC. The Russians who blew the whistle on athletics doping are now forced to hide for their lives somewhere in America. These are the realities that should sit alongside the “heroism” of today’s games.

Perhaps the best answer is for countries that have no money to be allowed drugs, to level the playing field. They are cheaper.

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