Grenada’s police commissioner, James Clarkson, authorized street parties on Monday to celebrate what he called “the most important event that ever happened to our country, even more important that Christopher Columbus landing.”
Poor Columbus was upstaged by a 19-year-old runner, Kirani James, who won Olympic gold in the 400-metre race. It was Grenada’s first Olympic medal and the tiny island state erupted in joy. So did the Dominican Republic, which took silver in the same race, and third-place Trinidad and Tobago, making it a clean Caribbean sweep in an event that had traditionally been owned by the Americans.
There were other Olympic surprises. Mongolia captured three medals in judo and wrestling. Belarus took its first gold in athletics, and one each in shooting and tennis. Much to Australia’s embarrassment, China (and France) ranked far higher on the swimming medal count.
Had the Olympics been turned on its head? Indeed, small countries seemed to come out nowhere to win medals and some biggies – notably China – took home hardware in sports where they had been laggards or no-shows, humbling the traditional powerhouses.
The Olympics has indeed been turned on its head, but it’s funding that did it. In truth most of the winners – the ones who starred in Beijing 2008 and the stars of London 2012 – are products of money machines that tweak them to athletic perfection, or close to it.
To be sure, some athletes, through sheer luck or talent, have achieved stardom without the money machine propelling them forward. But that’s becoming increasingly rare. Typically, the Olympic winners were the winners of the World Cups or championships leading up to the Games. It takes money to get them there.
To the disappointment of romance-craving sports writers, Grenada’s James is not the poor, shoeless beach urchin who came out of nowhere to conquer champions who are treated like kings. The Jaguar, as he is known, nailed a University of Alabama scholarship and his résumé includes top place in the 2011 world championship. His coach, Harvey Glance, an Olympic gold medalist himself, is at the top of his profession.
Sebastian Coe, the Olympic gold-medal runner who is chairman of the London Olympics organizing committee (LOCOG), credits the surge in record-beating athletes from both small and big countries to “smart” national sports governing bodies and international federations (by which he means well-funded), world-class coaching and the recognition among national governments that sports heroes are valuable assets.
“My sense, over the last 10 to 15 years, is that sport had become much more comfortably embedded in the social and political agenda in most countries,” he said this week.
Stratos Safioleas, a Greek communications consultant who is advising Pyeongchang, South Korea, on its 2018 Winter Olympic plans, calls a winning Olympic investment “a great way for any country to appear on the world stage.” He notes that Singapore, among other countries that have never taken the Olympics that seriously, are devising athletic programs aimed at Olympic gold.
All it takes is money, and lots of it. Britain is probably the best example of how to invent an alchemy process to turn cash into gold.
In Olympics after Olympics, Britain was a laggard, even though it had wealth and a near obsession with running, sailing, soccer and other sports. In 1993, the government of prime minister John Major launched the National Lottery, which was, of course, dismissed as yet another Conservative plot to transfer wealth to the rich from the poor.
But the lottery was not all about greed. It devoted 28 per cent of sales to “good causes,” among them arts and sports. Suddenly, millions of pounds were flowing into sports, buying the best coaches, the best equipment, the best tracks, stadiums and pools.
The results were undeniably good. In 1996, three years after the National Lottery got rolling, Britain slumped away from the Atlanta Games with 15 medals, only one of which was gold.
As the lottery funds went from tickle to flood, the medal count went vertical. In the 2004 Athens Games, Britain nabbed 30 medals, nine of which were gold. Four years later, in Beijing, the tally rose to 47 medals, 19 of which were gold. And London? By Friday evening, the British haul was 56 medals, 25 of them gold.
Only the United States and China, both of them superpowers, ranked higher in the gold column. Britain has dominated several high-profile sports, among them the cycling, equestrian and rowing events, and posted impressive showings in athletes, sailing and gymnastics.
When you look at the lavish funding, anything less would have been a letdown for the Brits. In preparation for London 2012, sports from archery to the triathlon absorbed £264-million of funding (mostly from the lottery, some from the taxpayer), up from £70-million in 2004. Five sports – athletics, cycling, rowing, sailing, swimming – each got in the region of £25-million.
The British Olympic Association admitted that the funding was “absolutely critical” to Team GB’s performance. Translation: Keep the spigots open or the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro could be a British medal bust.
Many Olympic underachievers want to clone the British model, Canada included, though the small countries will have to be highly selective in their sports. “It’s a changing scene,” said Marcel Aubut, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee. “They [Britain] did anything to win at home and put millions of dollars behind it in a lottery. That’s telling me something. We have to do a lot more if we want to follow the parade here.”