The Olympics are winding down and that means the papers and websites are putting the lash to their hacks one more time: Find the unsung heroes of the London Games and write about them.
The list is largely predictable, to be sure. There are hundreds of stories of the thousands of Olympic volunteers, forever being helpful and smiling, like Wal-Mart greeters, even though most of them must have been bored rigid by the third day (unless their volunteering was in the arenas, in which case they were treated to superb sporting action).
Others cited a long list of bureaucrats, former politicians and Olympic officials who are largely unknown to the public but toiled behind the scenes to ensure that London won the right to host the Games and they went like clockwork. This list would include Sir Craig Reedie, the British Olympic Association chairman who insisted that London bid for the Games.
My vote would go to John Major, now Sir John, who was Margaret Thatcher’s successor as prime minister and stayed in office until 1997, when the Conservatives were buried by Tony Blair’s Labour landslide. In 1993, he launched the National Lottery. We hacks – I was working in London at the time – thought it was a daft idea, since lottery gambling is always a net transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich.
Major’s genius move was to ensure that 28 per cent of the lottery sales went to "good causes," among them arts and sports. All of a sudden, millions of pounds, then hundreds of millions, were flowing into federations and associations of every sport from archery to triathlon. Top coaches were hired and the best equipment bought. Sporting venues – pools, racing tracks and the like – sprung up everywhere. The British Olympic Association alone received 250-million pounds (some of which was public money) since 2005, when London was awarded the 2012 Games.
Look at the results. In 1996, three years after Major set up the lottery, Britain slumped away from the Atlanta Games with 15 medals, only one of which was gold. Then the medal curve went nearly vertical. In 2004, in Athens, Britain nailed 30 medals, nine of which were gold. With three days left in the London Games, British athletes have won an extraordinary 52 medals, 25 of them gold, with more to come.
The British Olympic Association said that the funding was "absolutely critical’ to Team GB’s roaring success. It fear that the money flow will be curtailed, since Britain is in recession and many other causes are begging for equal treatment.
Major has been spotted now and again the Games. He was in office when most of the British athletes were toddlers. How many know that Team GB owes a lot of its success to him?