Olympic success is a team effort: Why Boris Johnson is wrong

This post was written by Owen on August 6, 2012
Posted Under: Society,Sports

I don’t want to rain on everyone’s parade, but the strong showing by Team GB at this year’s Olympics really isn’t remotely surprising. When a country is awarded the dubious privilege of hosting the Games, there’s a strong tendency for that country to invest heavily in sports infrastructure and training in the years leading up to the point when the Games actually take place, to ensure that, as hosts, the country does suitably well. (Since the host nation is decided by the IOC seven years in advance, the effects of the increased investment by the host-country-to-be will actually start to be felt at the Olympics immediately prior to the Games where it is actually hosting – so Great Britain’s success at Beijing wasn’t a coincidence either.)

Of course, it’s easy to rationalise these things in retrospect; waiting until an event has occurred and then proclaiming that you knew it was going to turn out like that all along isn’t exactly an impressive achievement. In fact, though, Great Britain’s medal success was predicted fully two years ago. Not by me, but by the authors of a 2010 paper in the International Journal of Forecasting.[i] Here are a few sample quotes:

[B]oth host nations and ex-Soviet bloc countries outperform what might be expected given their income levels.

[…]

[H]osts of an Olympic Games appear to raise their level of performance as much at the preceding Games as when they stage the festival itself.

[…]

There is every reason to expect that there will again be a strong demand for objective medal forecasts for the 2012 Games, perhaps especially in Great Britain: as host, it is likely to be particularly anxious to improve its showing even further than in 2008. Our long-range forecast for Britain is that the prospects for it doing so are good…Thus, we cautiously predict a successful 2012 for the British team. [My emphasis.]

The unusually high number of British Olympic medals coming in the same year that the UK hosts the Games, then, isn’t a product of blind chance; there didn’t just happen to be a much higher than usual number of world-class British sportsmen and women this year compared to any previous Olympics in living memory. This is not to deny the undoubted natural talents of the Wigginses, Ennises and Farahs of this world, but it does serve as a timely reminder that an individual’s sporting success – and for that matter success in practically any field you care to name – is not merely the product of that individual’s abilities, but is very strongly influenced by how well those abilities are nurtured and given the resources and infrastructure they require in order to properly develop. (It follows from this, of course, that as an athlete your odds of success are much greater if you’re lucky enough to be a citizen of a country which is willing and able to devote significant amounts of money into nurturing your talents).

This, in turn, is one important reason why Boris Johnson’s pontificating about the moral lessons of the Olympics is complete and utter rubbish:

Kids in this country are seeing that there is a direct correlation between effort and achievement, and the more you put in, the more you get out. That is a wonderful, conservative lesson about life.

Really? Boris is seriously suggesting that the only reason why Team GB has won dozens of medals and Bangladesh’s athletes haven’t is that our boys and girls have just been trying that much harder? And that Equatorial Guinea’s failure to even enter competitors in the sailing or the Dressage is just evidence of negative thinking and a lack of can-do attitude on their part? This wilful blindness to the role played by individuals’ material circumstances in determining their success or failure is indeed a typically conservative outlook on life, as Johnson claims. But it’s the same thought process that leads to demonising the unemployed as scroungers during the worst recession in living memory, to blaming the financial crisis on poor people in the US for taking out mortgages they couldn’t pay off, to refusing to examine the underlying structural factors that lead to societies being prone to riots; to denying, in short, that anything other than individual agency ever plays any role in human affairs. “Wonderful” somehow isn’t the word which springs to mind.

Dangerously ludicrous as that is, however, it’s by no means the only absurdity in this line of thinking. Even if it were the case that nationality, wealth, family, and countless other external factors played no role in determining your success, Johnson would still be wildly wrong. For each athlete that wins an Olympic medal, there are dozens who competed alongside them and missed out, and countless hundreds or even thousands who didn’t even make it to the Games. Virtually every one of them will have made huge personal sacrifices, tried their hardest to achieve their dream…and still fallen short. Maybe they were unlucky – suffering a fall at a crucial time during a race, missing out on vital practice sessions due to injury – or maybe they just weren’t quite as naturally talented. But for every winner there will inevitably be losers beyond counting. In a sporting contest, that’s entirely as it should be – the Olympics are there to showcase the best sporting talents in the world, and the material loss incurred by an athlete missing out on their Olympic dream is unlikely to be particularly serious in the grand scheme of things. But even if you grant that the incentive power of competition can be a powerful force for technological progress, taking that winner-takes-all attitude out of the sporting arena and using it as an appropriate model for how society should be run, when “losing” (your business failing, say, or being made redundant) can mean unemployment, bankruptcy, destitution or worse, is callous bordering on sociopathic. Life isn’t a contest, and treating it as if that’s all it is illustrates a good deal of what’s wrong with rightwing thought.


[i] If you’re interested (and are lucky enough to have access to a library with the right subscriptions), the full paper reference is: Forrest et al., “Forecasting national team medal totals at the Summer Olympic Games”, International Journal of Forecasting (2010) 26, pp. 576–588. Worth a read if regression analyses of global sporting phenomena are your thing. Although if that is your idea of a good time, it might be better for your general wellbeing to go outside and play some actual sport instead.

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Reader Comments

Derek

Excellent article – all these middle class BBC presenters and pundits, who have “made it”, tout the conservative competitive “winner takes all” attitude.
However interesting to listen to the many Olympic medal winners who on the whole come over as inclusive.
The highest sign of success is the sharing of that success with those less fortunate.

#1 
Written By Derek on August 7th, 2012 @ 7:27 am

Great article. See some stats vindicating your points here: http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2012/08/06/glen-newey/who-do-we-think-we-are/

#2 
Written By BobFromBrockley on August 7th, 2012 @ 2:29 pm

Heh, I like that piece. My sister described me as “the Olympic scrooge” for writing this piece, but I think Glen Newey might actually have me beat on that front.

#3 
Written By Owen on August 7th, 2012 @ 8:25 pm

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