Olympics: Back to Earth

By any standards the staging of the 2012 London Olympic Games was a huge organisational success – 11,000 athletes plus around 40,000 accredited coaches, supporting staff and general hangers on entitled to free tickets, and perhaps two million individuals paying for entry to one or more of the 14 different sites, mainly in the Olympic Park, but also in splendid settings elsewhere, e.g. Hampton Court and Greenwich palaces in London and at more distant locations in Essex (mountain-biking, and the Dorset coast (sailing).

While there has been inevitably a good deal of talk about the Olympic spirit, what really caught on was the Olympic winning spirit.  For Britain to win practically 10% of the events, 29 out of 302, in 16 of the 35 sports competed for is a remarkable achievement by any standard.

All the winners of gold, silver and bronze medals stressed the self-discipline, hard work, meticulous attention to detail, and overt determination to win in open competition with the best of the world.

Not one word however has been spoken or written that these four qualities are exactly those needed to succeed in any field and are precisely those ignored, even discouraged over the last 40 years in many parts of our state education system.

Things in the state sector have started to improve of late: few teachers will come out now and say they disapprove of competition in sport, though there is still considerable entrenched opposition to competition and raising standards in academic subjects as Michael Gove, Education Secretary, has found out on a daily basis since his appointment 27 months ago.  None of this has stopped Lord Moynihan, Minister for Sport, getting down to the favourite sport of the English commentariat: “class”, Moynihan’s remark that 46% of British gold medals at Beijing were won by athletes educated at independent (i.e. “privileged”) schools when only 7% of pupils attend these schools was the “worst statistic about British athletes” attracted wide attention.  Colin Moynihan himself went to the independent Monmouth School, founded in 1614, and thence to University College Oxford where he distinguished himself at rowing, subsequently coxing GB to a silver medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.  On the death of his father, 2nd Baron Moynihan in 1992, Colin Moynihan spent four years off and on in the High Court establishing his claim to the barony, which he eventually won against other related claimants.  This carried automatically a seat in the House of Lords until the Blair government reduced the number to 92.  Moynihan however is one of the 92 elected by his fellow peers.  So plenty of determined privilege-getting there both in politics and in the very field, rowing, where in 2012 Britain has obtained the second highest number of medals (9) in one of the 16 sports where it obtained medals, at a cost to UK Sport of £3 million per medal.  This was actually lower than the average £4 million per medal.

The highest number (12) of medals was actually in cycling at a cost to UK Sport of £2.2 million each, even lower than rowing.  The source of this outstanding success appears not to be schools at all – but cycling clubs, open to all where only a bicycle, reasonably uncluttered roads and lycra shorts are needed until competition gets serious.

More class-stirring from the Sutton Trust

Not to be outdone by Moynihan in their chosen sport, Sir Peter Lampl’s Sutton Trust complained that eight of the gold medals or nearly 28% of the total (29) went to athletes educated at independent schools, the same total as at Beijing in 2008, but a lower percentage because Britain won more gold medals this time.  Sutton Trust are fond of talking about the 93% of pupils going to state schools (actually a higher percentage than in Lampl’s beloved classless USA) as if they were some down-trodden minority, but if schools don’t even teach competitive sports how can anyone expect them to be proportionately represented in the country’s Olympics team of around 400 or half of one hundredth of a percent in the relevant age group of 18 to 30.

One estimate is that only about a quarter of state schools engage in competitive sport in a systematic way – e.g. a minimum of two hours per week of actual running and jumping by all pupils, fielding teams in local county leagues (athletics, cricket, rugby, soccer), with teachers attending and organising weekend matches and training sessions.  So if only one quarter of state schools are realistic contenders to supply competitors in the sports field, then the relevant comparison to make is 7% in independent schools with (say) 25% in sports-playing state schools.  Then we find that 28% of golds won by independent schools is not hugely disproportionate at all – 7 out of 25 + 7 being 22%.

Sir Peter Lampl needs to lay off Oxbridge and the independent schools and concentrate his expensive research teams on publicising why parents beggar themselves to send their children to independent schools.  He could do worse than consult well-known leftists like Sir Jonathan Miller, Dianne Abbott, Polly Toynbee, Will Self, Alan Rusbridger, all of whom have been “outed” recently, e.g. Sunday Times of 12th August 2012, as paying for independent education in the teeth of their apparently deepest egalitarian convictions[1].

Wanted: Economic Olympians

Amid much talk of “capitalising” on the Olympic experience and their newly discovered patriotism, the commentariat have avoided talk of the latest dire economic figures.  All the proposals being floated – extending the cultural Olympics, opening this or that venue to the “community”, involve further large sums of capital – taxpayers’ money – balanced as is usual by arm-waving talk of future “benefit”.  The only measurable economic effect of the London Olympics outside the sites themselves so far is a 20-30% drop in hotel rooms occupancy and footfall in London’s West End.  Within the Olympic Park and surroundings in Stratford about 500 apprenticeships are claimed to have been created but there is surely an opportunity for a distinguished university to take up much of the accommodation and create a major educational and cultural growth point in an area conspicuously lacking both these features[2].

It is clear however from the following current trade data that economically Britain is simply not competing well enough against the world and hasn’t been for years, see the Key Data page for “Trade and Investment Balances”.

UK Growth and Trade Figures

As Britain’s medal total crested in 2012 to the highest figure since 1906, the deficit on trade in goods and services reached £4.3 billion in July, the highest ever recorded, an annualised rate of £50 billion, or about £2,000 for every family in the Kingdom.  Within that figure was £10.1 billion deficit on goods, £120 billion annualised, or 8% of GDP.  2012 is also the year when Britain for the first time in its long history became a net importer of energy and this will continue to get worse as oil production declines and the existing nuclear power stations are closed down and not replaced in time.

The standard reaction is to blame our poor economic performance on the currency crisis in the Eurozone – but this is absurd.

The UK is in recession, the rest of the world outside Europe is not.  Yet while goods imports dropped a mere 1.2%, exports dropped by 8.4%.  For every £2 of goods we sell overseas we buy £3.  The conclusion is inescapable: UK importers, chiefly the retail chains, scour the world for the cheapest goods they can find to tempt the British consumer, keeping imports up.  UK exporters, in contrast to Germany’s, (where 2012 quarter 2 figures showed an increase in exports), do not have nearly enough market coverage and speed of reaction to overseas sales opportunities abroad and import replacement opportunities at home.

This is a diagnosis which has been around for a century since at least 1906 the last peak year for British Olympics before this one.  All the liberal economic remedies have been tried – devaluation of the pound, special industry years, grants and investment allowances, Queen’s Awards for exporters, etc, all that is, except the one thing commensurate with the dire state of the UK economy and that is building, as in the two world wars, new production facilities[3] specifically to make and sell products abroad.  While there are a few outstanding exceptions, Rolls Royce Aero Engines being among them[4], British capitalism has simply failed over at least 100 years to sustain British industry at a size and efficiency commensurate with the demand which the government and consumers place upon it.  Only a deliberate national policy of industrial expansion by something like 5% per annum by volume of output sustained over a period of at least 10 years will avoid the catastrophe awaiting us as North Sea oil production tails off over the next 15 years.

The key lesson the UK population can take from the Olympics is that the four qualities so evident in the medal winners – self-discipline, hard work, relentless attention to detail, above all determination to win – will need to be deployed on a regular, not exceptional basis, in all branches of the economy.

What should be done to achieve gold medal standards for the British economy?

First the self-appointed egalitarian whingers about Oxbridge and the independent schools and inequality in general, the Lampls and Moynihans, should simply shut up.  If they wish to help individuals through life, let them do so, but stop lecturing other people and institutions.  Britain needs a winning not a whining culture.

Secondly, Corporate bosses should focus exclusively on making and selling the best products in the world – the Rolls Royce Olympics medal standard – in volumes which ensure they can profitably employ tens of thousands more staff than they do now over the long term (10+ years) whether directly or in their British suppliers.  Creating jobs is the highest form of social service the bosses can do, not producing volumes of reports on this or that “community” project they have got their firms to contribute to.  Bosses should emulate Germany, not just in product quality, but also in its culture of regarding factory closure in today’s climate of benign industrial relations as a managerial failure – a blot on their record.

Thirdly we need specific projects to generate and export goods.  We shall return to this theme and expand into the nuts and bolts of a long term industrial strategy over the next 6 months.


[1] To be fair to Miller, as a youngish parent, he stuck to his convictions by sending his own children to a central London comprehensive.  He has at least learned from that proxy experience: he is paying for his grandchildren to go to fee paying schools.

[2] This objective would probably be incompatible with selling off the stadium to a London football club.

[3] In the world wars these were essentially for war production, but included industrial components which continued into peacetime.

[4] Rolls Royce was itself rescued from bankruptcy by the Heath government in 1972 when it would otherwise have been taken over by the Americans.

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