Are Medals Enough?

Sir Hugh Robertson

Chair, British Olympic Association

Sir Hugh Robertson is the Chairman of the British Olympic Association and previously Minister for Sport. He was knighted for his work on the Olympics in 2012, where, as Minister, he was responsible for the day-to-day running of both the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic Games.

We live in interesting and uncertain times. Anti-establishment candidates are thriving across Europe and in the United States. At home we face Brexit and there are fundamental and far reaching questions to be answered in health, education, social care and about the Union. In sport, questions around doping, governance, integrity, funding, and the value of sport in a modern society seem to dominate every conversation and much of the press and broadcast coverage.

Yet amongst all this, it is worth remembering that British sport has rarely been such a success story. In the Olympic world, in Rio, just under a year ago, the collective efforts of our national governing bodies and their extraordinary athletes saw one of the greatest results in the history of sport in our country.

A total of sixty-seven medals, golds in more sports than any other nation, and the first country ever to perform better in an Olympic Games than the one they just hosted.


British sports star Jessica Ennis-Hill in action

I believe that success of this kind is good for the country. It inspires people young and old and makes the country feel better about itself and its place in the world as a successful, outward-looking nation. It opens doors and provides a new platform from which to develop sport and generate commercial opportunities at both high-performance and community level. To put it bluntly, if we give it up, or lose focus, we will soon look back with wistful eyes and a heavy heart at this golden period for British Olympic sport.

However, with success comes scrutiny. Since the 65 medals in London and (more so) the 67 in Rio, British sport has become the subject of heightened examination. Many of the questions relate to how and why our nation has sustained success, but an increasing amount are now angled towards the value of high-performance sport.

It seems the better we become at winning medals the more we are inclined to ask why it matters. Not just why it matters, but does it matter more? Does it matter more than the health of the nation? Does it matter more than facility provision? Does it matter more than grassroots participation?

I believe that the choice between the two is a false distinction. Success at high-performance and community level are two sides of the same coin and both are integral parts of a cohesive national sports policy. Never once have I met anyone in the high-performance network that does not understand the importance of improved health and lifestyle education, new gyms, tracks or pools, or indeed getting more children to try sport.


GB Olympic Cyclist Philip Hindes celebrates another win

The reason for this is that almost everyone in elite sport was nurtured through the sporting ecosystem, in youth teams, school teams on local parks and pitches, with amateur coaches, through family support, before eventually being enveloped by the high-performance system through its talent scouts. They will also doubtless have been inspired by someone who went before them – people who enjoyed success at the highest level and left a mark on a young mind.

So yes, success does matter. Capturing “inspiration” and turning it into qualitative and quantitative evidence is, of course, the challenge.

At the British Olympic Association, we are taking fresh steps to tell this story. Just days after the Olympic Games the ‘I Am Team GB’ event – run in conjunction with The National Lottery, UK Sport and ITV – saw nearly one million people take part in some form of physical activity across Olympic and non-Olympic disciplines. Three months after the event, 56% of those who took part confirmed they were doing more exercise and activity as a result.

The job of UK Sport – the UK’s elite sport funding body – is to fund the winning of medals. They are part of a wider system that encompasses the Home Country Sports Councils, whose job is to increase participation.

Yet, like the BOA, they do understand that being integral to the system – from grassroots to Olympic standard – means there is a wider responsibility upon us all.

That is why the athletes funded by UK Sport have done tens of thousands of community engagements and volunteering hours: in schools, at local clubs, in prisons and with young people. This interface is where social impact becomes a reality.


GB Olympic sailing team

The BOA’s youth engagement programme, Get Set, has reached 6.5 million young people since 2012 through programmes based on the Olympic and Paralympic values and sport. The Road to Rio programme saw young people virtually travel the distance to Rio through undertaking physical activity, and 71% of teachers agreed the programme has contributed to increasing participation in Physical Activity. Underpinning this are the faces these young people recognise: the likes of the Brownlee brothers, Amy Tinkler and Nicola Adams.

We understand that success at an Olympic Games is in itself not enough, but our data shows that by harnessing the inspiration a Games can provide we have added great benefit to society.

London 2012 saw an extra 1.8 million people take up sport in the period from which it was awarded in 2005 through to today. Some question this, or state that it is not enough, but do not underestimate the scale of such a task at a time when the distractions of the digital age and alternative entertainment activities have never been greater.

The ‘I Am Team GB’ concept continues to grow and we are developing strategies to move this from a one-off moment to a continuous campaign of ongoing engagement. We are exploring how Team GB’s attraction can encourage people in our city centres to take 10,000 steps around their favourite shops, or turn a train journey into a cycle ride or brisk walk.

“With success comes scrutiny

Of course, all of these things can be done in isolation but they work more effectively if supported by the nation’s Olympic and Paralympic heroes. Success brings with it great national pride, a sense of achievement, confidence and of capability.

The fusion of world class performance and increased long term participation in sport is not an either-or choice, they are completely complimentary.

The concerns associated with the drive for a winning culture that have been highlighted in recent months must be addressed – and we believe they are – but we must ensure we do not abandon a world class and proven model for success.