November 16, 2005

Abandon Hope

As I mentioned once before, host nations at the Olympics get a special athletic perk: their teams don't have to qualify. That means that GBR can send a full Olympic squad in 2012 — that's about 700 athletes — if they choose to.

Will they choose to? Earlier this week UK Sport, the agency that distributes national lottery money to high-performance sport, proposed that they should. The government now has to approve that proposal, since it's going to cost about a quarter of a billion pounds.

Now, you may be wondering how it could possibly cost £250m to send 700 British athletes to London; that's more than half a million pounds per additional competitor, when you consider that there were 271 British athletes in Athens in 2004.

Well, it turns out that we're not just talking about a train ticket and a uniform. The British Olympic Association aren't interested in sending the best British athletes in every sport to the Olympics — even if it is a "home Games" — unless the best British athletes get a lot better. The £250m in new funding will be invested in bringing the UK's weakest sports up to a competitive international level.

The important thing is to discount the Eddie the Eagle scenario. We are absolutely not looking to send a team of 700 just because we have the right to send a team of 700. — Lord Moynihan, chairman of the BOA

That's not quite good enough for some people, though. The story ran in the Telegraph under the headline, "£250m bid to fund Olympic no-hopers promised a place in 2012 team." The article has a pretty narrow definition of a "no-hoper," being an athlete or team with little chance of winning an Olympic medal:

… Britain would compete in all 26 Olympic sports. … However, UK Sport has conceded that in certain sports - such as handball, volleyball and basketball - Britain lags so far behind the rest of the world that it would be a miracle if the country were in a position to challenge for a medal in seven years.

(As an aside, that assessment may be a bit of a blow to 14-year-old Amber Charles, but never mind.)

By that definition, then, the "no-hoper" label would encompass the majority of Olympic athletes (including myself, I suppose). Conservative MP Andrew Rossindell chimes in, too, saying, "It does not sound wise to break with precedent and enter people in parts of the Olympics we don't usually participate in when there's no chance of success."

Now, I've spoken out in favour of tough qualifying standards before, but setting the bar at top 3 seems a bit excessive even to me. On the other hand, I'm not sure that trying to float all boats, as it were, is the wisest plan, either. Very few countries have the resources to support high performance in all Olympic sports, and by attempting to raise everybody up to an "acceptable" level, the BOA and UK Sport might just end up with mediocrity across the board.

Without the new funding, of course, the BOA might decide to send a full team anyway — that is to say, Moynihan and the BOA might just be bluffing here, using the home Games as a wedge to get increased funding for high-performance sport. If they don't get it, it will be interesting to see if they stick to their high standards, or if they'll send several hundred athletes to London just to participate.

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