Olympic aftermath

2008-08-26 00:00

There is no doubt that China, host of the 2008 Olympics, has pulled off a major coup in staging the most lavish and spectacular Games to date. It is clear that the country has arrived as a major world power. Many things could have gone wrong, but nothing did, and even a dismal human rights record and the long occupation of Tibet tended to diminish in the dazzle of success.

Moreover, not only was the organisation a major feat, but so, too, was China’s achievement in competition. While the United States won more medals (110) than anybody else, China deposed the U.S. as a new sports superpower with 51 golds to 36. Such an achievement requires money — and China has spent no less than $40 billion on these Games. It also requires incentives for the athletes and Chinese gold medallists can look forward to a large cash payout, a flat and exemption from taxes for the rest of their lives.

Britain, too, had the best Games since 1908, coming fourth in the medal log with a total of 47, 19 of them gold, and dominating the rowing, sailing and cycling events. This also requires money and in this the unlikely hero of British success is former prime minister John Major who launched the National Lottery in 1994. Using tax funds to subsidise minority sport was never an option and thus lottery funding has been the key to British success.

For instance, £21 million has been pumped into British cycling in the past four years, providing the squad with the best of everything. It showed in a pot of gold. Australia, with less than half the population of South Africa, came sixth with a haul of 46 medals, 14 of them gold. This country, with a solitary silver medal, had its worst Olympics since Berlin in 1936 and came 71st in the log, only three places from the bottom.

Why was the South African performance so dismal? Certainly, sport is vastly under-resourced if South African athletes are to compete on the world stage with any hope of success. Its administration is often mired in political controversy. Often sports monies are spent on administration and meetings, not on the athletes themselves. Often criteria like racial quotas and “transformation” carry greater weight than talent and achievement.

Sooner or later there will have to be an Olympiad held on the African continent. On the present showing, South Africa will never hope to host it unless there is a radical change of direction, clear political leadership and a huge infusion of lottery money into the support of athletes.

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