The National Lottery has had a wonderful press during the 2008 Olympics and I have no doubt that it has been a primary cause of the TeamGB (ugh!) medal haul. Indeed I am on record for anticipating it over eight years ago. How come? I like sport and played rugby for England in 1966, which is why in early 2000 whilst on a visit to Australia, against whom I had also played (and won), I was asked to give a talk on it to a local Lions Club. I warned them to look out; “The advent of the obscene UK National Lottery has changed everything”. The UK had “already caught up with Australia in the degree of subsidy to sport” (then some 25%) and it was not going to stop there.
It didn’t, but Australia did. That is why The Daily Telegraph’s Jim White bayed on 19th August that “as the British medal count soars, the Australians are resorting to class warfare” and heaped praise on the National Lottery as responsible for “the roll call of triumph”. It is why the Tories, likely to be in charge next time, have pledged to stop Lottery funds being diverted to health and education projects that “should be funded by the Treasury” and return the Lottery to its original pillars of sport, the arts, heritage, and charities, with an annual extra for sport of some £60 millions in consequence.
And it is why almost without exception the politicos and the mass media have jumped on the bandwagon; The Times, for example, tells us that public funds should be “unashamedly targeted at elites” (that’s for brawn, not brain where the opposite is preached). The craving for “National champions” has morphed from industrial muscle to human muscle, and naturally Sebastian Coe and Lord Moynihan are already money-grabbing for more of the latter in 2012.
Why is the National Lottery “obscene”? Lord Adonis, a Schools Minister, told us early in 1996 when he was in a more respectable profession (Public Policy Editor for the FT) and when the original “pillars” were still in place: “The use of the term ‘good causes’ to smooth the passage of billion of pounds from ordinary punters to elite cultural institutions is among the more remarkable political achievements of recent decades”.
He might well have added that the National Lottery was and remains a supreme example of a government monopoly exempt from all gambling regulations (such as a minimum pay-out ratio) and miss-selling for all it is worth – whilst at the same time exhorting us to save!
Last month, another “ugh”, London 2012, hosted the first annual De Coubertin lecture, examining the Games’ power to inspire significant and beneficial changes in “Coubertin 1904 style” – a “catalyst for international friendship, understanding, and cooperation through sport”. But the reality of such a dream has disappeared in almost direct proportion to the degree of government and nationalist intervention injected in the meantime. Indeed the net effect today is more likely the inflammation of views and behaviour. In 1904 the competitors were individuals, not the representatives of nations, and of course the idea of taxpayer funding was heresy. Instead of a wake up call, Hitler’s 1936 antics were a signal for nationalism. How many Olympics since then have been free of withdrawals, boycotts, demonstrations, or terrorism? (China itself pulled out of the 1956 games because Taiwan didn’t, so might not a spot of retaliation have been in order in 2008?)
The feeding frenzy for nationalism and champions (to hell with grass roots) began in earnest in the early 1980s, when not only were the inaugural World Championship Athletics and World Cup Athletics held but also and more importantly all major sporting events were opened up to professionals (was it really only that long ago?). As the Financial Times has pointed out, you can literally buy gold medals.
And let’s face it, the whole idea of counting national medals irrespective of the size or wealth of the nations involved is a joke. At least The Telegraph published alternative tables adjusted for population – which puts The Bahamas at the top and leaves Britain a long way below Australia. (If National Anthems can’t be abolished then at least they they could follow the alternative table!)
The blatant robbery of taxpayers for sporting “champions” is literally running amok. Most of the few vocal critics are concerned only with the diversion of Lottery funds from grass roots to elites (funny how Lord Adonis is quiet on this one!) None want less theft in the first place. With limited resources and a maze of money flows (laundering?), I have not attempted to calculate the total subsidy to sport. I tried in 2000 and came up with a figure of 25%, which for the UK equated to the cost of eliminating influenza for all time, or educating to a high standard every child in Africa. We can assume it’s a lot higher now than then.
Some will argue that Olympic Games leave “legacies”. This simply illustrates the degree of corruption in the Olympic “movement”, starting with the International Olympic Committee. Just like Concorde or the Millennium Dome, most Olympics leave white elephants, adding to the cost for taxpayers. In fact, far from tax-and-spend “netting out” costs and benefits, at current UK rates any additional tax-and-spend results in costs nearly twice as large as the benefits (see my April 7th blog here).
Once upon a time, Olympic Games were privately funded, and indeed remain so today in the USA. So why not TeamGB?