In pursuit of fool’s gold

In a harrowing Olympic Games for Greece, perhaps the country’s most tragic figure in London was open water swimmer Spyros Gianniotis. After 10 kilometers of grueling competition in Hyde Park’s Serpentine, an Olympic medal slipped from the 32-year-old’s grasp in the final seconds of the race. Gianniotis, a world champion in this event, missed his fourth chance to add an Olympic medal to his collection. He admitted that at his age, this might have been his last opportunity. Seconds later, he broke down in tears.

There was something else eating away at the swimmer. He knew that at these Games, where the Greek Olympic squad was whittled down to just 105 athletes, some traveling without their coaches due to a lack of funding, and where just two bronze medals had been won by Greek competitors, another podium finish would have meant a great deal.

“This was different from all my other races,” he told NET TV. “I wanted to do this for my country.”

Gianniotis was one of the few athletes from the Greek team who acknowledged that their presence at the Olympics was an opportunity to provide a spark of hope to their countrymen.

After disappointing, and sometimes gallant, performances, many of the swimmer’s colleagues chose to use this public platform to vent their frustration. They had been let down by the state, they argued. Neglected and underfunded, they had no chance of competing with the other athletes.

Greek sport finds itself in a sorry state and the task of these athletes was made much more difficult as a result of the economic crisis but their reaction seemed churlish.

Sport is born within society and as such cannot be divorced from it. There is no way that Greek sport could be going through comfortable times when Greek society is being put through the grinder. This was a moment for the country’s athletes to display humility and grace. Unfortunately, most of them passed it up.

The athletes were certainly correct in identifying the connection between funding and Olympic achievement. At each Games, the correlation between medals and the money that has been spent to win them is becoming clearer.

A recent analysis by BBC Business reporter Richard Anderson highlighted how Great Britain’s upward trajectory at the Olympics has been driven by taxpayers. Team GB set a new record for medals in Sydney 12 years ago but doubled that haul in London. In 2000, UK Sport, which funds elite sport in Britain, invested 60 million pounds in athletes’ training programs. For these Olympics, it spent 264 million pounds. “We spent an extra 165 million pounds and got 17 more medals, so that’s about 10 million pounds a medal,” Professor David Forrest, a sports economist at the University of Salford, told the BBC.

A report by Al Jazeera English on the same subject suggested that Australia had spent 40 million dollars per gold medal the country has won over the last 20 years. Even China’s gold medals are estimated to cost well over 1 million dollars each to secure.

Clearly, in its current state Greece is not in a position to invest millions in an Olympic gold medal. In the harsh reality of the crisis, where the government has to weigh up whether to charge more for public healthcare or reduce already meager pensions to save a few million euros, spending money on medals is a chase for nothing more than fool’s gold.

“I look in bemusement at Great Britain’s sudden rise up the medals table — the telltale sign of a country with an inferiority complex that has decided to spend lots and lots of money on attention-getting elite sports: modern-day penis envy,” writes Ian Johnson, a China expert, in the New York Review of Books blog. Johnson makes the point that the bulk of medals won at Olympics are the result of phenomenally well-organized and targeted plans set out years in advance, not just the case of a sports minister throwing some cash at athletes and trainers who show promise. He cites the example of East Germany, which won an incredible 409 medals at five summer Olympics.

“Most people think the Eastern bloc’s success was simply a question of massive doping — women with Adam’s apples and beards,” writes Johnson. “But smart countries realized there were other explanations for the success. Warsaw Pact governments spent a huge amount of money on sports, true, but the key was that they ruthlessly targeted only likely medal winners. East Germany… focused on sports where one athlete could win multiple medals — speed skating and cycling for example.”

Western countries started to emulate these tactics in the 1980s, identifying the sports in which they could guarantee greater success with added investment. Britain, which looked to Australia’s surging success in the 1990s for inspiration, has followed this pattern ruthlessly in recent years, focusing on sports such as rowing and cycling.

“We have identified four sports where there is virtually no chance that anyone from a poor country can win a medal — equestrian, sailing, cycling and swimming,” Professor Forrest told the BBC.

Perhaps the Greek athletes who were demanding more state funding failed to realize that if Greece were to dig deeper into public coffers to fund elite sport in the hope of more Olympic medals, it would probably lead to less, rather than more athletes going to the Games as the spending would be targeted on the select few capable of competing with the best. What the country might win in terms of prestige it would certainly lose in terms of participation.

However, history suggests that Greek athletes have little to complain about. Greece has been punching above its weight at the Olympics for years and perhaps in London it found its natural, albeit disappointing, level.

According to the Medals Per Capita website, Greece ranks 24th, ahead of countries like Italy, Canada and the USA when taking into consideration population size. In terms of medals per GDP, Greece sits 38th, above countries like Australia, Great Britain and Germany.

One of the common gripes emanating from Greek athletes and coaches at these Games was that the government had withdrawn the benefits on offer to Olympians. Until 2010, any athlete finishing in the top eight places at the Games was entitled to an honorary place in the armed forces, salary included, upon their return. They also received assistance in finding university places. The minister currently in charge of sports, Yiannis Ioannidis, has suggested he might revive this system.

This would simply compound the problem. It is clear that targeted investment brings medals. Dangling carrots in front of athletes in the hope it will drive them on to greater things is hardly a scientific approach. It is no coincidence that Team GB athletes get no financial rewards for their medals. US athletes receive 25,000 dollars. It is only sporting backwaters, like Kyrgyzstan and Azerbaijan, that provide more serious money. Even then, there are few countries in the world that follow the former Greek model by offering successful athletes salaries for life as their rewards. Iran is one of them.

Greece cannot return to this outdated model. Apart from being an inefficient way to spend public money in the pursuit of medals, it also sends the completely wrong signals about sport and what its rewards should be. For Greece, the target must be increasing participation in sport and strengthening the values it breeds, such as teamwork, camaraderie, determination, organization and mutual respect. These are the elements our society lacks, not the bulldozing of everything in sight for a job for life. Cushy privileges and plenty of public money made some Greek athletes members of the country’s entitled class in the past. The crisis has blown out the flame of entitlement.

One of the few athletes who showed the same understanding as Gianniotis was high jumper Costas Baniotis, who failed to make the final of his discipline. “Sport is like the rest of society,” he told NET TV. “We were living something that was imaginary. It was based on money and as soon as the money dried up, the problems began.”

Scattering public money again cannot be the answer to these problems. Team GB’s success, for instance, is only partly built on taxpayers’ contributions. Sixty percent of its funding comes from the National Lottery and 7 million pounds from corporate sponsors.

Greece has invested heavily in facilities in recent years — 7 billion euros of public funds alone were spent on the Athens Olympics, which left Greek sport with superb training centers and stadiums. The country has failed to build on this legacy and needs to focus on identifying and nurturing young talent in an organized manner, with a plan to maintain and make use of the facilities available. Investing in Greek youth, trying to buy medals doesn’t. The current crop of Greek Olympians has every right to demand moral support, good facilities, able coaches and supreme organization. They cannot, however, expect the rewards they enjoyed in the past. They should remember that while their achievements are an absolutely necessary part of the country’s fabric, there will always be someone that deserves a gold medal more than them: the Greek taxpayer.

Nick Malkoutzis


4 responses to “In pursuit of fool’s gold

  1. True, we overdid it on Olympic glory which is part of our tradition(both the glory and the overdoing it part).

    However, modern athletics are like breast implant augmentation. You know there is something fake in it yet most of us pretend that it should be an object of admiration.

  2. Sage observations, as always. Olympians on the world stage carry the hopes and burdens of their country on their shoulders. To come away with few accolades is another big public ouch for Greeks already suffering. It would have been a welcome morale booster to claim a gold. Yes, yes, the medal per capita comparison is all very well, but let’s face it, almost no one counts that. Greece has a lot more pressing priorities, but I hope regular resources, however limited, can be made available to get school pupils into sport to fully utilse amd be inspired by the world class facilities which were the legacy of 2004

  3. Re: ‘Until 2010, any athlete finishing in the top eight places . . was entitled to an honorary place in the armed forces, salary included, . . ‘
    This is actually a ‘sinecure’: a salaried post for which one does no work.

    ‘Honorary’ in this context means: ‘ . . 3. Holding a title or position conferred as an honour, without emolument, or without the usual duties, obligations, privileges, etc.; titulary . .’ [OED]

    Thanks for an interesting essay.

  4. I would really like to know the precise sums that have been allocated to Sport in Gr in the past 4 years. The fact that a tiny proportion managed to get to the athletes is of no surprise to me. This is the, by now, well known Hellenic formula. We see it’s replication in Health, Education, Local Administration, Social Care etc. It’s this that has to stop first.

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