Tag Archives: Olympics

The Olympics and Hillsborough: two faces of the public sector

Brendan Barber, the outgoing General Secretary of Britian’s Trade Union Congress, called for “an Olympic approach to the economy“.  He was, of course, only one of many politicians and others trying to use the example of London’s success in putting on the 2012 Games to try and make a wider point.   He said that it showed that “the market does not always deliver”.  In this I think he was referring to both the fact that the games were a government sponsored grand project, and the spectacular failure of one of the private contractors, G4S, to deliver security staff.

Well I did not hear his speech, or even read it – relying on radio and press reports.  What comes over is a mixture of the coherent and nonsense.  The coherent part was the idea that an economy lacking in aggregate demand could do with some grand infrastructure projects to keep people employed and deliver future benefits.  Many people across the political spectrum agree with that, although personally I am on the sceptical side.  The nonsense bit was the idealisation of the public sector and suspicion of anything that smacks of private initiative and enterprise.  He precise words may well not have done this: “the market does not always deliver” is not the same as saying that “the public sector always delivers and market never does.”  But that is no doubt what his TUC audience heard, judging by what some people were saying.  The ideas of many trade unionists are not so much inspired by Maynard Keynes as Leonid Brezhnev.  Unlike in America, though, the public are more sympathetic to such notions than they ought to be.

To see why we have the terrible example of the Hillsborough football disaster in 1989.  Today a report has been released vindicating criticisms of the authorities long made by families of the victims; the Prime Minister was forced to make an apology.  The authorities, mainly the Police, not only made misjudgements that caused the disaster, but their handling of things made it worse by delaying medical help.  And to cap it all they systematically covered up the truth and put about mis-information to try and divert the blame.  It has take 23 years to get this far.

What is my point?  It isn’t that the public sector is any more likely than the private sector to perpetrate the sort of mistakes that led to and exacerbated this tragedy.  Far from it.  It is that it is so much harder to hold the public sector to account.  They are integrated into the system that is meant to secure justice; they can pull strings, call in political favours, and work the system so that the truth does not come out.  For every Hillsborough that eventually does come to light, think of the hundreds of lesser tragedies where the authorities manage to thwart the victims.

Compare that to the private sector.  At the Olympics retribution was swift and brutal for G4S, publicly humiliated in days (while their public commissioners who seemed asleep on the job just kept their heads down).  Or to take something a bit more comparable: BP’s Mexican Gulf disaster last year.  BP faced the full weight of the US political and judicial system, forcing a rapid response and compensation payments.

Hillsborough was a long time ago.  I would like to think that standards of public accountability have improved since then.  But we still get procurement disasters in the Ministry of Defence, bad hospitals getting away sub-standard services, state schools in many parts of the country not trying hard enough to raise standards among less well-off communities.  And even the Olympics – compare the cost to original budget!  Not to mention their reliance on armies of unpaid volunteers.

Scepticism of the private sector and open markets is understandable – but we need to get things into perspective.  We have too easily forgotten what happened to the Communist systems in Europe.  All those expressions of goodwill and the promotion of the public good soon get buried in a culture of passing the buck.

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Competitive sports: making it compulsory is futile

We’re having a lot of fun in Britian with the 2012 Olympics, and especially here in London.  That’s rather wonderful in its own right – but as usual people are using the occasion to push forward their political agendas.  And the obvious agenda to push is funding for sports, and the promotion of sport in schools.  Any number of half-baked ideas are being floated, including by our Prime Minister, David Cameron.  In particular Mr Cameron thinks that the focus that his school (Eton) had on team sports would be a good idea for everybody. Compulsory competive school sports would be just thing, apparently.  But my scepticism comes from the fact that I endured a private education system almost as privileged as Mr Cameron’s – and I don’t think its emphasis on compulsory sport did me any good at all.

One of the many problems with competitive sports is that they are almost by definition elitist.  Prestige comes from winning.  Winning only goes to those with certain mental and physical aptitudes.  If you don’t fit, and almost by definition most don’t, the whole thing is painful.  You just become fodder for other people to show off against.  This was pretty much how things were for me at my prep school in Ealing.  I used to hate “Games”.  I still have an affection for pouring rain since this meant that Games would be cancelled, and I would be spared the humiliation and risk of getting hurt.

It is at this point my story takes an unusual turn.  In 1969 my father was seconded to Jamaica for a couple of years, and I went to school in Kingston.  This was another privileged institution (The Priory School – I think it’s still going strong), with a very strong American slant.  There was no compulsory sport, and I was very happy about that.  I joined in the odd game of football on a voluntary basis, though not very successfully.  But my parents enrolled me in a swimming club, not linked to tschool at all – one that trained me to a competitive standard, including (very unsuccessful) participation in the Jamaican junior swimming championships.  As something outside the hateful apparatus of compulsory school sport, and with a supportive and encouraging coach (how unlike school sports!), I was happy to go along with this.  Returning home and back to one last year in my prep school, I continued to keep up swimming, at Ealing Swimming Club.  This made me very fit.  I astonished my school teachers by picking up the gold medal for the 440 yards race at the school sports day, along with another gold for the relay team (taking the final leg) and a mere bronze in the 100 yards.  It was less of a surprise when I picked up the Victor Ludorum at the school’s swimming competition.

I then moved on to my secondary school, the “public” school of St Paul’s.  I did not find Games any more agreeable here, with its major emphasis on rugby.  Meanwhile at the swimming club I worked my way up the various grades until I hit the stream where people at the top were in Commonwealth Games contention.  And I was firmly stuck at the bottom, in spite of quite mind-numbing and exhausting swimming sessions.  I felt I had better things to do with my time (like assembling Airfix kits) and gave up.  There was to be no more sporting glory for me!

This has left me deeply suspicious of compulsory school sports.  Coaching resources are limited.  It is natural that they should concentrate on the most promising cases.  If you are not judged (rightly or wrongly) to be in that category you are going to have a miserable time, and won’t get anything out of it more than a fear and distaste for participating in sport.  And most of the people who succeeded in sports at school won’t have much idea what I’m talking about.

If the alleged health benefits of sport are to be realised, then it needs to be voluntary and enjoyable.  There’s nothing wrong with competive sports – and anybody that wants to take part, or even try it out, should have the opportunity.  I would back funding for that – though let’s recognise that this doesn’t have to be schools, and is often better outside.  But making it compusory is a blind alley.

And there’s something else.  If sport is voluntary then those running it have some incentive to make sure that people are enjoying it – instead often being nasty bullies.  Things may be better nowadays, but when I was at school bullying in team sports was rife at schools – and this carried through to the professional game.  We don’t want to go back to those days.

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My day at the Olympics

Yesterday I joined London’s Olympic party, when we went to see the gymnastics at the North Greenwich Arena, better known as the O2 (but the company isn’t an Olympic sponsor…) or in its prior guise as the Millennium Dome.  It was the women’s artistic individual overall final.  All too brief – but I’m glad we made it, for once in a lifetime!

The event was due to start at 4.30pm, but we decided to make a day of it.  We set off at 11.30 in the morning, and took the river bus to Greenwich.  We opted to lunch there, about 2km from the arena, since we’d heard so many scare stories about the dominance of the Olympics sponsors (McDonalds for restaurants, Heineken for beer, etc).  Greenwich town is near another Olympic venue – Greenwich Park for equestrian events – so had plenty of Olympic atmosphere.  After a long but rather mediocre lunch at a Tex-Mex restaurant, we set off by bus for the arena, as directed by one of the many Olympic volunteer helpers.  London Transport nearly undid the glow of goodwill by taking out of service the bus that was due to take us, with a long wait for the next one shown on the indicator.  But another bus turned up, untracked by the indicator, a few minutes later, with space enough for everyone.

At the venue we were cheerfully herded through the security checks.  All very quick, but it was quite early (about 3pm).  It didn’t help to try and figure out what was going on in the complex system of queues and barriers, just follow the crowds and go where people were pointing.  In the Dome we found a profusion of restaurants (but no McDonalds, or Burger King, come to that), with no conspicuous restrictions.  The scare stories were overdone.  But a sign at one of the bars in the arena itself said “proud only to accept Visa cards for payment” or some such.  I think most people, me included, find that the Visa monopoly on payment cards quite offensive, so they should have put “ashamed” instead of “proud”.  We paid cash, which was fortunately allowed for a bottle of water (though not for tickets or merchandise…).

So we took our seats perched up high in the arena with over an hour to go.  But they kept us entertained and warmed us up, with videos and explanations and previews, and finally a dance by the English Ballet from Swan Lake (from their current show which coincidentally we are due to see next week).

And then it all started.  There were 24 gymnasts (limited to two from each country – a bit hard on the Americans and Russians) divided into four groups, each taking on one piece of “apparatus” – the beam, the vault, the uneven bars and the floor (which is not an “apparatus” in my pedantic book) – the last set to music.  It was quite a lot to take in.  The top contenders were all in one group, so the pros could concentrate on just them.  But the two British contenders (Hannah Whelan and the 15 year old Rebecca Tunney) were in another group – and the predominantly British crowd were keen to give them full support.  And again, the floor exercise tended to draw attention, with its sheer size and, of course, the music.  There was a screen and a scoreboard, and a bit of commentary – but it is easier to follow on the television at home.  There were one or two performances that I wanted to see but missed – like the American Gabrielle “flying squirrel” Douglas on the uneven bars.

The organisers could have helped us a bit more.  They were selling a daily magazine for £5 on the day’s events, but this gave just two pages to the gymnastics, gassing on about the two British girls, with two thirds of a page on the the girl they considered the favourite (the US Aly Raisman), who did not end up with a medal, plus a brief profile for the main Russian contender (Victoria Komova) and an even shorter mention of her team-mate (Aliya Mustafina) – these ended up with Silver and Bronze respectively.  So they almost failed to mention the winner, Ms Douglas, at all!  Still, better than the forecast at the beginning of the magazine which predicted an American who failed to qualify for the final at all (Jordin Wieber).  This whole things misses the point about people who turn up for the events – who are unlikely to be attending more than one event in a day – so don’t want masses of superficial waffle on everything – but some substance on the event they are watching.  A list of the 24 finalists, and their scores in  earlier rounds, and perhaps a little profile would have added to the event.  All the magazine could do was while away 15 minutes on the train home.

No matter! It was lovely to be there, and to make your own choices as to what to follow, rather then the choice of some television producer.  The performances were astonishing.  I am no gymnast, and don’t know much about the sport.  But I am irrestiably drawn to it each Olympics, and have been watching the drama of the team finals and the men’s event on the television.  There was a thrilling finish on the floor exercises as the Americans and Russians slugged it out.  But Ms Douglas was already in a significant lead, the others having wobbled a little in earlier rounds and she clinched the deal with confidence – quite wonderful to watch.  Interestingly the leading women contestants did not seem to be so pally with each other as were the men – they seemed a bit more absorbed in their own worlds.  Tears from the Russians in the end as they failed in their bid for Gold, in spite of the American favourite having come a cropper in qualification.

Alas for Ms Whelan.  She was already struggling after a poor beam and indifferent floor, when she came a cropper on the vault and score zero points (the only gymnast to do so on any apparatus) – she ended up 24th by some distance, though she would not have done much better in the placings if she had got a middling score there.  Ms Tunney did better, ending up 13th after an uncertain start on the beam -she should still have her best years ahead of her.  After her vault (she led and so was the first score to be posted in the third rotation), she even topped the leader board for a minute or so – as my picture shows.

What a wonderful experience!  My head had was never really convinced by the economic case for London hosting the Olympics, and still isn’t.  But the gain is deeper than economics.  It makes us Brits feel world class again.  The organisation is generally excellent, the spirit wonderful.  The tone set by the opening ceremony was shear genius – celebrating Britain inclusively for what it is, and not trying to wallow in past glory.  We can be cynical about lots of it (the scare stories about transport chaos, the sponsors’ monopolies), critical about details (the daily magazine) – but it feels good.

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