So the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo have drawn to a close.
This was an Olympic Games that will go down in history as the Covid Olympics, an event that many felt shouldn’t have happened in the first place, an unprecedented £12bn party in a sparkling new stadium but with local guests locked out.
Like most mega events, the tapestry of the Tokyo Olympics is fascinating.
This was a games full of firsts – the first to be held during a global health pandemic, the first to be postponed during peace time, the first with no/hardly any spectators. No wonder Tokyo 2021 (I refuse to say 2020 as if brand is more important than temporal reality) was called the cursed games.
It may have been unwanted and unloved, but go ahead it did and the games provided the same excitement, emotion and glory as any other. Not surprisingly, it was the athletes themselves that saved the day (and the IOC’s bacon) – from Tom Daley to the Kennys, from Gianmarco Tamberi to Allyson Felix, from Charlotte Worthington to Laura Muir – not to mention our starring cast of Welsh medal winners.
The absence of fans meant these Olympics were always going to be fundamentally different. Sport without fans is not really sport at all. Yet, in a strange way, the experience of watching the games on television proved even more dramatic than usual. With no crowds, the athletes themselves were magnified in all their stark and magnificent individual and team glory.
Amongst my highlights were the clips of athletes’ families at home rising in the middle of the night to watch their loved ones compete.
The critical roles of coaches and support staff was amplified too, a genuine team around the team.
With athletes rightly centre stage, there was space to hear about their journeys and their vulnerabilities for the first time – most importantly, athlete mental health with Simone Biles making what’s been seen as a weakness into a strength alongside the pressures of the past 17 months of training in public parks and makeshift gyms in garages.
GB won an incredible 65 medals, including 22 breath-taking golds. No one would deny this was a successful games. GB won as many medals as it did in London 2012 and across more sports than any other nation. There was success in traditional sports like swimming, sailing and cycling but also in new ones like BMX and skateboarding.
But the games are over and now is surely the time for some proper reflection and analysis. The last thing I want is to come across as a killjoy.
I’ve been glued to the telly for the past 17 days and, yes, I got up at dawn to watch my fellow Cymru international footballer, the wonderful Lauren Price, box her way to Wales’ first Olympic boxing gold medal. So, this is a million miles away from taking the shine off the incredibly well-deserved bling hanging around the necks of the 11 Welsh superstars who contributed three of Team GB’s 22 golds (that’s nearly 14% by the way). Still, it’s incumbent on all of us who live and breathe sport to ask some bigger questions.
TOKYO, JAPAN – AUGUST 08: Lauren Price of Team Great Britain celebrates with her gold medal during the medal ceremony for the Women’s Middle (69-75kg) Final bout between Lauren Price of Team Great Britain and Qian Li of Team China on day sixteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games at Kokugikan Arena on August 08, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
UK Sport, the organisation that funds Olympic and Paralympic sports, spent £345m in this four-year Olympic cycle. That money comes from National Lottery and government which is then strategically allocated to the sports that have the best chance of delivering medals. The medal table doesn’t lie and Tokyo displayed the simple transactional return on our spend in all its glittering glory.
UK Sport’s approach has been called “brutal but effective”, with evident risks attached. Witness the spotlight on athlete welfare as a consequence of a ruthless drive for medal success (look no further than the respective cultures of British Cycling and British Gymnastics).
But is there a longer-term impact from winning Olympic medals?
Sport Wales’ Brian Davies hopes that Welsh success in Tokyo will inspire the nation to be more active. That would be a proper legacy, but is it feasible? Remember London 2012’s motto: ‘Inspire a Generation’?
The problem is this is a short burn, there’s often a short-lived growth in sports participation after a mega event like an Olympics or Wimbledon, but without properly investing in infrastructure – quality pitches, coaches, the governing bodies and clubs which are the unseen orchestrators of sport – this is simply impossible to sustain and the inspiration fades as fast as it appears. If we are to gain meaningful returns from these fleeting moments of success, we cannot simply hope or will this to happen.
Nicola Adams’ gold medal in London 2012 inspired Lauren Price to her own Olympic dream but, for every Lauren Price, there’s a kid in Pembroke Dock, Holyhead or Dowlais with nowhere to play or train.
Grassroots sport faces an existential crisis. So, it’s surely time for a honest, mature debate about how sport is funded and, critically, how much is spent on the very top of the sporting pyramid.
The bottom line is that funding for sport is not infinite – if it were, I’d happily champion the £25m poured into rowing (net return two medals), £12.5m into equestrian (five medals) and £22m into sailing (five medals) – all sports where few will ever have a chance to regularly take part.
No, this is a matter of priorities and redistribution, a matter of access and equity, unless, that is, a UK or a Welsh government decides to radically up the ante and find money to fill a catastrophic shortfall in grassroots sport.
Like all public investment, it’s about choices. No one’s denying that our top athletes inspire the next generation, but the wider and longer-term inspiration and lasting behavioural change is fuelled by teachers and schools and grassroots clubs who introduce children to the joys of sport.
Covid and lockdowns exposed just how fragile community sport is. Ask our valiant governing bodies – young people are struggling to find places to do sport, while clubs collapse due to a lack of funds and volunteers. It’s a fair question therefore as to whether we should be spending £13.5m on the quest for gymnastic medals while there are waiting lists for young girls and boys to join a gymnastics club?
Wales, like the other UK nations, has a long-standing sports facility crisis. Put simply, kids don’t have enough places to play and those we have are of too poor quality. Unless we invest in sports facilities – and fast – we’ve no chance of properly realising a lasting legacy from Olympic and Paralympic medals.
It seems to me that there’s a difference between sporting spend (medals) and sporting investment (infrastructure). Community sport needs proper investment – in people and places. Grassroots sport brings massive health benefits to the nation and a huge boost to social cohesion. Put simply, an active nation is a happier, healthier and wealthier one.
Sport Wales is rightly trying to drive a better connection between medal success and the rest of the sports eco-system. Countries like New Zealand and Norway are ahead of the game in their endeavours to ensure their whole populations benefit long-term from medals. But Sport Wales’ budget is just £38m per annum and it currently spends just £7m on high-performance sport. So, the harsh truth is that unless the Welsh Government finds a magic money tree or proper Barnett consequentials come to Wales from the spending largesse of UK Sport, we are locked into a model that favours the few not the many.
There’s so much else one could debate on these games – the impact of the first transgender athletes to compete at an Olympics, politics clashing with sport as Belarus sprinter Krystsina Tsimanouskaya was forced to seek asylum in Poland after criticising her coaches, karate appearing for the first time in the country where it originated, yet binned from the next games in Paris in 2024 before competitors had even won a medal.
The IOC billed these as the first gender-equal games, but the fact that it’s taken 108 years for boxing and wrestling to be open to women competitors and 104 years for weightlifting tells its own story. So too does the track and field scheduling to favour men’s races and the tiny numbers of female coaches visible at Tokyo.
Then there’s another Olympics looming in a matter of months in a nation accused of human rights abuse (and worse). We’re told no politics will be allowed in Beijing? Yet, a so-called ‘ROC’ competed in Tokyo due to a synthetic and lily-livered ban for state-sponsored doping. The ‘ROC’ won 71 medals (that’s 71 that could have been won by other nations competing legitimately).
Finally, can the concept of ‘Team GB’ survive, never mind sustain its appeal? Is it possible to imagine at some point a Welsh (and Scottish and English) team in a future Olympic and Paralympics?
Sports diplomacy expert Gavin Price told the National he’d “like to see Wales on a journey of at least exploring what it would take and what it would mean to be an independent Olympic nation with a grown-up debate on the pros and cons of going it alone or remaining part of Team GB”.
Why not? Forewarned is forearmed as they say and we’re living through one of the most politically and constitutionally unstable periods in the history of these isles. Why shouldn’t sport – like any sector – scan the political horizon and consider its options? Like the wider debate on independence, the issue is infused with emotion and economics.
For me, sport is intrinsically emotional. It underpins and exemplifies our national identity. It gives us pleasure and pride with an intensity few other things can.
The majority of people in Wales see themselves as overwhelmingly Welsh so there would be clear benefits – hearing Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau when Welsh athletes stand on top of the podium, improving our scope for a proper sports diplomacy strategy to sell Wales to the world, no longer having to explain to a bewildered rest of the world how we can compete under the Ddraig Goch as an independent nation in football and rugby, yet conveniently come together as GB when it suits us.
But, of course, there would be significant risks to Wales going it alone. Elite sport is incredibly resource intensive and the centralisation of facilities and coaches, etc, is key to maximising investment. But it can be done, even in smaller countries, as New Zealand amply demonstrates.
It would require a massive exponential increase in funding but, when I was a board member of UK Sport, I argued that Wales should have gained far more of its spend, both directly and from Barnett consequentials. Money could be saved by removing the duplication of English and GB governing bodies, there’d be no need for UK Sport either.
We could even consider a revolutionary performance agreement with Scotland, England or Northern Ireland (or all three) for our top athletes to train together and then rejoin their nations for competition as they do for the Commonwealth Games. That could be a properly federal solution with approval from those who feel Welsh and British.
So, we should bask in the pride at seeing Hannah, the two Laurens, Matt, Calum, Josh, Ollie, Tom, Elinor, Leah and Sarah on the podium in Tokyo. This is far from undermining their incredible achievements but, by their very nature, they are fleeting and we must surely have even bigger and more expansive ambitions for sport in our nation.
I believe that Wales has the potential to be a genuine world-class sporting powerhouse, where every girl and boy can dream about being an Olympic champion, or simply enjoy taking part. The problem is that we are currently dancing to UK Sport’s (and the UK Government’s) tune and it’s a short-term one.
Unless we are prepared to invest the same (and more) in the foundations of sport as we do in the pursuit of medals, we are tacitly accepting that our cash is buying a chance for glancing glory every four years while the rest of sport stares over the edge of a precipice.
Of course we should salute our magnificent medallists, but we can’t afford to be dazzled by gold if everyone is to reach their own sporting podiums.