Costing an Olympic medal

Thursday, 16 August 2012 00:21 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

‘THE Greatest Show on Earth,’ otherwise known as the Olympics, closed its 2012 chapter well and truly with the Sri Lankan contingent returning on Wednesday. Their rather dismal performance has raised old questions of how bad decisions, lack of funding and politicisation is shackling Sri Lanka’s sporting chances.

Sri Lankan athletes had 30 officials with them, according to news reports, but no coaches. This seems a ridiculous oversight when one considers that the reputation of an entire country lies on the athletes’ performance rather than the number of officials that the delegation transports.

The Sports Minister has already gone on record denying that not sending the coaches was a mistake, but just a cursory glance at the top countries at the Olympics gives an idea of what amount of training, planning and funding goes into producing a gold medallist.  

In Atlanta in 1996, the year before the UK’s funding money started flowing, Team GB won a solitary gold. The correlation between investment and medal plundering has tracked upward ever since, culminating with the 60-plus haul in London following backing of around £ 260 million. A basic ready reckoner would put the cost of a Team GB medal at around £ 4 million, according to reports.

China has invested a colossal amount in its bid to become an Olympic superpower. Prior to Beijing, it diverted a staggering 4.5 billion dollars into its sporting programmes. The investment by its main competitor for the top spot, the US, may have been modest by comparison, but it still dwarfed the government support afforded to most other nations.

The US Olympic Committee ploughed around 230 million dollars into the sporting teams that would represent it in Beijing, with additional support from sponsors and the individual governing bodies. The result was 110 medals and second place in the overall standings behind host China (which won fewer medals but more golds). Overall that works out at approximately two million dollars a medal – though there are dramatic differences between sports.

Prior to the Vancouver Winter Games in 2010, Canada had hosted two previous Olympics and had not registered a gold in either. Adamant this would not happen again, the Canadian Olympic Committee focused on precisely what it would take to produce medals.

The ‘Own the Podium’ strategy was formulated with the buy-in of all the nation’s sporting bodies that would be competing. A key element of delivering the success that the hosts craved was funding. It was increased to unprecedented levels, with 110 million dollars ploughed into athlete support teams in the five years prior to Vancouver. Canada not only broke its home gold duck, but it won 14 of them to top the medal table.

Sri Lanka does not have the resources to spend on this staggering level but the principal point holds true. At present cricket holds the deepest coffers, but for Sri Lanka to diversify in sports, it needs to identify disciplines that it can perform well in and focus on athlete-centric training. This means that officials and political string pulling has to take a back seat.

Shortly after gaining independence, Sri Lanka’s first Olympic medal was won by a burgher, the second by a Sinhalese and the first Asian gold medal by a Tamil. Sports, if promoted in the right way, can bring an entire nation together. Unfortunately, right now it has been degraded to giving out free holidays to officials. Hopefully Rio will see a better performance.