Image: Jaguar MENA
Murray, Farah, Froome and Hamilton
But compare all that with today. Right now, the UK boasts a Wimbledon champion, two world heavyweight boxing champions, a football team that captured the hearts of millions at Euro 2016, a three-time winner of the Tour De France, and a cricket team that is doing to the rest of the world what its finest teams used to do to England. And the nation still basks in the memory of its extraordinary medal tally from London 2012.
Do you think it is a coincidence that this new golden age of British sport coincides with a time when the UK economy is outperforming most of its rivals?
If you scan the medal table from the 2012 Olympics, you find that the top two positions went to the two largest economies. Britain was third – fifth in the economic league table, Germany was sixth – fourth in the economic league table, France seventh – sixth in the economic league table, followed by Australia (13th richest) and then Italy, which is the world’s eighth largest economy. The only serious anomalies in the medal table top ten were Russia – fourth amongst the medallists, but way down the economic table, but maybe topping the list of countries who know how to get around drug testing; South Korea, fifth amongst the medallists, but 11th richest economy and Hungary, tenth in the Olympics, 56th in the league table of economies.
Instead of asking why has the UK done so well at sport recently, it might be more appropriate to ask why did it once do so badly? One might also ask why did Hungary, the home of footballing legend, Puskas, do so well?In fact, the UK did see a mini golden age from the early 1980s, as Margaret Thatcher changed Britain, Ovett, Coe, Cram, Daley Thompson, Christie, Gunnel and Jackson dominated track and field, and Sir Steve Redgrave began collecting gold medals. The 80s and early 90s were good times for Britain, but not like today.
Sport and entrepreneurs
Maybe there is a link between sporting success and the rise of entrepreneurship. According to the Global Entrepreneurship Index, the UK leapt from being the 12th most entrepreneurial country in the world in 2012 to 4th in 2015, although it fell back a tad in 2016 to 9th. Many of the countries that score more highly than the UK in 2016 are small, Scandinavian countries including Iceland for example, and given the size of their respective populations, you would not really expect them to emulate Britain’s sporting success.Or maybe sporting success encourages entrepreneurship. Many of the attributes required to reach the top in a sport seem to apply to entrepreneurship too. Perhaps watching sportsmen and sportswomen excel encourages fortitude, determination and self-motivation.
Or is it that demographics is a key driver of a country’s sporting triumphs. Germany may have a bigger population than the UK, but in 2012 it boasted 904,081 people aged 20, compared to the UK which had 853,434 of that age. These populations are close enough in size to say that the difference is not statistically significant for predicting sporting success. And don’t forget, while the UK enjoys a golden age of sporting glory, in the most popular sport of all, it can only look on at Germany with envy.
I approach the end of this piece, and as we head into extra time, I would like to bowl a googly, and mention immigration and cultural diversity. How much of the UK’s success is down to that? It says a wonderfully positive thing about the UK that it can boast sportsmen and women of cultural diversity, many of whom were not born in Britain, but have made it their home. Speaking as someone who has watched from the comfort of his armchair our best male athletes not quite managing the highest successes in the long distance running events from the time of David Bedford right up to a few years ago, I can’t tell you the joy I experienced from watching Mo Farah win his medals. As he ran in London 2012, I was transformed from a couch potato to a living-room runner bean, as I literally ran, or at least tapped energetically, every step of his 10,000 metres, from beside my sofa – I was quite exhausted at the end of the race, I can tell you. I celebrate diversity.
Immigration and cultural variety may have lifted British sport to the highest level, but in just the same way, immigration and cultural diversity are super-charging a new entrepreneurial spirit in the UK – I often find it odd that those who are so glad to champion the latest transfer to their football team from abroad, are often the first to bemoan immigration.
All I can say is roll on Rio. Last time the UK won 65 medals. Can post-Brexit UK, with a supposedly more global outlook, do any better than that? Meanwhile, I have got to get into training, after-all, I have a 10,000 metres race to watch soon!