Class warfare could help GB podium more

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 10:58pm

Britain finally arrived at its own Olympics on Thursday, winning a clutch of golds and silvers to propel them into the medal table top five.

Team GB men's cycling team sprint trio smashed their own world record to beat France to gold on an incredible evening which topped off an amazing day as the hosts saw more golds and silvers in canoeing, cycling - courtesy of Tour de France champion Bradley Wiggins - shooting, judo and rowing

The exultant media and public have been frothing at the bit for more medals and glory, and the support at all the venues has been akin to a Premier League derby, with the roars of the 6,000 in the packed velodrome sounding like 60,000.

It was the same on the banks of the boating sports venue, besides the judo mats and even behind the sandbags at the shooting gallery. For any British sports fan, it was a day to celebrate and let slip some vocal patriotism and silently think this small island cluster can still take on the world.

The jubilation was not reserved only for the athletes, their families, sports fans, the headline writers and television presenters. Britain's grammar gestapo have also been caught up in the swell of national pride and begun a debate about a new buzzword that has entered the Games-speak lexicon.

A growing number of the athletes, pundits and sports presenters are using the nouns medal and podium as verbs, such as 'I've been medalled', or ' Phelps is the most medalled athlete', and 'I've never podiumed before'.

There has been much joshing among the grammar purists who have issued kind demands to have the lazy language stamped out before it catches on as we seek to inspire the next generation of well-spoken medallists.

The comedic element continued as more British medals were won. Someone from the Oxford English Dictionary called the BBC to say the use of 'medalled' as a verb was first recorded in a letter by Lord Byron in 1822, and that Thackeray used it in 1860 in his Roundabout Papers. 'Irving went home medalled by the King,' he wrote.

History teaches us everything and sports history sends professional and armchair statisticians alike into a similar frenzy suffered by the grammar boffins.

At one point on Terrific Thursday, Britain had two more medals than it did at the same stage during the Beijing Olympics.

But just as the number crunchers in Team GB and the rest of Britain rubbed their hands in glee at the prospect of leapfrogging the French and the Germans while leaving Australia in the London 2012 dust, Lord Moynihan, the chairman of the British Olympic Association, dammed what he described as 'one of the worst statistics in British sport'.

'It is wholly unacceptable that over 50 per cent of our medallists in Beijing came from the independent [schools] sector. It tells you that 50 per cent of the medals came from 7 per cent of the population,' he said.

London 2012 will have the same disproportion of lucky elite and lump-it-and-like-it state-school educated gracing the podiums.

So far, Team GB have nine gold medallists in the 2012 Games. Four were privately educated, and a fifth went to school in Germany. The figures stopped the cheering country in its jubilant tracks, albeit momentarily, and many turned their thoughts to another British obsession, class.

It a worrying truth that just 7 per cent of Britons are privately educated and that their expensive yearly fees not only buy a superior classroom experience but also the best sporting facilities and coaches. The other 93 per cent have to make do with less and less.

For the past two decades, governments have sold off more than 10,000 state school playing fields to developers who have built profit-making houses on the once green, muddy competitive land.

My own state school in Winchester was surrounded by playing fields. From every classroom window, sport was kicked into your consciousness because the green expanse was filled daily with soccer, rugby, hockey, cricket and track and field physical education classes.

We prided ourselves on our annual push-over wins - in all sports - over Winchester College, among the top three elite private schools alongside Eton and Harrow.

No longer. The land on which I won many games, team medals and cups was sold off in the late 1990s and smothered by boxy houses. Only a soccer pitch remains.

'The balance of professional football is that 7 per cent of players come from the private sector, which is an absolute mirror image of society. That should be the case in every single sport, and that should be the priority in each and every sport, and that is something that every government should strive for,' said Moynihan, himself privately educated.

'There is so much talent out there in the 93 per cent that should be identified and developed.

'That has got to be a priority for future sports policy.

'I have spoken about it many times and I will continue to speak about it until there is not breath left in me.'

Let's hope so, if only to save face with the Chinese. The stats make the week-long row over teenage swimming sensation Ye Shiwen and harsh criticism of China's socialist sports system appear lame and hypocritical.

But there is something else alongside the sell-off of playing fields undermining the state schools' Olympic input. Successive governments - mainly New Labour - sought to weed out competition in the classroom on the premise that having winners and losers is old-fashioned and detrimental to human rights in the schoolyard.

But this innate human trait - competitiveness - is, for better or worse, still allowed to flourish at the private schools, hence they produce winners and losers - and medals - in far higher numbers. Without the desire to win, we would have no Olympics - nor any sport.

It is time indeed for the British Olympic Association to put a verb to good, proper use and start medalling in Britain's lopsided class-ridden sport system.