Sadly, team sports dominate the general public’s perception of sporting success. So, when all four British national teams fail to qualify for the finals of the 2008 European Football Championship, there is collective gloom at our demise. After all, many team sports were developed in Britain.
We tend to judge ourselves by success in team sports which are closely linked to national identity: football, cricket and rugby. Although national teams occasionally do well in cricket and rugby these are essentially not ‘world’ sports since they reflect colonial dissemination – we should do well given the small number of nations who play these sports professionally (less than 15). In global football, on the other hand, England’s recent achievements of reaching the last four or eight of the World Cup are realistic. The rhetoric in the build up to such events is often astonishing in its optimism.
But what of other sports? Britain has a more diverse range of sports than most other countries, with some esoteric examples such as ‘underwater hockey’; we should celebrate this plurality.
In 2000/02 the UK’s Sporting Preferences survey asked 2,060 British people ‘in which sports they would most like to see British teams achieve success’. Athletics and football easily topped the polls depending when the survey was undertaken. Swimming came next followed by tennis, gymnastics, boxing, rugby, cricket and other sports.
The public then, does also particularly connect with Olympic sports and we are getting rather good at them. The trouble is such sports have got harder and harder to win as more nations have been formed in the post-1989 democratisation era. In addition, many nations such as China have entered the ‘sporting arms race’ to gain recognition. This means rightly or wrongly, more and more is being spent on nurturing sporting champions, including the unethical use of drugs.
In this increasingly competitive environment Great Britain is doing rather well, with Olympic squads in sports such as rowing, cycling and sailing dominating the world stage and our Olympic athletes’ behaviour contrasting strongly with that of some footballers. However, winning margins at this level are tiny with, for example, five of Great Britain's gold medals in 2004 won by a total margin of 0.545 sec. A wobble here, an incorrect body position there or a failure to use a new training aid can mean second place rather than first. The role of sport science and psychology in understanding these small performance margins is immense, and people’s interest in this subject has led The Open University to launch new courses in this area.
Great Britain has enhanced its position with the use of National Lottery money. There have been dramatic improvements in results since the nadir of 1996 when only one gold medal was won: 10 or more are expected in Beijing. Added to this there is the stated intention to finish 4th in the medal table in 2012; here is evidence to suggest that national sporting success does matter to those in power. Indeed in 2002 government economists searched to find economic links between sporting success and productivity and GDP. They concluded that the ‘feel good factor’ alone was worth the use of public money to help achieve success.
So, we might be better than we think. In fact we ought to celebrate that success as a counter to the football culture which often dominates.