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Health, Sports & Psychology

Are we any good at sport?

Updated Friday, 11th July 2008

Ben Oakley asks: as a country, is Britain actually any good at sport?

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Wales Rugby team line up to sing national anthem Creative commons image Icon By Marc [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr Creative Commons under Creative-Commons license

Team sports dominate the general public’s perception of sporting success. The UK proudly looks forward to supporting all four of its national teams in the 2015 Rugby World Cup. But, if some, or all, fail to qualify for the final stages of world or European Championships – as happened with the football teams in 2008 - there is collective gloom at our demise. After all, many team sports were developed in Britain – so shouldn’t we be good at them?

We tend to judge ourselves by success in team sports which are closely linked to national identity: football, cricket and rugby. Although national teams can do well in cricket and rugby, these are essentially not seen as ‘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). Consider the data on registered rugby players in England (340,000), Wales (73,000), Scotland (49,000) and Ireland (97,000) compared to top ranked New Zealand (148,000). Click to see this infographic from World Rugby for more information and statistics.

In global football, on the other hand, England’s recent achievements are lamentable and reaching the last four (last achieved in 1990) of the World Cup seem a distant past. The rhetoric in the build up to such events is astonishingly optimistic but the hope often belies reality. But in terms of the Premier League football commercial ‘product’, we are world beaters with it surpassing the American football equivalent (NFL) in 2012 for global broadcast and sponsorship revenues.

Two England Rugby players Creative commons image Icon By David Barkhausen [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr Creative Commons under Creative-Commons license But what of other sports? Britain has a more diverse range of sports than many other countries, and with some esoteric examples such as Octopush or ‘underwater hockey’; we should celebrate this plurality.

From 2000-08 the UK’s Sporting Preferences survey asked some 2,000 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 very good at them as the 2012 Olympics showed. 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 sophisticated methods for nurturing those who show promise. Sadly though, British celebrations of the Olympic Games have recently got a lot harder with the loss of BBC’s control of broadcast rights for the Games from 2022, being sold to Discovery, owner of satellite channel Eurosport.

In the increasingly competitive Olympic environment, Great Britain is excelling, 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. The British team arrive at the 2010 Winter Olympics, led by Shelly Rudman Creative commons image Icon S. Yume under CC-BY licence under Creative-Commons license 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, as well as blossoming employment opportunities following the 2012 Olympic legacy has underpinned the success of The Open University’s degree in Sport, Fitness and Coaching.

Great Britain has enhanced its Olympic rankings with the use of National Lottery money with the National Lottery Act being specially amended in 1997 to make this possible. There have been dramatic improvements in results in the 20 years since the nadir of 1996 when only one gold medal was won (15 medals in all): the improvements have been by a factor of four with 60 medals (20 gold) anticipated in Rio 2016. There is also 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 at sport than we think. In fact we ought to celebrate all success, regardless of how well we do in the team sports which so often dominate.

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