There are bigger heroes than athletes

Following the Olympics, it was hard to escape the return home of the “Olympic Heroes”, which was the main headline in the media, which seemingly found this far more important than a major air disaster or a war in the Caucasus. While not wishing to disregard the undeniable achievements of the Olympic athletes, and recognising that it’s good for the morale of the nation, I couldn’t help thinking how sportsmen are given this sort of special treatment to congratulate them, but that this wouldn’t be extended to others no matter how great their achievements.

Let’s use the example of a Nobel Prize winner. It is unarguably much harder to receive a Nobel Prize than an Olympic gold medal as far fewer are given out. (Let’s face it, if the Nobel Institute copied the way medals are awarded in Olympic swimming, for example, there would be separate Nobel prizes given for Physical Chemistry, Inorganic Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, and no doubt for Doing Chemistry with your Eyes Closed and One Hand Behind your Back.) Plus, there are no silver or bronze Nobel prizes, the only advantage being that they are awarded annually rather than every four years. Yet do we see a rare British Nobel Laureate deified by the media in the same was as an Olympic medallist? Of course not. And does the government put on a special charter flight for the laureate to go and collect his or her medal from the King of Sweden, or will the said laureate be buying their own economy class ticket to Stockholm?

In an attempt to sell the 2012 Olympics to the whole of the UK, knowing full well that it’s only likely to directly benefit London, the government has said that the legacy of the games will be an improvement in school sport. Following the success of what is bizarrely called “Team GB”, in Beijing (with a proper J), the Prime Minister has expressed a wish to re-introduce competitive sport into schools, after it was effectively phased out so that no child had to feel a failure. Now, I think that sport and exercise has a important role to play in schools, and that some competition is a good thing, as long as it is accompanied by lessons in good sportsmanship. That way, we have the happy situation where the winners feel good about winning, and the losers fell good about their opponents winning. Whether a load of immature school kids will be able to grasp that concept is another matter.

But if we are to concede that it’s OK for some children to be better than others at sport in school, why can’t we also accept that some will achieve better academically than others? Why must everyone pass their public exams? Why must half of those be given the top grades? Why can’t GCSEs and A-levels be awarded in the same way as medals? There are only so many gold medals, then that’s it. Similarly, there should be a fixed number of A-grades. That does away with the needless comparison of grades from one year to the next. Statistically speaking, it’s unlikely the distribution of intelligence from one year to the next is going to vary significantly, and the exams should not be used a a gauge of teaching quality. Excellence should be rewarded in all subject areas, whether they be academic or practical, and we should accept that people have strengths in different areas. We shouldn’t concentrate simply on sport. If all youngsters are taught that only succeeding in sport matters, and then they see the Olympic Heroes on TV, the ones who are hopeless at sport but were interested in engineering are going to wonder what the point is and give up, allowing Eastern countries to overtake us in a ranking far more valuable than any medal table.

The final straw comes when the headlines announce, British athletes ‘to get honours’. We are told, “In the past, almost all Olympic gold medal winners have been have been awarded an MBE as a minimum.” So simply receiving a gold medal isn’t enough for these heroes, they have to receive another gong too (although those in the know, which doesn’t include the BBC, will realise an MBE isn’t a medal – in fact, the person him- or herself is the MBE, and they are presented with an insignia – but I digress). I expect we’ll see the same sort of honours inflation that gave us Sir Steve Redgrave and Dame Kelly Holmes – awards that set a precedent. It’s lucky Michael Phelps isn’t British, otherwise a Dukedom would hardly be good enough, and they’d have run out of things to give him.

Olympic athletes were originally supposed to be amateurs. But these days, aren’t most of the British team in effect professionals? Do they have day-jobs, or do they spend all their time training? They may not receive a salary for training, but their income is from sponsorship. This commercialisation of amateur sport means that the countries that top the medal table are those with the most money to throw at their athletes. It would be much more in the original Olympic spirit if they were true amateurs who held down a job and trained a bit in the evenings, although I suppose it was originally the Communist regimes in eastern Europe with their elite squads of athletes who put an end to that.

I know people will be saying that the athletes were representing their country, and were proud to hold the union flag as they celebrated their wins. But do you really believe that? Which do you think came first, their personal achievement, or representing the country? They wouldn’t be human if it wasn’t the former, and the latter is purely consequential.

There are many heroes who are greater, bolder and braver than Olympic athletes. One might be a doctor working on a new anti-cancer drug. Another might be the person who volunteers to look after the homeless. The former may one day receive a Nobel Prize, but with little fanfare at home, and an eventual knighthood when they are old and grey. The latter will be lucky to be appointed an MBE if someone thought to nominate him or her. There will be no fanfare in the press for them.

I wonder who a patient watching the Olympics on television while recovering in hospital would consider his or her heroes. Put yourself in that position, and consider what is most important in schools: produce a nation of sportsmen; or of doctors, researchers and engineers. Or even better, why not some of both? And is there really nothing better to spend nearly £10 billion on than hosting the Olympic Games? At least they’ll be making one saving: next time around, Team GB won’t need the gold-nosed charter aircraft!

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