Sunday, 17 August 2008

The Cost Of Olympic Medals

With team GB doing well this weekend, its worth thinking of the true cost of medals. The graph below shows the number of medals won by Australia at the Olympic Games between 1980 and 1996, with a projection on the number of medals that would be won in 2000. The x-axis is the money spent in each four-year cycle leading up to the Games. This analysis was presented at an IOC Congress in the months leading up to the Sydney Games of 2000.

It turns out that each bronze medal will set you back a cool £7 million, while gold and silver will cost you about £19 million.

At the Athens Olympics four years ago, the Chinese Olympics Delegation won 32 gold, 17 silver and 14 bronze medals; it was only second to US, which had won 35 gold metals. For the Beijing Olympics, where China is winning the majority of all medal totals, the Chinese Olympic Delegation will send nearly 600 athletes, far exceeding 407, the number of athletes sent to Athens. While this may be exciting for the Chinese people, many may not have considered how a country that is ranked around 100th in the world for GDP per person can win over the U.S.—ranking in the top 10 countries for GDP—to become the top sports nation in gold metal totals. Especially for a country that still has more than 200 million living below the poverty line, some believe China’s anticipated high medal ranking represents a poor allocation of resources.

How Much for a Gold Medal? Prior to Athens Olympic Games, an Internet article in China became extremely popular. In “The Trap of Olympic Gold Medal,” the author exhibited astounding numbers. After the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, the budget for the China Sports Bureau raised from £200 million to £400 million per year. During the four years of preparation for the Athens Olympics, China spent £1.6 billion, but the expense earned China 32 gold medals, making the cost for each gold medal nearly £55 million. Due to this high price for Olympic glory, China’ gold medals have been called “The most expensive gold medals in the world.”

To put this in perspective, the £55 million used to win one Olympic gold medal can build 3500 elementary schools, rescuing 350,000 children from poverty due to lack of education.
Such a contrast is shocking. In a country where the budget for education, science, research and social security is extremely tight, many believe the £55 million to win one gold medal could be better spent. Like an exploding bomb, “The Trap of Olympic Gold Medal” received an enormous response from across Chinese society. Of course while gold medals are something people look forward to, some are beginning to think that the cost is too high. Of course China is a Billion Taxpayers, but surely many would the money better spent, if they had a choice.

This huge number of gold medals represent a 'diseased' inverted pyramid of a system. It has nothing to do with the sporting achievements enjoyed by common people. Primary and junior high schools in China cannot even provide students any fields for athletics. Sporting facilities for the masses are almost nonexistent in the countryside. Renowned Taiwanese writer Lung Ying-tai questioned how China gained its 32 gold medals. She found that the country used a huge amount of taxpayer money to set up sport schools at various levels. In comparison, with other sports superpowers such as the USA, Germany, and Japan, the majority of their achievements are display of the results from across the entire population.

China’s situation is just the reverse. There are many sports venues, but they are not open to general public. Rather they are only reserved for a few specific people. China has an amazing sports budget, but it doesn’t go to national athletic programs. Instead it is used to train a few medal winning stars.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport and UK Sport have responsibility for elite sport in the United Kingdom. They have set goals for the Great Britain teams to finish fourth in the Olympic medal table in 2012. The government has agreed a package of funding in the seven years up to March 2013 of over £700 million, almost doubling the direct funding UK Sport provides to sports and elite athletes.

So is it worth spending millions on a what is basically a large PR exercise? I prefer a return to an amateur games, where athletes competed for fun not profit. And I would like to take away the link to advertisers, where any logos not from official sponsors are cut out of the coverage. What's all that got to do with an event meant to promote international harmony?

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