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More Rio2016 cobblers: Olympic medals lead to more participation - the cycling myth

Tom Winnifrith
Monday 22 August 2016

As elite sport demands that it retains its £450 million four year Olympic budget or even increases it, supporters base their case on two pillars. One is ridiculous and the other is based on bogus data.

The first ridiculous pillar is expressed succinctly by a stockbroker who should know better in an email I received this morning "I am proud of our success and proud to be British and that is what makes us Great." Really? Does that mean that we were not Great Britain but Crap Britain when we won just one gold at Atlanta in 1996?
I can think of many things that make us a Great Country: the empire, Shakespeare, giving the world cricket, rugby and football,spreading a cracking legal code and Protestantism, the Beatles, abolishing the slave trade, Elgar, Alexander Fleming, Isaac Newton, Keynes, Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, Jane Austen the list goes on and on and it will be a list that will still be valid in 100 years. I somehow suspect that our gold in the K2 Kayak or even Laura Trott's achievements will not pass that test of time. They do not make Britain great just as East Germany's medal haul from 1972-86 did not make it a Great nation.

The second pillar is the idea that a medal-fest inspires us all to participate in sport and get fitter. The childhood obesity epidemic suggests that this is just cobblers but my stockbroker pal persists stating: "it encourages people to play sport – look at the rise in cycling since we started doing well – more cycling has huge benefits as we are fitter and so less strain on the NHS and of course cycling to work cuts down on bad emissions."

Instinctively as a Brit one thinks that he has a point as one considers the swarms of cyclo-Nazis that sweep across London and our big Cities every day.

Except that the rise in cycling is a phenomenon seen across the West especially in the big cities. Between 2000 and 2014 the number of bike rides per day in New York City surged from 150,000 to 429,000 according to the NY transit Authority. As it happens, the US has not enjoyed a ramp up in success in cycling events at the Olympics to drive that. Check out the data for Paris which describes itself as the world's cycling capital and you will see a mammoth increase in the number of rides. Ditto Berlin. All of this has been achieved without any corresponding success at the Olympics veledrome for our friends in France and Germany. Check out activity rates in Oslo, achieved without one single medal at the veledrome this century.

It is generally middle class City dwellers who are being encouraged to cycle by the building of cycle lanes and schemes like the Boris Bike and want to cycle to save money and get fitter. And this is happening across the developed world in countries where there is an Olympics medal fest at the velodrome and in countries where there has been no medal fest.

There are so many ways that the Government and the national lottery wastes the cash it manages to haul in that it would be churlish of me to suggest that the funding of elite sport should be capped or cut, But the arguments put forward by those who support the funding tend to be either spurious and not based on fact or simply silly.

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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