Were the Olympic medals won on the playing fields of Eton? No, but that may not be the point…
Mark Twain said that a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has its boots on, and the sporting metaphor was particularly apt last week as Lord Moynihan claimed that private school pupils “dominated” the Olympic medal winners at Beijing in 2008, and hinted that London 2012 would follow the same pattern.
Tory MPs pointed the finger at anti-competitive comprehensives; leftist commentators berated the sale of school playing fields; but nobody noticed that the claim was false or asked why the Chairman of the British Olympic Association had made it.
Moynihan stated that over 50 per cent of the country’s Olympians at Beijing were privately educated, and that this was “one of the worst statistics in sport.” The Daily Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill blamed “the rise of a culture of low expectations in state schools” and Tory MP Charlotte Leslie told Radio Four listeners that “the reason the private sector does well is that it’s very unapologetic about competition.” Even Rupert Murdoch intervened, tweeting “no wonder China leading in medals while US and UK mainly teach competitive sport a bad thing.”
Meanwhile the progressive and provincial press such as the Northern Echo pointed out that one of the government’s first money-saving measures was to end the School Sports Partnerships, which encouraged inter-school competition. Alastair Campbell wrote in The Independent (5 Aug) that “the fact that there is a greater proportion of privately educated athletes in Team GB than across the population has everything to do with issues of wealth and investment, and nothing to do with this alleged bias against competitive sport.”
The fact is that in 2008 the great majority of medals and medallists came from comprehensive school backgrounds. Of 59 medal winners, 37 went to state schools, 17 went to private schools and five had mixed secondary educations or were raised outside the UK. This ratio was reflected amongst Gold, Silver and Bronze medallists. The tally for London 2012 at the time of writing looks no more impressive for the independent sector, which has so far produced 20 of 68 medal winners, a figure itself somewhat exaggerated by the fours and eights of the more heavily private-sector rowing teams.
Of course Zara Phillips’s alma mater Millfield supplied four medallists on its own; we know that Sir Chris Hoy went to George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, and that half (but only just half) of the successful rowers were privately educated. But most of Hoy’s fellow cyclists, along with Jessica Ennis, Andy Murray, Victoria Pendleton, Greg Rutherford, Mo Farah, Rebecca Adlington and Bradley Wiggins, went to their local state school.
So why did Moynihan make this extraordinary claim, and why was it received with such credulity?
Moynihan’s agenda became clearer the morning after
Team GB’s success on ’Super Saturday’, when he pressed home his demands for more funding for sport in state schools. "For the last seven years we have been treading water and if we can't do something about it now we never will," Moynihan said. "We are calling on the government today to use the momentum that has created so much inspiration in this country to create practical opportunities in schools."
The statistical blurring of last week now looks like a misconceived attempt to shock the government into action whilst winning over the support of the anti-elitist left. The result was the exact reverse: the right and left retreated to their traditional positions in the blame game, finding Moyinhan’s claims far more useful to their cause than the facts would have been. The media lapped up the storyboard of toffish and forlorn stereotypes with similar relish. The reassuring resonance of elite background and elite performance makes easier copy than the conflicting evidence provided by the real results.
Sporting success must arise from a range of factors far more complex than type of schooling, including other resources and opportunities, family and community support, and personal endeavour. Perhaps at least the media should take the lead in showing that the success of 2012 was a genuinely national success story by asking Lord Moynihan to check his numbers.