Sorry Tessa, there’s no justification for spending more on elite sport

by Kevin Meagher

The Olympics provides us with an interesting quandary. Is spending money on our top athletes really a good return for the country?

Tessa Jowell thinks it is. Yesterday she echoed an appeal by Olympic gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy who wants to see continued investment in elite sports.

“Chris Hoy is absolutely right” she said. “It has been the investment in elite training which has created stability for high performance training for those athletes. We have got to make sure that money continues.”

On its website UK Sport says “more than £100 million per annum is being invested directly into the UK’s high performance system’ through a combination of ‘Exchequer and National Lottery funds”.

A further £58 million is spent on “providers of the key services” that underpin elite sports while the “Team 2012” scheme tries to lever-in private funding.

It would be churlish not to concede that Tessa and Sir Chris are right in their analysis: investment in sporting infrastructure and elite programmes has clearly helped Britain to a medal tally few thought likely a fortnight ago.

But apart from the athletes themselves and a small supply chain of trainers and managers, who else benefits from this taxpayer-funded largesse? What’s the return for the county?

I let that theoretical question hang there for a moment because I honestly can’t think what it is. We may all celebrate the achievements of British Olympians and readily pay tribute to their industry and example; but outside the Olympic bubble we continue to face the biggest retrenchment in public spending in a century and an economy in the deep freeze.

The NHS faces a funding crisis. Local authorities the length and breadth of the country are slashing frontline public services. Is spending more than £158 million a year of public money on elite sports really a priority for the country?

More to the point, is it a priority for a social democratic party?

In British politics’ grim Hobson’s choice which other area of public spending should make way for us to maintain our elite sporting investment? Flak jackets for soldiers? Expensive therapies for cancer patients? Public libraries?

The challenge for those like Tessa who want to spend more post-Olympics on elite sportsmen and women is to spell out how much more and what measurable benefit this brings to the public.

For Labour the task remains the same as it was before the Olympics hullabaloo: building credibility by being prepared to make tough choices. This will never happen unless the party is clear and focused in fighting for spending that generates social and economic return while being disciplined and realistic in eschewing spending on extravagant follies.

In this calculation further public investment in elite sports represents an easy choice for Labour.

There should be no more of it.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut

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23 Responses to “Sorry Tessa, there’s no justification for spending more on elite sport”

  1. 3Deye says:

    We need to look at this intelligently.

  2. Aaron D Highside says:

    If you take out the word ‘elite’ from this article, I do not think you will find many in agreement, political affiliation notwithstanding.

  3. Matthew J says:

    How many children will take up cycling trying to emulate Chris Hoy? How many commuters have ditched their cars for bikes or renewed their gym membership having been inspired by British sportsmen and women? Will the Olympics lead to a sea-change in the UK with sports becoming a much bigger part of school life?

    If the Olympics leads to British people becoming more active and healthy (and so reducing the burden on the NHS) £158m will start to look like money well spent…

  4. Jim says:

    Blair was “prepared to make tough choices” he pandered to the middle classes and deserted his parties grass roots UK wide in order to gain power, Brown was up to his neck in it as well as chancellor, where did that get them, Blair stabbed in the back, and Brown got a humiliating long walk out of No10 with his family in tow. Now we have the Elite in government, old Eton boys in charge and where is that getting us, nowhere fast. It’s time Labour worked out just who they represent in this country, I fear that old or new Labour as we know it are finished, this ping pong from Tories to Labour every election is what will deliver Independence in Scotland as the working classes identify those who have taken power and then advantage for themselves and ignored the real issues. Tessa Jowell may identify with the Elite in our society rather more easily than with the working classes so her comments should come as no surprise.

  5. Mark Colburn says:

    Its a bit short-sighted to frame this debate as elite vs public access. We need a structure that encourages wider public access to sports facilities in their local areas but also allows those individuals who want to make a career out of sport possible. In a sense career sport should be seen as part of business development, separate from sport as a recreation.

    There’s a basic need for more facilities, local authorities should be required to build the sporting facilities the private sector won’t.

  6. Paul says:

    It probably was elite funding that produced the success but perhaps to be sustainable that success needs to be produced by mass participation. Public funding of accessible sport/exercise probably can be justified when you look at rapidly rising costs of unfitness, obesity, diabetes, joint disease, heart disease, mental illness.

    The Olympics clearly has inspired loads but to convert to real legacy, new entrants need to be able to get in.

    The UK success was brilliant but I think quite a few of these athletes came from families already intensely inrto their sport. What more could we do with a genuinely mass participation base.

    So cycling’s legacy should start with massive changes to Britain’s appalling cycling infrastructure….one trip to the continent, especially the Netherlands and Denmark, shows the way forward. That, combined with reasonable elite funding can produce success which benefits more people.

  7. Mr0a says:

    This is not very much to supply the next generation of sporting heroes that will inspire the next generation to get involved and take up sport.

    Yes, £158m (part of which is lottery funding) sounds a lot. But surely a few kids will take up sport because they are inspired by a gold medallist, and £158m is only 0.15% of the total NHS budget so perhaps that puts it in perspective.

  8. MacGuffin says:

    Typical Labour. They want everyone to be chainsmoking fat bastards grateful for the NHS.

  9. Allan says:

    Sorry Kevin but this post is such a short sighted piece…

    As a previous commentator has pointed out, if you remove the word “Elite” from your post, there will ne precisely no one in agreement with you. If you keep in the word “Elite”, it looks like a third rate Dave Spart style rant.

    If you ignore the morale boost argument, there is the public health issue surrounding making sports more accessable to all. Finding a way to make sports more accessible to more people and to attract young people to sport will help the country to become a more healthy nation.

  10. Amber Star says:

    In British politics’ grim Hobson’s choice which other area of public spending should make way for us to maintain our elite sporting investment? Flak jackets for soldiers? Expensive therapies for cancer patients? Public libraries?
    If there were more events like the Olympics, perhaps we wouldn’t need so many flak jackets. Make sport not war?

    And how does expensive therapies for cancer bring measurable benefit to the public? No doubt – if successful – it benefits the patient, their family & friends but the public; not so much.

    So I don’t think you are addressing the real issue which is: How can we get people to believe that taxes are a price worth paying for a civilised society where soldiers, if we need them, have equipment & people don’t die for want of the money to pay for their cancer treatment?

    Like it or not, nation states are brands now. They have to be sold to their own citizens. So I’ll make Tessa’s argument for her: When people feel proud of our winning sportsmen, they feel less resentment towards the state & their tax bill & their fellow citizens. Is that worth something to the public good, to society, to a Party of social democrats? I think it is.

  11. Single Acts of Tyranny says:

    This maybe the first time I have agreed with a post on this site.

    Of course money should not be coercively extracted from people to fund sports stars. This is the 1980’s East German model. They won a load of medals for all the good it did the people and that didn’t really end well.

    Supporters of this program are saying it is okay to jail people of modest means who don’t want to pay taxes to fund multi-millionaire athletes. If the sport is popular it will be self-funding, if its beach volleyball or dressage or jumping in a pool must we really pay people to practice it?

  12. Kevin says:

    Thanks for comments, but isn’t it a bit late to make hopeful correlations between Olympic success and sports take-up? The Olympics organisers’ were supposed to have all this locked down years ago as part of the legacy.

    The lack of public cash makes public spending choices acute. So the task of social democrats, who look to state spending to redress all sorts of balances, is to decide which issues are most deserving.

    Seems strange to me that some think spending half a billion pounds by the next Olympics on elite athletes – who in many case are extremely rich – is a top priority.

  13. uglyfatbloke says:

    Well-said Kevin.
    Mostly when we say ‘sport’ we actually mean ‘games’. The Olympics have given Labour and tory governments an excuse to put even more money into the M25 bubble at the expense of the rest of the country. The simple fact is that most people have absolutely no interest in games (or sport if you prefer) but professional athletes are still being given serious sums of money to run or jump around. It’s not just them of course, but the army of coaches, managers and – worst of all – agents who benefit.
    So…we all pay for athletes to have fun, then if they are successful they become ‘celebrities’ and their agents rake in big bucks by flogging off appearances. So that’s nice…..’Olympic Athletes – coming soon to a new supermarket near you’.

  14. Amber Star says:

    The lack of public cash makes public spending choices acute. So the task of social democrats, who look to state spending to redress all sorts of balances, is to decide which issues are most deserving.
    No, simply implementing Coalition cuts by deciding which issues are ‘most deserving’ will be the death of social democracy. Let’s use Olympics & sports to engender a sense of community. Don’t let’s be the ones who know the price of everything but not its value.

  15. malcolm says:

    When I heard this news story, my first thought was:
    What are the chances, if anyone British wins a Nobel Prize, of a government announcement that they’re going to pump millions into science education?

    …..I didn’t think so.

    And while I’m at it, how about raiding the National Lottery fund for a few millions for Maths education? I’d be 110% behind that!

  16. Bill says:

    You’re on the wrong side of public opinion with this one

  17. ANTHONY says:

    This reads like typical ‘Old Labour’ rant. Inward looking socialist claptrap, oppose
    everything praise nothing (except the old USSR) and raise taxes so the left wing elite have more to spend on propaganda.

  18. Kevin says:

    AmberStar – Govt works on the basis of knowing price of everything – as does any organisation – and then judging whether its worth paying for. Remember Bevan: ‘the language of priorities is the religion of socialism.’ Now ask whether spending c150M a year on elite sport – roughly what we were spending on the Future Jobs Fund to help the young unemployed – is worth it.

    Malcolm – with you all the way on your point.

    Bill – quite possibly. So? In a democracy we tolerate differing opinions so we can reason and deliberate.

    Anthony – How can wanting to curb ‘bad’ public spending be equated with wanting to put up taxes?!?!

  19. Mick Williams says:

    Just waded through 17 comments and couldn’t find any reference to the fact that it is the same tear-jerking Chris Hoy that uses a ‘personal service company’ to adjust the amount that he pays in tax. Must be on the advice of an ‘elite’ financial adviser.

  20. Robert says:

    If you come down to my area most schools do not do sports days any more, if you go to see a game of schools football your likely to see a five aside as kids do not turn up, we have no tracks for athletes, and the tennis courts are in a hell of a mess.

    You had the Labour party telling us games should not be about winning but taking part, how the hell do you tell a kids game of football who have won ten-nil it’s a draw.

    Politics sport Olympic games, it will die a death in a few months time.

  21. Clint Spencer says:


    Thats because it is a “typical ‘Old Labour’ rant. Inward looking socialist claptrap, oppose everything praise nothing.” Kevin is clueless, just look at all the other crap he posts and you’ll soon realise he wants everything to look gray. Sad

  22. Spidey100 says:

    Surely the point of funding “elite” sport is opening up a professional career to the “poor kids” who couldn’t otherwise afford to make the most of thier talents? Take away the funding and the sports do become “elite” in the sense that only the moied elites can afford to be professional athletes!

  23. Spidey100 says:

    monied rather than moied!

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