It’s Sunday lunchtime and at the mid point of the London Olympics Team GB is 3rd in the medals table. We’re on course to exceed our Beijing tally. But we’ve already secured more medals than the final score at Sydney, Atlanta, Barcelona and Seoul. We’ve matched the Athens final result from eight years ago. Atlanta 1996 was the low point, with Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent our only (joint) gold medal winners. Great Britain came a humiliatingly 36th in the overall medals table. Our final position from Seoul to Athens was in the range 13th to 10th.
So what accounts for the dramatic recovery? Is it the demise of the Soviet Union? Or the rest of the old Warsaw Pact, East Germany used to be a medals giant. Partially, though the rise of China more than cancels out that relative advantage to us. Have we become a nation of super fit citizens? No! But we have definitely seen a dramatic shift in the performance of our sporting elite, across all sports. In some sports this must be due to a switch to professionalism. This gave more money from TV rights and sponsors and better management of sporting careers. The transformation of Welsh rugby in the last decade is an obvious and welcome example to me! But most sports aren’t major commercial earners so need investment from elsewhere. And that’s where the National Lottery has made a huge difference.
Since its foundation in late 1994 the National Lottery has poured billions into the “good causes” of arts, heritage and sport. Charities and community groups get the most benefit. When John Major introduced the Lottery he saw it as a stable source of extra funding for culture and sport, never a top priority for national or local government. I’ve bought a lottery ticket every week since then, seeing it as a form of voluntary extra taxation for a more civilised society. Unfortunately, I’ve only ever won the occasional tenner but I don’t see my weekly £2 as a gamble.
Since 1994 we have seen a a renaissance in British culture and sports. The biggest change has been in capital investment. New art galleries and museums have been founded or refurbished. In Bristol our fabulous M Shed Museum of Bristol could not have happened without the Heritage Lottery Fund. Lottery funds also made possible the final restoration of the SS Great Britain and the acquisition of Tyntesfield, the home of a rather more wealthy Bristol West MP than me.
Sport England has also invested huge amounts in national coaching centres and local clubs. I recently presented a Sport England cheque to the Bristol Sailing Club. But the Lottery has probably made the biggest difference to our sporting standards by investing in the development of athletes, enabling them to concentrate on their sport, supported by professional coaching. It’s been noticeable how many of our medal winners, in their post victory breathless interviews, have thanked their coach, physio and all the other professional support that backs them up.
So, John Major, shame about your sleazy colleagues. Pity you didn’t leave us at “the heart of Europe” or leave our trains under state control. Let’s forget the cones hotline. But thank you for the National Lottery. And enjoy the Olympics, from a well deserved ring side seat.