Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Friday, 3 August 2012

All that rugby puts hairs on your chest...

...What chance have you got against a tie and a crest?

An unlikely source, this week, for complaints that too many of Britain's Olympic medals were won on the playing fields of Eton and other independent schools.
Too many of Britain's top sportsmen and women were educated privately, the country's Olympic chief has said. Lord Moynihan said it was wholly unacceptable that more than 50% of medallists at the Beijing Olympics came from independent schools. 
That would, of course, be Colin Moynihan, 4th Baron Moynihan, Olympic silver medal-winning cox and alumnus of the distinctly independent Monmouth School, where 'rowing is a available as a Games option [...] and crews compete at events including Henley Royal Regatta.'

Not quite your bog-standard comp then, Colin? Of course, when you had sporting greatness thrust upon you thirty years ago it may well have been simply due to the fact that your school had specialised in a sport then almost unknown outside the independent sector at that level, but can you really apply that to everyone else?

It helps his cause considerably that some of the early medals are in sports where money is a huge advantage (for example equestrianism, conducted on an animal which, at that level, costs a small fortune to buy and maintain) but is the success a product of the school or simply of parental income, a correlation that says people with that kind of money at their disposal will almost certainly choose private education?

Well-off parents can afford to travel to events and buy equipment; they can support and house their grown-up children for the years of intensive training it can take to achieve international success. Even those succeeding in more 'democratic' sports almost always tell tales of parents willing to get up at the crack of dawn and drive for miles to training sessions or competitions.

All this has little to do with what happens in school and far more to do with parental priorities and geographical accident - how much open-water sailing can you get in the centre of Birmingham? What chance of starting gymnastics at 4 years old when the nearest coach is  more than 50 miles away? And, crucially, how many parents of talented children dig deep to find school fees, however great the sacrifice, or enter them for the many sports scholarships on offer?

If all independent schools were abolished, we might well still be seeing the same faces on the podium, and the ideologues would have to turn their attention to the matter of household income and level of parental support -  is it unfair that some children have parents able and willing to invest time and money in their sporting careers while others do not?

And should the state be expected to step in to redress the balance? It appears that the independent sector is merely providing a useful whipping-boy for something that looks suspiciously like social engineering.

The Quiet Man sums it up at Orphans of Liberty in a post pertinently titled 'The Politics of Envy', which, together with the comments, tackles the issue far more comprehensively that I ever could.

*Update; looks like The Guardian's CiF  is heading that way already (h/t JuliaM who handles the subject with her customary panache)

(For fans of The Jam, here's the full version)


  1. "All this has little to do with what happens in school and far more to do with parental priorities and geographical accident"

    I agree - parental income, ambition and social milieu create these distinctions.

  2. The Urchin also made a good point today - a significant number of team GB are graduates and honed their skills in university facilities.

    If initiatives like the rowing one are put in place to encourage state school pupils to participate - highly laudable, though I hope they'll draw the line at shipping ponies into Peckham at public expense - the next Olympics will doubtless unleash a plethora of articles complaining about the high percentage of graduate competitors.