Privilege and the Olympic elite: does it matter?

The British media are taking a remarkable interested in the proportion of Olympic athletes who went to private schools. Chris Moynihan, chair of the British Olympic Association and a former Conservative minister, ignited the debate when he described the proportion of privately-educated athletes in Team GB as unacceptable. But is it unexpected? And does it matter?

A quick look at the data confirms that Britain’s Olympians are indeed disproportionately drawn from those who were educated at private schools. Thirty percent of Scottish medal-winners, for example, were privately educated, compared with just over 5% of secondary pupils. At first glance, then, this looks pretty disproportionate.

But should we be surprised by this process? If we see it as part of a wider pattern of educational, economic and cultural selection, then it becomes clear that social selection is a deep-rooted feature of sporting success.  

First, the association between socio-economic status and overall health is well-known. Put bluntly, middle class kids tend to live healthier life styles than working class kids. It is completely unsurprising if, all other things being equal, their chances of sporting success are greater.

Second, selectivity is central to education. Let’s take Scotland, as it is often presented as an example of educational openness. While 5% of secondary pupils are privately educated in Scotland, almost 12% of university entrants were privately educated. That figure rises to 15% at Glasgow and 20% at Aberdeen, and reaches 25% at Edinburgh – very close to the 30% of privately educated Scottish medallists. And of course it is much easier for a young person to combine elite sports training with study than to combine it with a full time job.

Third, some sports are closely associated with middle and upper class styles of life. Shooting, rowing, yachting, tennis, equestrianism – these sports are by no means exclusively posh, but they draw their followers disproportionately from the higher social strata, and the relevant clubs are more likely to be found at Glasgow University than at the University of the West of Scotland. Eighteen of Team GB’s 48 medals came in these five sports. Another seven came from cycling, which cuts across the classes at popular level, but is pretty expensive when it comes to competitive sport. By contrast, our performance in such ‘people’s games’ as soccer was notably mediocre.

All in all, the link between socio-economic privilege and Olympic success is much as I’d expect. It’s interesting that much of the controversy is being stoked by Conservatives, who of course have an agenda of talking up the private education sector.  One of the most vocal critics, Toby Young, is actively involved in the Government’s ‘free school’ initiative. But actually there are no surprises in finding out that social selectivity operates all along the pathway leading into Team GB.

Finally, does this matter? I’m inclined to the view that Chris Hoy’s time at George Watson’s College, and Jessica Ennis’s time at King Ecgbert Comprehensive, are hardly the most interesting or important things about these fabulous athletes. Barely any of us would envy the training regime of an elite athlete – and with a very few exceptions, it is hardly a gateway to a prosperous career or even a happy adult life.

What really worries me is that the UK is characterised by relatively high (by European standards) levels of socio-economic and educational inequality. Compared with the Nordic nations, our best educated kids are more likely to come from the middle classes, and they tend to achieve at a higher level; our educational failures are much more likely to come from the working classes, and achieve at a much lower level than the worst-achievers in Finland or Denmark. Little wonder that we also have a tendency towards sporting inequalities on top of that.

Sorting out our profound social divisions will take more than a few golden pillar boxes and the promise of an extra hour of sports in the school curriculum.

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