And contrary to the coalition rhetoric of spendthrift public servants, I can think of lots of private companies less exacting with their cash than UK Sport. Its Investment Policy and Principles speak of a “no-compromise” approach and “a willingness to realign funding in the light of persistent under- or over-performance”. In other words, only potential medallists need apply – a philosophy that applies to whole sports, such as handball, as well as athletes.
Lest it be thought that I am finding in a news event only a reflection of my politics, let me freely confess that there are aspects of this picture I find unlovely. The ruthless targeting, which allows little scope for invisible sports or unlucky athletes. The way officials throw around terms such as “performance pathways” and “delivery” and the other nonsense of modern public management. And the sheer professionalisation of the process will doubtless strike as abhorrent those who prefer to coo over Tom Daley.
But after this month, there is no denying that this policy – of picking winners and backing them – works. And as Grix points out: “When it comes to sport, politicians will follow exactly the opposite policies from the ones they stick to in managing the economy.”
The conclusion being that therefore we must pick winners in the economy and back them.
The problems with this being twofold:
1) It’s simple enough to pick winners in sports. You’ve a small enough number with the right genetics and they’re pretty much already known to those in the sporting structures. You also know what your goal is. You don’t have this level of knowledge of companies in the economy. Indeed, you cannot: for you don’t actually have a clear goal. We don’t know what it is that people will want to buy in 3-5 year’s time. We don’t know what other people will be producing at that time. It just isn’t as simple as “run faster than the others and you’ll get a medal”. Just as an example, can you imagine trying to uncover a potential winner in smartphones/tablets? Let alone properly identifying and then backing them: through the government bureaucracy?
2) Let’s actually look at the Olympics. Somewhere around £20 billion of the taxpayers’ money spent on sports day for drug addicts. Makes the bureaucrats who “delivered” this feel very good indeed. You might get a different answer from the populace if you actually asked them, well, was that worth £300 to each and every one of you? £1,200 for the family of four?
Quite. If we did run the economy like we ran the Olympics we’d get to pay for what we don’t want and others would buy with our money what they want.