It is destined to be about as widely read as a history of ready-mixed concrete. Yet Raising the Bar, last year’s independent review of UK sport, contained some truly stunning lines.
Most stunning for my money was this one, on page 26: “Some 66 per cent of GB medal winners at the Sydney Olympics [in 2000] were educated at independent schools.”
I had long been inclined to see the British Olympic Association as the sporting embodiment of the English class system and here was the proof. Even so, 66 per cent! There must be City of London law firms with a lower proportion of public school-educated partners. The fee-paying sector,
after all, accounts for only
7 per cent of the school population.
I saw no reason to revise my opinion when, a couple of weeks after Raising the Bar’s launch, I attended a “light lunch and drinks”
to mark Craig Reedie’s retirement as BOA chairman at the East India Club in St James’s Square.
I like Reedie – a convivial Scot, who was (state) educated at Stirling High School – a great deal. He has none of the pomposity that is one of Big Sport’s great turn-offs. But the venue simply exuded elitism, a point underscored by the school shields, from the likes of Harrow and Douai, that were mounted along the staircase wall.
Reedie has been succeeded by Colin, the 4th Baron Moynihan (Monmouth School and University College, Oxford), latest in a line of peers to have occupied the century-old post and, incidentally, co-chair of the Raising the Bar review. The BOA’s chief executive is Simon Clegg (Stowe and the 7th Parachute Regiment); its president is Her Royal Highness the Princess Royal.
There was a time when just about any English sport of stature was an embodiment of the class system. Rugby was invented at Rugby School, or at least that’s the story. Football in the late 19th century was
so plebeian that the Old Etonians twice won the FA Cup. Cricket, ironically, has arguably the humblest roots, although it subsequently became the most class-
riddled sport of all.
But all of that has now changed, with rugby union the last to be transformed through the arrival of professionalism in the second half of the 1990s.
It is also only fair to point out that the proportion of medal winners at the Athens Olympics in 2004 who were educated at independent schools was not 66 per cent. Jonathan Shephard, general secretary of the Independent Schools Council, said recently that independently educated athletes had won half of Britain’s Athens medals.
After the best part of a day’s hard graft on Google, I struggled to get the proportion above a third. My best estimate at the moment is that 15 or more of the 51 medal winners – including many big names – had at least an element of independent schooling: Ben Ainslie (Truro School); James Cracknell (Kingston Grammar School); Gail Emms (Dame Alice Harpur School, Bedford); Sir Matthew Pinsent and William Fox-Pitt (Eton); Chris Hoy (George Watson’s College); Dame Kelly Holmes (Tonbridge). Actually, that last one was just a bad joke: Dame Kelly did go to school there, but it was the Hugh Christie School and not the alma mater of Colin Cowdrey, the late England cricket captain.
The point of this is not to poke fun at the BOA as the 2006 Winter Games in Turin get under way. Nor is it to urge the sweeping away of all public schools in some anti-classist insurrection. My own CV, after all, mentions both Clifton and Christ Church. It is simply to point out how many more medals Britain would win if the strike rate from state-educated pupils approached that achieved in the independent sector.
It could be that the present imbalance can be blamed on the sold playing fields, squeezed budgets and demoralised teachers that are widely perceived to have eroded sport in the state sector.
It could be down to the independent schools’ enviable facilities. Or the high entry barriers that expensive sports present to poor countries, making it easier for rich ones such as Britain to excel at them. It might even show simply that well-off families can afford to eat better than poor ones.
But it might also reflect a certain narrowness in outlook among Britain’s Olympic rulers. Certainly, if the proportion of medals won by state-educated athletes in London in 2012 does not more closely reflect the weighting of state-educated pupils in the school population, it will do much to undermine the rationale for staging the games in the first place.