Olympic success: down to the individual or the system?

Rio 2016 logoSome of my readers may well be enjoying coverage of the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro at the moment, if that’s your thing; others may be fed up with it and doing all they can to avoid it. Yes, this post is about sport, but it is also about political economy and social science, whose practitioners have throughout their history debated the meaning of and relationship between the individual and the social in society. I want to explore the lessons for these subjects of countries such as Great Britain, which has done very well in last three Olympic Games in terms of medals won, and overall team performance.

Mainstream neo-classical economics and its various offshoots tend to emphasise the individual as the basic unit of analysis: macroeconomics must have microfoundations, in the jargon. Some non-mainstream schools such as post-Keynesianism and Marxism place a greater emphasis on macro properties (such as the whole economy) which they see as irreducible to micro ones (such as the individual), even if the former is dependant on the latter. Such an approach means that the macro is ’emergent’ from the micro (to employ some more jargon). A better-known way of putting this is that the behaviour of the whole is more than simply the sum of its parts. Behavioural interaction at the micro level produces macro outcomes which cannot be reduced to the individual micro actors’ behaviour considered in isolation. If this is correct, then analysis based on a ‘representative individual agent’ will offer little explanatory power.

When an individual wins an Olympic medal, they are rightly celebrated. Quite often, in post-event interviews, they praise the contribution to their success of their ‘team’ and, in Great Britain, of Lottery funding. We are more than halfway through the current Olympics games, and Great Britain have so far been doing as well as they did in London four years ago, and are on course for a record games not held in their own country, as it was in 2012. Some of the media have hailed the transformation in our fortunes since Team GB won only one gold in Atlanta twenty years ago, which was surely a low point. Since then, elite sport in this country has benefited hugely from funds raised through the National Lottery. Some criticise the latter as a ‘tax on the poor’, as less affluent social groups tend to spend a higher proportion of their income on lottery tickets, in the hope that they might get lucky. This may well be right, but the success of British sportsmen and women is testament to a system which, however inegalitarian, seems to be working very well. An alternative would be direct government funding of elite sport, instead of using the National Lottery, but that is a debate for another day.

It is not enough for a country to have talented individuals in sport. They need the right support from something larger than themselves: this is the ‘system’, known as UK Sport, set up in 1997 and given a huge boost by Lottery funding. This enables athletes considered to have enough potential to succeed in global competition, to afford to train full time, without having to hold down a potentially stressful and tiring job. It provides such athletes with funding so that they can train in the best environment (sometimes abroad) and receive sufficient support to enable them to achieve success at the highest level.

It clearly helps if individuals have talent, but they need to nurture it in order to succeed, especially in today’s competitive arena. It helps if the right level and direction of funding is available and thus if the country in question is fairly rich overall and has sufficient financial resources, however they are provided, to fund elite sport. So national wealth offers potential for sporting success but it is not sufficient, witness Team GB’s dismal performance in the Atlanta Games, mentioned already.

In recent Olympics, the USA and China have done consistently well. These are now the two largest economies in the world, and have much larger populations than Great Britain. A much larger gene pool must help, but it is not enough. India has a huge population, but does not currently have the organisational capacity to match the success of China.

So it is not enough to have the resources, one also needs them to be directed in the right direction and for there to be an organisation which manages funding well. This is why the nations need the right system in order to succeed at Olympic Games in many sports, not simply those in which they have a national tradition or a few very talented individuals. To succeed widely and over many years, both the individuals and the system are inseparable in their need for each other. Neither have primacy in a sufficient explanation for sustained global sporting success.

Of course, all this has a potentially darker side, witness the systematic organisation of doping to improve national sporting performance in various countries over the years. Clearly the use of national resources in this way can potentially be used for corrupt and immoral ends and is ultimately damaging for the health of the individuals involved.

This focus on sporting achievement offers lessons for political economy. For me, it is more helpful to view concepts from the individual to social groups and society as a whole as dependant on each other. Society is composed of individuals, but its behaviour cannot be reduced to that of the latter, which are at least partly dependant on the social groups in which they are situated and which themselves interact with their own particular emergent behaviours. Examples of such groups might be households, firms, banks, the state, and also social classes. Individuals can clearly act to affect these larger social groups and institutions, but only within limits set by the way in which these categories interact and together determine particular outcomes at all levels. This method can be used to examine economies and economic performance in order to help construct policies which try to improve social outcomes.

Those on the political right tend to favour the primacy and responsibility of the individual in social behaviour, while those on the left often focus more on the larger system as constraining or empowering the individual. This is a slightly simplistic characterisation of the philosophies underlying particular political viewpoints, but surely both extremes are at fault, and it is the dynamic interplay between individuals and larger social structures and forces which provides a more fruitful analysis of society and the economy. Neither pole should be neglected. One needs to analyse the micro, meso (middle) and macro levels and the ways in which they differ and relate to each other.

Team GB’s current performance at the Olympics in Rio, as well as in the previous two Games in London and Beijing, show that a mix of talented individuals, sufficient financial resources and particular ways of organising them together can create substantial ongoing success. This may not seem a particularly novel viewpoint, but for me it has clear lessons for political economy.

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