Contributing to Team GB at London 2012

Malcolm Tozer, editor of the recently-published Physical Education and Sport in Independent Schools, looks back at how independent school pupils performed for Team GB at the London 2012 Olympics

Shortly after the publication of Physical Education and Sport in Independent Schools, I was asked in an interview with John Goodbody to forecast the number of privately-educated members of Britain’s team for the London Games who would win Olympic medals. The figures for the 2004 and 2008 Games were 15 and 26 respectively. My answer was ‘more than 30’ (The Sunday Times, 8 July 2012).
John Goodbody was responding to a wide-ranging speech on the theme of school sport that the Prime Minister had delivered at Loughborough University a few days earlier. David Cameron had complained that too many state schools paid insufficient attention to sport, adding: “around a third of the athletes competing at the (London) Olympics are thought to be privately educated” and “the result is that independent schools produce more than their fair share of medal winners” (Daily Telegraph, 5 July 2012).
The advice on the size of the fraction, and its source, had been identified two years earlier by Aislinn Laing: ‘both UK Sport and Olympics bosses privately admit that more than a third of athletes (in the 300-500 strong Team GB for the London Games) could be private school-educated’ (Daily Telegraph, 2 February 2010).
One of those ‘bosses’, Lord Moynihan, the chairman of the British Olympic Association, chose to be more outspoken on the subject when the first gold medals of the London Games were won by a pair of privately educated rowers: “It is one of the worst statistics in British sport, and wholly unacceptable, that over 50% of our medallists in Beijing came from independent schools, which means that half of our medals came from just 7% of the children in the UK” (The Guardian, 2 August 2012).
Around one-third of Team GB and over 50% of the medallists – do they give the true measure of the contribution of independent schools to the Beijing and London Games? Figures for Beijing already published in the final chapter of Physical Education and Sport in Independent Schools suggest otherwise so, with the London Games successfully completed, now was the time to analyse the performance of Team GB.
Enquiries conducted in tandem with Rudolf Eliot Lockhart, head of research at the Independent Schools Council, and shared with the Sutton Trust, identified 93 members of Team GB for London 2012 who were educated at independent schools. They are listed in the table below. They represent 17% of the total strength of 542 competitors, well short of the oftquoted fraction of one-third.
As around 7% of the total school population is educated privately, the figure of 17% in Team GB lends support to the assertion that independent schools punch above their weight in Olympic sports. However, since most pupils in independent schools stay on in full-time education until the age of 18, it might be more appropriate to compare that 17% with the percentage of the total school population over the age of 16 who are educated in independent schools. That figure of 18% almost matches the Team GB percentage and perhaps suggests that independent schools win their fair share of places – and no more.
The composition of the independent school contingent in Team GB had gender equality – 47 women and 46 men. In the one sport where men and women competed on equal terms, equestrianism, women outnumbered men five to three.
The 93 team members attended 75 different schools. More went to coeducational schools (53 or 57%) than to single-sex ones (40 or 43%), with figures that almost match the proportion of schools of each type (60% coeducational; 40% single-sex). There was gender equality across the two types of school (28 women and 25 men attended co-educational schools; 19 women and 21 men went to single-sex ones.) The majority went to day schools (51 or 55%), many to mixed boarding and day schools (38 or 41%) and only a few to wholly boarding schools (four or 4%, with three going to Eton). As schools with boarding make up 40% of independent schools for all age groups, and the number of schools with boarding increases from age 11, these figures probably match the percentage of senior schools in each type.
Once again there is gender equality at both day schools (27 women and 24 men) and in schools with boarding (20 women and 22 men). No one type of school had a more than its share of success – whether co-educational or single-sex, or day or boarding. This playing field is definitely level!
Schools with more than one representative were: Millfield School with five; King’s School, Chester, four; Coleraine Academical Institution and Eton College three each; Bradford Grammar School, Gordonstoun School, King Edward VI School in Southampton, King’s School in Canterbury, The Mary Erskine School in Edinburgh, Norwich High School and Truro School each with two. The schools at Canterbury, Chester and Coleraine provided a total of eight rowers whereas Millfield’s five competed in five different sports, as did Eton’s three. The Brownlee brothers, Alistair and Jonny from Bradford Grammar School, both won medals in the triathlon, whereas the pairs from Gordonstoun, Southampton, Canterbury, Edinburgh, Norwich and Truro competed in separate sports.
Privately-educated members of Team GB for the London Games were not present in all sports: ten of the 28 sports had no representatives from independent schools, including the men’s and women’s teams for basketball, handball and football. The situation might have been different if rugby, cricket and lacrosse, the team games with the strongest independent school input at international level, were played at the Olympics. Sports with their highest presence were rowing (24), hockey (14), athletics (10), equestrianism (eight) and swimming (eight). The order changes if the proportion of the total number of competitors in each sport is calculated: current and former pupils of independent schools made sizeable contributions to the teams in equestrianism (62%), rowing (52%), tennis (50%), hockey (44%), fencing (33%), triathlon (33%), shooting (27%), sailing (25%), weight-lifting (20%), gymnastics (17%) and swimming (17%). Their contribution to the other 17 sports was small – but occasionally very effective.
Turning attention to success, as recorded in the following table, and believing that to concentrate solely on medal-winners would be too limiting, let us examine how many competitors reached the top eight positions in their sport or, in the case of multi-event sports such as gymnastics and swimming, who reached the top eight in one of their events. Nearly half of Team GB matched this achievement – 239 of the team of 542, or 44%. Of the 93 privately-educated members of Team GB, 72 or 77% reached the last eight; of the other 449 competitors, 167, or 37%, did so. Sportsmen and sportswomen educated at independent schools may have only won their fair share of places in Team GB, but they were over-represented at the sharp end of competition – and twice as likely to reach the last eight as their teammates.
The average best performances of the two groups were 3.54 (just short of a bronze medal) and 7.20 (just making the final eight). Top eight places were achieved by all the privately-educated competitors in rowing, hockey, equestrianism, sailing, cycling and triathlon, and by most of those in swimming and gymnastics.
Most observers, however, will judge success in the Olympic Games on the number of gold, silver and bronze medals won. It was a record Games for Team GB, winning 65 medals – 29 golds, 17 silvers and 19 bronzes. A total of 114 competitors went home with medals (21% of the team) – many were won in team events where every member gets a medal. Twelve members of Team GB won two medals – most notably the double golds for Sir Chris Hoy, Laura Trott and Jason Kenny in cycling, Charlotte Dujardin in equestrianism, and Mo Farah in athletics. Of the 93 privately-educated members of Team GB, 45 or 48% won medals; of the other 449 competitors, 67, or 15%, did so. The over-representation of sportsmen and sportswomen educated at independent schools, this time on the medal podium, has increased; they were three times as likely to win a medal as their team-mates. Most competed in rowing (18), equestrianism (eight), hockey (eight) and sailing (four), whilst in equestrianism and sailing every privately-educated competitor won a medal. Other medals were won in triathlon (two), cycling, diving, gymnastics, shooting and tennis (one each).
Fewer medals were won at the Beijing Games of 2008: 47 altogether comprising 19 golds, 13 silvers and 15 bronzes. A total of 72 competitors won medals for Team GB – one won three medals, three won two medals – and 26 of them, or 36%, were educated at independent schools – Sir Chris Hoy won three medals, all gold; Tina Cook won two bronze medals. Beijing medallists from independent schools competed in rowing (11), equestrianism (six), cycling (four), sailing (four), swimming (two), canoeing and modern pentathlon (one each). Thus at both the Beijing and London Games about a third of the medals were won by those who had been educated privately, with rowing, equestrianism and sailing figuring prominently on both occasions. It is likely that the privately-educated members of the 311-strong Team GB at Beijing in 2008 formed a greater proportion than they did in 2012 because Team GB, as the host nation, entered all 28 sports in London but only 20 of the 28 in Beijing. These additional sports – football, basketball, handball and wrestling among them – contained no team members from independent schools. As some of these sports are likely to be dropped for Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the percentage of the team educated privately may well increase again.
Sportsmen and sportswomen who were educated at independent schools may or may not have won more than their fair share of places in Team GB but, as a group, they did outperform their team-mates once the competition started. Can this success be attributed to their schooling? Alan Bairner, professor of sport and social theory at Loughborough University, has cited the contribution of ‘incredible sports facilities at the private schools, and (their) specialist coaches’, the commitment of teachers to take ‘teams to matches on Saturdays’, and the dominance of independent schools in the ‘allegedly “posh” disciplines of rowing, sailing and equestrianism’ (Agence France-Presse, 7 August 2012).
The willingness of teachers in independent schools to contribute to extracurricular and weekend activities is well documented, but whether independent schools dominate rowing, sailing and equestrianism is debatable – as recorded earlier, these schools provided 52%, 25% and 62% respectively of the teams for the London Games. But is he correct about ‘incredible’ facilities and ‘specialist’ coaching?
Information readily available in biographies, on websites of schools and sports associations, and from other internet sites reveals much about the early sporting careers of the 93 members of Team GB for London 2012 who were educated at British independent schools. Most were introduced to their Olympic sport at school (52 or 56%), many at a sports club (28 or 30%), some through their parents (eight or 9%) and a few at university (five or 5%). Schools were particularly influential in three sports found in most physical education programmes – athletics, hockey and volleyball. The majority of the rowers, 18 of 24, met the sport at schools with a strong rowing tradition, and both water polo players had attended schools with national reputations in the sport. Schools, however, played no or little part in the first experience in several other sports, notably canoeing, cycling, diving, equestrianism, gymnastics, synchronised swimming, triathlon and weight-lifting, and their
influence matched that of clubs for fencing, swimming and tennis. Parents provided the first taste for many riders and most sailors. One fencer, one shooter, both cyclists and the remaining six rowers took up their Olympic sports after leaving school – including Team GB’s first gold medallists, Heather Stanning and Helen Glover in the women’s double sculls.
The influence of the schools attended by the 93 competitors increased slightly in the years after the introductory stage. Several of the sports that had been started with the help of parents or clubs would have developed through coaching by teachers. Schools provided both coaching and appropriate facilities in their Olympic sports for 60 of the 93 in Team GB, or 65%. Fencing, sailing, shooting, swimming and tennis all benefited from school involvement, whereas canoeing, cycling, diving, equestrianism (only Laura Bechtolsheimer seems to have ridden at school), gymnastics, synchronised swimming, triathlon and weight-lifting owe little to schools other than the important contribution of an effective and comprehensive programme of physical education and sport. The suggestion that independent schools commonly provide velodromes, purpose-built rowing lakes, show-jumping arenas and 10m diving platforms above 50m swimming pools – with expert coaching to match – is, alas, unfounded.
A further factor that needs examination is the role of sports scholarships to independent schools. When, shortly after the Beijing Games, Margaret Talbot wrote in the Association for Physical Education’s journal (Physical Education Matters, Autumn 2008) that ‘talented sports persons’ were often ‘scholarshipped into private schools specialising in sport’, she implied that state schools had done all the hard work and then independent schools bagged the glory. Professor Talbot presented no data to support the assertion, but the assumption of ‘shabby’ practice lingers on (The Guardian, 13 August 2012).
Scholarships granting remission of fees have been awarded by independent schools to candidates of proven ability or perceived potential for over two centuries. Most were, and still are, awarded for academic prowess, but more recently music, art, sport, design, technology and information technology have been added to the list in accordance with holistic principles. Full sports scholarships and all-rounder scholarships with a sports ingredient are normally offered at age 11 or 13 in line with this policy. Sports scholarships at age 16 are generally awarded to support the candidates’ international or professional ambitions and to boost the performance of school teams.  Occasionally awards may be made at any age from 11 to provide academic and pastoral support for outstanding performers in individual sports who then receive high-level coaching at specialist clubs associated with the school or, in some cases, at the school.
The first type rarely attracts publicity if only because the chances of spotting long-term winners at the age of 11 or 13 are much smaller in sport than in, for example, mathematics or music. Sports scholarships at 16, however, have been a bone of contention within schools and between schools since the 1990s when they first became widespread. Most are awarded to boys in the traditional team sports of rugby, football and cricket. Parents of pupils who lose their team place to imported stars can feel aggrieved, and schools on the sporting circuit dislike being thrashed at senior level when they have held their own in the junior years. The third type, specially-tailored to an individual’s needs, has a history that stretches from Mary Bignal at Millfield School in the 1950s (she won gold, silver and bronze medals in athletics at the Tokyo Olympics of 1964) to Tom Daley of Plymouth College (the 10m diving bronze medallist at the London Games). Tom has been coached at Plymouth Diving Club since he was eight. Schools gain little other than publicity and the exemplary role of a high achiever from awards like Tom’s and no pupils, parents or rival schools are disadvantaged.
Schools, of course, are unlikely to divulge personal and financial information about their current and former pupils, but they do advertise openly in the annual Independent Schools Yearbook and on their websites whether or not they award sports scholarships. Of the 75 independent schools attended by members of Team GB, 42 or 56% currently offer sports or all-rounder scholarships and 33 or 44% do not. These figures, of course, may have been different when the team members were at school.
Publicly-available information lists Jamie Murray with a tennis scholarship at The Leys and Tom Daley’s scholarship at Plymouth College. It is probable that another 20 members of Team GB received sports scholarships at school: eight in hockey, four in athletics, four in rowing, three in swimming and one in tennis. Possible but less likely award-holders are a further 15 – but here I am relying on hunches. This list comprises four rowers, two athletes, two fencers, two hockey players, two swimmers, one gymnast, one sailor and one water polo player. Hunches also suggest that a further 10 competitors are unlikely to have won sports awards: two riders, two rowers, two shooters, one cyclist, one fencer, one sailor and one weight-lifter. If I add the ‘unlikely’ category to the ‘no’ group and combine the more positive three, then my guess is that about 40% of the 93 members of Team GB had sports awards at school and about 60% did not. I suspect that I have been over-generous with these awards – so I welcome confirmation and corrections to the information recorded.
And so to a summary:
• 93 members of Team GB for London 2012 attended independent schools.
• They comprised 17% of the 542-strong team.
• It is debatable whether or not they won more than their share of team places.
• This percentage was probably greater at Beijing in 2008 where a smaller Team GB of 311 competed in eight fewer sports.
• The 93 comprised 47 women and 46 men.
• They had been educated at 75 schools.
• Day schools and schools with boarding were almost equally represented.
• So too were co-educational schools and single-sex ones.
• The 93 competed in 18 of the 28 Olympic sports.
• Rowing, hockey, athletics, equestrianism and swimming had most representatives.
• Equestrianism, rowing, tennis, hockey, fencing and triathlon had the largest concentrations of privately-educated competitors.
• 72 of the 93 finished in the top eight positions in one of their events.
• They were twice as likely to finish in the top eight as other members of Team GB.
• 45 of the 93 went home with one medal; two of them won two.
• They were three times as likely to win a medal as their team-mates.
• At both the Beijing and London Games about a third of the medals were won by those who had been educated privately.
• About half of the 93 were introduced to their Olympic sport at school; about a third at clubs; and the remainder through parents or at university.
• About two-thirds of the 93 received coaching in their Olympic sport at school, usually by teachers.
• Most of the schools attended by the 93 have good sporting facilities but few boast lavish ones.
• Lavish facilities were more likely to be provided by specialist clubs.
• 42 of the 75 schools attended by the 93 team members currently offer sports scholarships or all-rounder scholarships.
• I guess that about 40% of the 93 members of Team GB were supported financially at school with sports scholarships or all-rounder scholarships.
In my view, the most remarkable of all the facts and figures about the 93 privately-educated members of Team GB at the London Games is how well they performed once the competition began. The average member of the 93 finished between third and fourth place in their best event – just short of a bronze medal. Collectively, as shown in the table at the end of this chapter, they won 7.66 gold medals, 4.75 bronze medals and 7.03 bronze medals; this would have placed ‘independent schools as a country’ 12th in a fantasy medal table – just below Australia.
It is this, the ability to give of their best when the demands are greatest, that will be the most important contribution of the 93 privately-educated members of Team GB to the legacy of London 2012. That was surely learnt at their schools – from long-standing expectations of high achievement, from the commitment and example of teachers, from the competition and co-operation with fellow pupils, and from a collective ‘you can do it’ philosophy. These schools are committed to contributing to the Olympic legacy in terms of facilities, expertise and know-how, but it is the sportsmen and sportswomen who have shown that it is motivation, determination and self-belief that count most when the going gets tough.