Fun Fact: The United Kingdom is the only major medal winner in the olympics that doesn’t reward athletes for winning medals.
Okay, so it’s not especially fun, but it is a fact, and it’s a bit odd.
At the time of writing, Team GB is currently sitting second in the medals table at the Rio Olympics, just ahead of China and quite a way off USA. That’s a pretty fantastic achievement given the difference in populations and the fact that 20 years ago Team GB came away from the Atlanta Olympic Games with just ONE gold medal.
However, what caught my eye about the news wasn’t the fact that we’re doing so great (although we are, go us). What I saw in one news article was the fact that the UK is the only country that wins a decent number of medals that doesn’t give cash to their athletes who win. What’s that about?
The prizes really vary in size from the moderates like Germany who give their gold medalists $19,500 - not crazy money, but a nice gesture, all the way up to those who probably have more money than sense. Singapore for instance will pay their gold medalists in Rio S$1,000,000 (that’s Singapore Dollars - about £578,000!)
However, the UK is the only country that wins a lot of medals and doesn’t offer anything at all. Why is that?
It’s not like we used to spoil them rotten and then suddenly realised that we can’t really afford that every four years. Our average number of gold medals for an olympics is only 9, and, as I mentioned above, 20 years ago we only won one! No, it’s only since Beijing in 2008 that we began churning out the good stuff, and we didn’t do prizes even then.
Here’s my best guess for why the UK is such a notable exception on the world stage:
- We decided to invest that money into MAKING gold medal winners instead.
In the early 90s, the UK finally started investing heavily in producing world class athletes. That means better facilities, better coaches and investing in talented young people. For example, potential olympians in the UK can get grants from UK Sport so they can afford to focus entirely on their sport and not be forced to get a 9 to 5.
If we had held money back in order to reward medal winners after the Olympics then we would almost certainly have fewer athletes to reward.
- Cash is a horrible incentive, particularly at the Olympics.
Even in normal life, cash isn’t a particularly reliable way to get people to work harder or produce better results. I expect this is particularly true of olympians. It’s really hard to believe that anyone in Team USA is running faster or working harder because of the potential of earning $20k at the end of it all. There are much easier ways to get that kind of money than swimming 100m faster than any other human on the planet.
- It’s not like athletes can choose to play for someone else (most of the time).
Perhaps most importantly, it looks like bad economics to be paying athletes for competing in the Olympics! In the vast majority of cases, athletes aren’t able to choose which country they want to compete for. And even those who can choose because they are a dual citizen (or Northern Irish), they can’t change their mind later.
This is obviously in stark contrast to football where a good player can earn millions because if you don’t pay your superstar a stupid amount of money then there’s always someone crazy enough to do it instead! In a free market, you need to pay top dollar to get top talent. The UK doesn’t need to pay athletes to persuade them to compete because they mostly can't play for another team. They just need to invest their money creating top athletes in the first place.
Of course, we shouldn’t feel too bad for our superstar Olympians - they are free to do sponsorship deals and can earn a healthy wage off the back of their success. No doubt Mo is rolling in that sweet Quorn money. No way he did that ad for less than a cool million.