In the early part of last week I started to write a blog that was, in fact, a bit of a whinge about the Olympics or, more specifically, the way that the sports were being broadcast.
At that time it seemed to me that the various TV channels that we are able to watch over here (English, German, Czech), seemed to be far more focused on what their own competitors were doing rather than the really popular sports and/or the truly exceptional performances; despite the fact that I am, of course, mad about sport, even I found it difficult to get overly enthusiastic about clay pigeon shooting, archery, fencing, etc… with all due respect.
I managed to miss the wonderful Fabian Cancellara in his final year of cycling winning the gold medal in the time trial, as English TV chose that moment to flip to some bronze medal winning tiddlywinks or similar (how different that might have been had it been Chris Frome winning the gold). Also the incredible Michael Jung from Germany winning the gold for the individual three day event (something particularly close to my heart) for the second time, making him the world champion, Olympic champion, European champion, and all round greatest bloke imaginable….although I did manage to see a repeat of it on German TV later that evening (needless to say, the Germans were more interested than the Brits or Czechs!).
But then… something changed. Suddenly British TV WAS showing the most popular sports and the exceptional performances, and why was that? Because they were nearly all British! (Except for Usain Bolt who doesn’t count… he is just a God). Our funny little [soon to be ex EU] country has gradually come to realise that if you invest heavily into the athletes, giving them great conditions to work in, the very best coaches, and the financial means to enable them to be able to work full time at their chosen sport, the results will come; it just takes a bit of time, and the British, particularly, the British media, have waited for and bemoaned our lack of ongoing success for a very long time.
These results, however, come as no surprise to people like me who, having tried to get into full-time sport as a junior in the UK and then failed due to lack of facilities, coaching, funding, etc, went out to work instead, and then moved to the former communist Czech Republic (or Czechoslovakia as it was then) and saw how they did it here.
In the bad old days, we in the West loved to justify the results of the Eastern Bloc athletes by putting it all down to drugs. But that wasn’t really the case (although, for sure, drugs featured in some sports). The fact is that under Communism, any child that showed some talent in a particular sport was whisked off to a sports school, given the best of coaches and facilities for training, and encouraged to treat sport as a career. Hence the endless conveyor belt of top athletes, tennis players, rowers and others that came out of here in the 60s, 70s and 80s. And then, when they finished competing, they were whisked back to those same schools and clubs to train the next generation.
In some sports, those systems continued to pay dividends for some time after the fall of Coummunism; travel around the Czech Republic and you will rarely find a town without a huge tennis centre, with indoor and outdoor courts, well-known coaches and a long list of home-grown tennis pros. It will be a long time before the UK can boast such a structure and that will probably be the reason why we wont have an endless list of tennis stars following in Andy Murray’s footsteps.
What is happening here in the Czech Republic now, though, is the reverse to what we are seeing in the UK. Many of the old systems are now antiquated, the clubs are run down, coaches are getting old, and less money is being invested into sport. Plus the stars from the 80s and 90s have no need to return to train the next generation as they used to, but prefer to settle in Monaco or Florida and play golf. The result of all of that is that the sports clubs need to be able to finance themselves, the new and younger coaches come from a less successful career than their own old coaches, and youngsters that want to try and make it in sport have to manage on a shoestring unless they have backing from somewhere else. Sound familiar?
In order to keep going, sports clubs, coaches and young athletes wherever they are have to earn money. Prices for club fees, coaching and the cost of living generally in the Czech Republic are getting higher and beyond the reach of many. The result is that the new generation of potential sports stars tend not to be those with the most talent, but, more, those that have parents with money that can support them. Which is not so different to where the UK was 20 or 30 years ago.
In view of the above it doesn’t seem to me to be that surprising that the UK has reached incredible heights this year and the Czechs are looking at themselves and wondering how it all went wrong. It really isn’t rocket science…