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Tokyo Olympics: What price glory?


Management accountant and Great British Bake Off star Makbul Patel casts an analytical eye over this year's Tokyo Olympics.

5th Aug 2021
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In the past few days, I have gotten into a bit of a routine. First thing in the morning I check the news on the Olympics and see how Team GB are doing. Nothing warms my cockles more than learning about gold medals by our contingent in the Tokyo Olympics. Whether it be a gold in BMX or the triathlon, a gold is a gold.

As far as I am concerned, I’d still swell with pride if it was a medal in ‘push ha’penny’ if that was a sport at the games.

Winning medals has become second nature to Team GB. London 2012 saw an impressive performance. In Rio 2016, Team GB became the first nation to excel its medal haul as a host nation at the Olympics - truly amazing.

But I am old enough to remember the 1996 Atlanta games. It was one of our worst performances. Only one solitary gold medal and 36th in the rankings. But hey, I am only an armchair fan. The only way I could come close to participating would be if making a mess of a biscuit tea set on national TV became an Olympic sport.

Investment analysis

Some of the success of Team GB at the Olympics has been largely due to investment by the government, sponsorship of private organisations and lottery funding. Millions have been spent to make Team GB one of the most outstanding performers per capita of population.

It would therefore be prudent at this point to introduce some perspective into the medal tally of Team GB. At what price is glory?

I have drawn up the following table to illustrate it simply.


Funding (£m)

Total medals


Sydney 2000 58.9 28 11
Athens 2004 71.0 30 9
Beijing 2008 235.1 51 19
London 2012 264.1 65 29
Rio 2016 274.5 67 27
Tokyo 2020 224.4 51 (5/8/21) 16

(Source: UK Sport., Wikipedia.

When the new millennium started with the Sydney games the investment was in double figures, continuing with the Athens games in 2004. However, it was around this time when London was successful in its bid for the 2012 Games.

I would expect the UK government to have increased its funding in anticipation of the 2012 games to promote its famous legacy, which is evident in the increased investment from Beijing 2008 onwards. The medal tally increased. The nation cheered.

However, we are accountants and ratio analysis would be recommended. The following chart makes a sobering read:

Team GB cost of Olympic medal graph
Makbul Patel

Has the investment yielded the returns? If Team GB was a factory, the increase in investment has produced derisory results on the bottom line. Using the Sydney games as a benchmark, we can see that Team GB's cost of each gold medal has increased substantially. The cost of a Rio 2016 gold medal was double that of a Sydney 2000 gold medal. London was an improvement on Beijing 2008 but many would put this down to the ‘host nation’ effect, where Team GB had many factors to its advantage.

It is all well and good Britain doing so well in the Olympics, regardless of the investment that pushes Team GB up the medal rankings. What are the downstream effects of all this funding? Has the nation benefited in other ways besides bragging rights?

One area we can look at and observe is whether the nation’s health has improved or declined. Sport is activity. Sport is participation in exercise and improves health and wellbeing.

I obtained the latest obesity related hospital admissions for the UK. Try not to let your jaw drop.

UK hospital admissions graph
Makbul Patel

(Source: NHS digital.

It is horrifying. In the 10 years from 2008/9 the total UK obesity-related hospital admissions increased almost nine-fold. The trend in the age group of up to 24-year olds has followed. I would have thought this is where the government hoped to see seen a decrease. Alas, no.

Grassroots impacts

Clearly there is a disconnect between investment in the Olympics and the benefits at grassroots level. Is the funding elitist and only targeted in sports and geographical areas where it will likely result in a medal? I am no expert. You can slice and dice, turn the health data whichever way you want and the UK’s health will still be suffering.

As far as economic analysis goes, where do you draw the line? Child poverty is more and more in the news. Footballers are having to fight their corner. It’s heart-breaking, not just in the UK but around the globe. The Covid-19 pandemic will have only made things worse.

Maybe I’m being too harsh and getting my head mashed up on the economics of inequality. The Olympics still has plenty going for it. The games are a source of inspiration and a showcase for the ultimate in human sporting achievement.

As a sedentary management accountant, at least it makes me feel less guilty at being so useless at sports. I once nearly got selected as a goalkeeper for the primary school team. That won’t make it onto my CV though.

Good luck Team GB.

Replies (10)

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By Winnie Wiggleroom
05th Aug 2021 16:21

very interesting, not sure I agree with the assertion that the cost per gold medal should be a benchmark, especially when the cost per medal stays consistent, I have always thought that the total medal haul is more interesting than the number of gold medals.

It would be interesting to learn on what basis certain sports are given certain funds, for example the refusal to fund female BMXers

The other thing I wonder, is the overall economic benefit to the nation when more medals are won, more medals means more sponsorship from large international companies which means more taxes for the UK for one thing. More medals in a particular sport means more take up of the sport which in turn means more money for local businesses in that field.

There are obviously a number of non monetary benefits such as the general sense of well being of the nation as a whole.

Thanks (2)
Replying to Winnie Wiggleroom:
By coops456
11th Aug 2021 13:35

The Gold Rush documentary (3-parter on BBC iPlayer) is worth a watch as it covers the financial side very well.

The Paralympics start on 24 Aug and I can't wait to cheer on our athletes again.

Thanks (0)
David Ross
By davidross
06th Aug 2021 09:50

Brilliant article. I only feel shame that we now act like a former-communist country in 'buying' medals for so-called prestige. All the athletes' homes look shiny and new so it is a job these days.

BTW there is a gold Post Box in Sherborne for a bloke who won for clay pigeon shooting. Now that smacks of someone who just got good and did not go to live near a 'centre' to be super-trained when he was 13

Thanks (1)
Replying to davidross:
By pmt1pff
06th Aug 2021 12:54

is this that peter wilson fella by any chance? if memory serves he went to live in Saudi or Dubai to be trained by one of the sheikhs or something along those lines. i only remember him because i got obsessed with london 2012 olympics, had all the stamps and everything!

Thanks (0)
By David Pattman
06th Aug 2021 11:27

Great article - loved reading this one. Perhaps we conclude that success in sport may result in more armchair time for the great british public...?

Thanks (0)
John Stokdyk, AccountingWEB head of insight
By John Stokdyk
06th Aug 2021 17:39

Great work Makbul. I really enjoyed that one too from this side of the screen at AccountingWEB.

At the time of publication I added in the latest figures from the Olympics medal table (now at 18 golds and 58 overall), which brings the Gold ratio down to £12.46m, just a whisker above the Beijing peak.

The ratio comparison is an instructive place to start, but to bring a little pedantry to the comparison, perhaps we should adjust the ratios to allow for inflation, which could suggest we've reached more of a steady-state investment level over the most recent games.

Whether that will hold up post-Covid remains to be seen. I'd also endorse some of your observations about the Olympic legacy and public health too. Given the levels of obesity prevalent in the UK - and how that contributed to a significantly increased mortality rate during the pandemic - might all of those millions have been better applied to stimulating grassroots sporting activity among the wider population?

Thanks (0)
By bluebaron
06th Aug 2021 17:41

Having been involved in the athletics community, and knowing a number of x-Olympic athletes, it is tough nowadays to be a contender for an Olympic medal, without being a full time athlete (and therefore needing the funding). Sadly, the days of the true amateur are long gone, and there are also the drugs cheats to compete against. Not many track and field athletes can earn a fortune through the sport, and quite a few put a lot back into athletics (as coaches etc.) once their careers are over. Some of the benefits of funding aren't that easy to see.

Thanks (1)
By Paul Crowley
10th Aug 2021 19:07

Does 65 and 22 now make the arithmetic more acceptable?

Thanks (0)
By Paul Crowley
19th Aug 2021 20:26

What price is fair to encourage the best talent in sport to result in this country being in the top ten worldwide?
21st by population
order by gold medals (best in the world)
2008 4th
2012 3rd
2016 2nd
2020 4th

And getting medals in the winter olympics
UK pulls above its weight

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By NOTICIAS Salamanca
30th Aug 2021 11:10

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