This is our truth, tell us yours
There’s an awful amount of rubbish being written about the Olympics.
Simon Jenkins, whose employment by the Guardian is entirely baffling, scoops the gold medal with this appalling piece of tosh.
There are huge parallels you can draw from Britain’s Olympic performance.
The simplest is the one Jenkins, as a privileged member of the old school commentariat knows the least about consciously, and yet probably knows the most about unconsciously.
It’s quite simple. Incentives distort performance.
In a binary world, incentives might enhance performance. Offer me £10 to cycle more quickly down the road than I did yesterday and I might, if I want £10, try harder than I did yesterday.
However, how do we measure quickly? If it’s a busy road, where trafic is always an issue, and I want the £10, I’ll go out and ride when there’s no traffic. Sorry, what’s that you say? You want me to do it in similar conditions? Did you specify that when you offered the £10?
Offer British sports incentives to win medals, and the money will gravitate to the places where the money is easily won.
Why does that mean anything outside the rarified world of sports?
Think about all those performance targets for every public service, with increasing offers of performance related pay. Want me to treat twenty patients an hour? I’ll find a way to do it.
Ethics you say? You started it. You said you wanted me to work this way by offering extra money, and given that you seem to think money is what matters, I’ve found the easiest way to get it.
Britain’s Olympic success, getting the largest number of medals from the smallest number of athletes in the most productive sports, is a metaphor for our public services.
There’s an old saying that if you pay peanuts you get monkeys, but if you pay me by how many peanuts I can eat I’ll be the hungriest monkey I can be, even if it means giving up on going to the toilet and sitting in my own shit, because you’ve told me that’s what matters.
People like Simon Jenkins have often been the most vocal supporters of public sector reform,but take the logic to its extreme (and Olympic sport is a public service) and suddenly Jenkins rebels.
Why? Has Jenkins suddenly become illogical?
Of course not. Good columnists are defined by what they’re against, and by being against the celebration of Olympic success Jenkins is producing high quality clickbait designed to ensure his continuing relevance and employment as a writer.
There are better critiques of the British Olympic programme, based around participation and public health, but that demands analysis and research, and the modern commentariat are rewarded for hot takes and quick anger, not slow consideration.