U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron pledged cash for British sports as he tried to harness the London Olympics to spur success at the 2016 games and political victory at the 2015 general election.
Cameron said annual funding of 125 million pounds ($196 million) for elite sports training will continue until 2016, after government support and a home crowd saw Britain’s Olympians come third in the gold-medal table this year.
The prime minister, whose Conservative Party has been behind in every poll since March and who has gone through a series of policy U-turns and lawmaker rebellions in the same period, has been keen to associate himself with the success of the Olympics. Aides even used his Twitter Inc. feed to release a picture of him in his office, wearing the team’s outfit, watching a boxer win a medal on television.
“Which politician wouldn’t want to be associated with Britain’s best Olympics in 100 years, and some of the most popular people in Britain?” said Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Nottingham University. “The trick is to do it without looking naff.”
The U.K. is struggling to emerge from a double-dip recession, with the Bank of England cutting growth forecasts last week to show the economy at a standstill this year. Cameron suggested the spirit of optimism that has surrounded the games might help there, too.
“Over the last couple of weeks we’ve looked in the mirror, and we like what we have seen,” he told reporters in the garden of his London office yesterday. “The lesson of these past weeks is that Britain can, and should, be ambitious.”
Cameron will announce today that a commemorative coin will be issued to police and troops who helped deliver security at the games, many at short notice after security company G4S Plc failed to deliver enough staff. G4S in turn said today that it will give 2.5 million pounds to Armed Forces welfare groups.
Cameron wasn’t the only politician seeking to share in the reflected glory of Britain’s gold medal winning athletes. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne were also seen at Olympic events along with Ed Miliband, leader of the main opposition Labour Party.
Both parties have tried to claim credit. The bid for the games was won in 2005 by a Labour Prime Minister, Tony Blair, and a Labour Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone. Cameron in turn attributed Britain’s sporting success to funding streams set up by John Major, Blair’s Conservative predecessor.
The attempts to combine sports and politics did not always go to plan. Cameron’s first two appearances coincided with British favorites Tom Daley and Mark Cavendish losing, while Hunt was filmed shaking News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch’s hand in a car park, giving the impression the two were having a secret meeting.
London mayor Boris Johnson was left hanging from a zip wire in Victoria Park, an event that the London-based Guardian newspaper reported was caused by his reluctance to be weighed by organizers. And Osborne was seen waiting among empty seats after the cycling finals in the velodrome on Aug. 3 as multi-gold medal winner Bradley Wiggins talked to friends at the front of the block. Osborne gave up and left without his photo opportunity.
The photograph of Cameron watching the boxing on television, complete with portrait of Winston Churchill and a cup of tea, was ridiculed on Twitter. “Who the **** in Number Ten thought this was a good idea?” wrote Conservative blogger Iain Dale.
Cameron announced yesterday that Sebastian Coe, an athlete-turned-politician who was in charge of organizing the London Games, will become his “legacy ambassador,” advising on ways to ensure the benefits of the event continue.
The prime minister also said he wants schools to focus on competitive sports, accusing some of using activities such as “Indian dancing” as a way of filling students’ physical-exercise time. Labour has said it was Cameron’s government that scrapped a requirement that schools give children two hours of sports a week, and cut spending in the area.
“You do not get excellence on the cheap, nor do you get all the other virtuous outcomes that come from that without long-term and predictable levels of funding, and that’s what we’ve witnessed,” Coe told reporters at the Olympic Park. “That’s what we witnessed in Beijing, that’s what we witnessed here, and if we want to maintain our position in Olympic sport then that’s what you will need to do.”
Cameron also offered the possibility that sports funding would continue past 2016 if he wins the election the previous year.
“I very much hope I’ll still be prime minister in 2016, and this will still be the government, and we’ll make the decision again for the next four years,” he told the BBC yesterday.