Private schools and Olympic medals – is there a link?

Mary King and King's Temptress
Olympic longevity is an attribute for several privately educated members of Team GB. Mary King competed at all four Games in the study, winning two silver medals. © Mike Bain

A new study has revealed that a third of Britain’s Olympic medalists from the past four Games came from private schools.

When Team GB’s first medals were won at the London Games, British Olympic Association chairman Lord Moynihan announced: “It is one of the worst statistics in British sport, and wholly unacceptable, that over 50 percent of our medallists in Beijing (at the 2008 Olympic Games) came from  independent schools*, which means that half of our medals came from just 7 percent of the children in the UK.”

UK Sport and Olympics bosses had already admitted privately that they expected more than a third of athletes in the 500-strong Team GB for the London Games to have been educated at independent schools.

The first British gold medals of the London Olympic Games of 2012 were won by a pair of privately educated rowers. Top-heavy representation in the medal table of privately educated sportsmen and sportswomen would raise questions for those responsible for physical education and sport in the state schools that educate 93 percent of the population.

But in his study, Dr Malcolm Tozer, the editor of Physical Education and Sport in Independent Schools, says the total number of privately educated athletes at the four summer Olympic Games from Sydney in 2000 to London in 2012 numbered no more than one-fifth of the participants – but these athletes accounted for about a third of the UK’s medal haul.

“Sportsmen and sportswomen educated at independent schools were over-represented at the sharp end of competition. They were twice as likely to reach the top eight in their best event and, once there, twice as likely to win medals,” Tozer said.

Tozer compared participation of athletes from independent schools and state schools, and looked at factors including sporting success and academic achievement, popular and ignored sports, and sports scholarships.

He also posed leading questions for those responsible for the Olympic legacy – over the new national curriculum for physical eduction, the current Ofsted enquiry on school sport, the role of after-school activities, the contribution of teachers and coaches, and the re-assessment of the role of the Youth Sport Trust.

The findings on privately schooled athletes at Olympic Games from 2000 to 2012 included:

  • Men outnumbered women in Team GB at all four Olympic Games – but less so at Beijing and London.  In the one sport where men and women competed on equal terms, equestrianism, women outnumbered men five to three.
  • Millfield School had the highest number of representatives over the four games with 16, with Eton College next with 12. If repeat selections are discounted, Eton has eight, which covered three sports – athletics, equestrian and rowing.
  • With 23 competitors, equestrian was behind only rowing (76), hockey (36), swimming (29), and athletics (28) in number of participants from a total of 262. The order changes if the proportion of the total number of competitors in each sport is calculated: equestrian (about 44%), rowing (40%), hockey (28%), sailing (25%), tennis (22%), swimming (16%), and athletics (9%).
  • Top-eight places in 8 of the 29 Olympic sports were achieved by all or nearly all the privately educated competitors in all four Olympic Games in cycling, equestrianism, hockey, modern pentathlon, rowing, sailing and swimming, and by nearly half of those in athletics.
  • Most medals won by privately educated members of Team GB over the four Olympic Games came in rowing (45), equestrianism (19), sailing (12), cycling and hockey (8 each) and modern pentathlon (4).
  • Schools played no or little part in the first experience in several other sports, notably canoeing, cycling, diving, equestrianism, gymnastics, synchronised swimming, triathlon and weightlifting.
  • Fencing, sailing, shooting, swimming and tennis all benefited from school involvement, whereas canoeing, cycling, diving, equestrianism (only Laura Bechtolsheimer seems to have ridden at school), gymnastics, synchronised swimming, triathlon and weightlifting owe little to schools other than the important contribution of an effective and comprehensive programme of physical education and sport. The suggestion that independent schools commonly provide velodromes, purpose-built rowing lakes, show-jumping arenas and 10-metre diving platforms above 50-metre swimming pools – with expert coaching to match – is unfounded, Tozer said.


‘One of the worst statistics in British sport, and wholly unacceptable’: The contribution of privately-educated members of Team GB to the summer Olympic Games, 2000-2012, M Tozer. Published online in August 2012, in The International Journal of the History of Sport, DOI:10.1080/09523367.2013.814643

* Independent schools were generally called public schools until the 1970s; thereafter, the schools preferred to be known as independent schools. In both cases, the schools are private fee-paying enterprises, independent of state provision.

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3 thoughts on “Private schools and Olympic medals – is there a link?

  • August 14, 2013 at 8:56 am

    It’s about motivation – nothing to do with schooling. The current benefit culture doesn’t encourage anything that doesn’t have financial gain. Like sport.

  • August 14, 2013 at 7:10 pm

    OK motivation is just part of it who’s going to help the person that has all the ability in the world but maybe comes from a very poor background and cannot afford to pay a trainer???? I’m making a point of saying that the lucky ones who’s parents can afford to send them to private schools have a very great advantage.

  • August 15, 2013 at 8:13 am

    This is an interesting question to raise, but it does seem like there are different correlations between private schools and having the financial resources available to you to be able to train effectively.


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