The base of the pyramid

There is more than one road to excellence. Six weeks ago, I went to an open-air concert performed by the Simon Bolivar Orchestra, the product of Venezuela’s El Sistema (try this clip on Youtube.) This is one of the world’s greatest orchestras, but they didn’t get there by selecting elite musicians. El Sistema is also a major project for social inclusion. It has achieved a small miracle through a mass programme of musical education, drawing in hundreds of thousands of children. The orchestra is only the apex of a large pyramid. That, as much as the performance, is what makes it special.

This week, in Britain, we are having success in sport at the Olympics. The media are buzzing with claims that the success of elite sportsmen and women will trickle down; they will be role models; they will encourage children to participate in physical exercise; they will “inspire a generation”. I see no evidence to support any of these claims. Success has been achieved – as it was formerly achieved in East Germany – by selecting elite athletes and giving them elite resources (such as the individually engineered bicycles that have helped the British to dominate in the velodrome). Britain’s tally of medals is approaching that of the USA – another country which, like us, suffers from social exclusion and an obesity epidemic. If we built a pyramid from the base, it will be possible to identify people at the heights. If we start at the top instead, that is all we will ever see.

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