26 Jul 2012

Where do Team GB’s athletes come from?

Exclusive research reveals that more Team GB athletes are born in the UK’s most affluent and healthy areas. So can where you live determine sporting success? Channel 4 News investigates.

Great Britain is sending 542 athletes to this year’s Olympic Games, each of whom have spent years training and sweating it out to prove their potential to win a medal for their country.

But research from Channel 4 News, analysing where each of Britain’s Olympic athletes were born shows a significant disparity across the UK, [see interactive heat map, below], and reveals that the more affluent and healthy parts of the country – the south east and parts of London – have contributed more than 30 per cent of all Team GB athletes competing this year – 140 athletes in total.

Meanwhile the Midlands, which recent research from Channel 4 News showed holds some of the unhealthiest places to live in the UK, have yielded considerably fewer athletes at 53.

“I think what the data clearly indicates is that the sports in which athletes compete is something of a postcode lottery,” Dr Andy Smith from the University of Chester’s Centre for Research into Sport and Society told Channel 4 News. “Despite the existence of devolved centres of excellence, it’s clear that athletes’ social background plays a crucial role in socialising them into different kinds of sport. It will shed a light on the athletes representing Team GB.”

Some sports are represented more strongly than others within the Team GB squad – hockey, football and rowing to name a few. On another map further below, we plot athletes’ hometowns in relation to the sport they play, and ask whether athletes’ hometown affect their chosen sport – is there a reason why three out of the seven-strong judo team hail from Shropshire?

Area breakdown

The biggest proportion of athletes was born in London, followed by Greater Manchester, Hampshire and Edinburgh.

It is unsurprising that cities and densely-populated areas are more likely to produce Team GB athletes. But Channel 4 News figures also assessed how much of a contribution the different regions of the country have made, which paints a more revealing picture of the athletes we will be seeing on screens over the next few months.

Despite the existence of devolved centres of excellence, it’s clear that athletes’ social background plays a crucial role in socialising them into different kinds of sport. Dr Andy Smith, Chester Centre for Research into Sport and Society

The south west, for example, contains 8.4 per cent of the entire UK population, but has contributed 11.4 per cent of the athletes for the Games. London and the south east contain 25.5 per cent of the population, but have contributed 30.3 per cent of athletes.

However at the other end of the spectrum are the East and West Midlands, home to Stoke-on-Trent, Sandwell, Nottingham, Walsall and Wolverhampton, which the government considers “unhealthy” in terms of measures of obesity, drug-taking and smoking.

While the East Midlands contains 7.2 per cent of the UK population, this region was the birthplace for just 4.5 per cent of athletes. Likewise 8.8 per cent of the UK population live in the West Midlands, but the area only gave birth to 6.9 per cent of Team GB athletes.

Manchester, Liverpool and their surrounding areas are the birth-places for 72 of the GB stars set to appear on our screens over the next few weeks, 11.4 per cent of the Team GB delegation, and the North East is contributing 19 athletes, 4.1 per cent of the Team GB total. The combined population of the North East and North West is around 9.6m, or 15.2 per cent of the UK total.

North east: 19 athletes / 4.1 per cent of Team GB
North west
: 72 athletes / 11.4 per cent of Team GB
: 42 athletes
Wales: 24 athletes
N.Ireland: 5 athletes

Athletes’ hometown and chosen sport
Interactive map below shows Team GB athletes’ home towns, colour-coded by their sport. Zoom in and click on a pin to see which athlete, and which sports, come from different parts of the UK – and the rest of the world. Key below.

Athletics: Green
Cycling: Orange
Hockey: Yellow
Football: Purple
Gymnastics: Pink
Pool Sports: Blue A (Swimming), B (Diving), C (Synchronised), D (Water polo)
Boat sports: Red A (Rowing), B (Canoeing), C (Sailing)
Ball sports: White
Other: Turquoise
NB: pin represents town/locality rather than the specific postcode or street.

The sports supported by international athletes

The map above shows that for some sports, Great Britain relies on international-born athletes to make up its team.

When it comes to handball (White) for example, nearly half of Team GB’s 28-strong team were born abroad, including seven from Scandinavia, where the indoor seven-a-side version of handball was developed. And perhaps not surprisingly, nine out of our 24 basketball players also hail from further afield, with many coming from the United States.

Athletes from Asia, Africa, and Europe help make up our gymnastics team, whereas gymnasts in the UK are exclusively from England.

In total, 15 per cent of Team GB athletes were born overseas – including Somalia-born Mo Farah, Sudan-born basketball player Luol Deng, and Moscow-born skeet-shooter Elena Allen.

Does hometown determine choice of sport?

There is some evidence that sport is specific to particular geographical regions, says Dr Smith. For example – the rugby league is a disproportionately northern sport, while in the south, rugby union has dominated.

And location can also be bound up with social background. “It’s common for those in more privileged positions to seek out sports they consider to be consistent with their particular background to distinguish themselves from other groups,” adds Dr Smith.

The colour-coded map demonstrates trends in some sports, while others are scattered across the country. Cycling is the only sport represented by the Isle of Man, for example, while three of Northern Ireland’s five Team GB athletes are rowers.

Water polo (Blue D) is often seen as a sport for the privileged elite. And while we don’t have enough information about players’ backgrounds to confirm that assumption, information about athletes’ hometowns show they weren’t born in particularly affluent places: athletes born between the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales tend to be water polo players, and there is also a healthy representation just south of the area – in and around Greater Manchester and Leeds.

This could in part reflects the sport’s recent attempt to extend its appeal and talent spot, as well as perhaps the women’s water polo centre of excellence in Manchester.

English athletes competing in shooting (Turquoise) are almost exclusively from the south west of the country. And it is perhaps no coincidence that one of them, Ed Ling from Somerset, also happens to be a farmer.

And when it comes to the unassuming county of Shropshire, who knows what they put in the water, but three of the judo squad (Turquoise) were born in one 20km area around Shrewsbury and Telford. A fourth, James Austin, was also born in nearby Lichfield. It is no coincidence that the area has a disproportionately large number of judo clubs to choose from for all ages.

Zoom in on the map above to check out your town’s chances of winning an Olympic medal.