The REF Olympics

Go on, admit it. How many of you had forgotten about the Olympics this summer? To be fair, there’s been a bit going on recently, including for me, which is the main reason I failed to post last week.  (Had I known I’d get more than a handful of emails berating me for that, I might have made an extra effort. Or, more likely, I’d have felt a little more guilty than I did.) Anyway, don’t worry, I’m not going to blame anyone for forgetting about Rio. We’ve enough on our plates, haven’t we?


The Olympics, at least in common wisdom, are a byword for athletic excellence, determination, hard work and success. Competing is an honour and in many respects failure at such a high level still constitutes a striking achievement. Like universities, there’s also a table. The Olympics medal table never really used to be a thing. But it’s a thing now, and in 2012 Great Britain came third. At least, like the REF, your rank depends on your chosen metric. On total medals GB came fourth after USA, China and Russia. And if you want talk GPAs; well, for 2012 first place is shared by Algeria, the Bahamas, Grenada, Uganda and Venezuela, all on account of having just one single gold medal each. And well done, North Korea (top 10)!

GPA Rank
Total GPA
1 Algeria 1 0 0 1 4.00
2 Bahamas 1 0 0 1 4.00
3 Grenada 1 0 0 1 4.00
4 Uganda 1 0 0 1 4.00
5 Venezuela 1 0 0 1 4.00
6 Switzerland 2 2 0 4 3.50
7 Dominican Republic 1 1 0 2 3.50
8 South Africa 3 2 1 6 3.33
9 North Korea 4 0 2 6 3.33
10 Norway 2 1 1 4 3.25
11 South Korea 13 8 7 28 3.21
12 Turkey 2 2 1 5 3.20
13 Hungary 8 4 5 17 3.18
14 China 38 27 23 88 3.17
15 Croatia 3 1 2 6 3.17
16 United States 46 29 29 104 3.16
17 GB 29 17 19 65 3.15
18 Kazakhstan 7 1 5 13 3.15
19 Czech Republic 4 3 3 10 3.10
20 Iran 4 5 3 12 3.08

The top 3 in medal “power” – those who faced the highest excess baggage surcharge for the metal work they won – in GPA terms came 14th (China), 16th (USA) and 39th (Russia) respectively. Russia there, showing kids it doesn’t pay to do drugs (at least in terms of GPA), now we know that the Russian athletics team’s urine samples were about as irrefragable as Andrea Leadsom’s CV.

GB (17th) has the same GPA as Kazakhstan – the country who gave us Borat (well, we actually gave him to them and I am not sure it was a very welcome gift). Above is the top part of the GPA medal table for you, GPA calculated using REF2014 rules, with gold weighted 4*, silver 3* and bronze 2*.

While I love watching almost every sport (apart from rugby), while I can get as competitive as the rest whenever there’s any sort of league table, and while I have no problem with winning (although I support Leyton Orient, so it’s a vanishingly rare affair), increasingly I can’t help feeling we ought to focus on the taking part bit just a little more. The Olympian rhetoric was always about taking part and getting on with the real stuff, not just getting to the top of the table.

Some years ago I led a research study funded by an international sports charity, that involves many of the world’s great sports women and men. It was a great project, evaluating the efficacy of charitable sports-linked projects around the world. These projects ranged from a boxing club in Rio de Janeiro to discourage favela youth from joining gangs, to an anti-depression intervention run through a Championship football club. I nearly froze to death at an open air ice rink in Berlin, but on the way I understood that ice hockey is probably the most fantastic spectator sport ever! On all of these projects, the disadvantaged young people were never likely to become Olympic medallists, and the benefits they derived from the projects came from actively participating in a team. They learned to have fun, they learned about themselves, they learned about others, and they grew. A very real type of victory for everyone…

Like the Olympics, I suspect for many the academic rhetoric has slowly shifted from taking part to winning. It’s the consequence of more than just tables of course. Tables mean funding, funding means prestige. But let’s just draw breath for a moment. Getting to the top of a table at all costs is a real thing because it seems that some departments actually chose to lose QR money in REF2014 in a bid to get a higher GPA.

Forget about the financial idiocy of that for a moment. What about the ideology? In the end, why do we do the work we do? I’d hope it is because we enjoy it and we think it’s useful. Useful, not to our own careers, but to others. If you want to win a league, become a footballer (although I’d recommend against joining Arsenal if winning the league is really your goal).

When you are fixated on massaging for success in league tables, reality starts to slip away rather quickly. They’re realists in the Alps; Switzerland haven’t declared themselves the 6th best sporting nation in the world, or pronounced Zurich as world leading centre for equestrianism (one of their two gold medals). But in North Korea they’re not so noted for their realism. In a nation where there are only 28 state-approved hairstyles, I suspect the GPA table is the only one they know about and maybe many believe they are world leaders. GPA, gold medals, ranks: you can spin anything you like… danger and bad judgment come when you begin to believe the spin. (There, I got in a sneaky reference to Chilcot too). Because reality is always hanging around in the background and has a nasty habit of not going away. And you can’t game reality.


Don’t misunderstand me, I like to dream too. And I admire the achievement of a gold medal. Stephen Kiprotich’s single marathon gold medal for Uganda was an amazing achievement. And I’d personally love it if Uganda (GPA=4.0) was declared a sporting superpower with all the cutting edge facilities, equipment, and a world-leading sporting environment you might then expect. It’s just that it isn’t.