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By Nathan Akehurst
Despite writing an earlier article for the Oxford Student heavily critical of much of the politics and decisions surrounding the London 2012 Olympics, I had very little against the sporting events themselves. Granted, I’m not especially fond of competitive individualism, but watching extremely talented and hard-working people perform the sports they love was invigorating. Bradley Wiggins’ two-wheeled triumphs even partially inspired me to embark on a cycling expedition to North Wales. (I actually got as far as North Witney and camped in a field before returning to Cowley aboard a bus.)
It was therefore extremely disappointing to find politics thrust into athletics negatively yet again, with the news that five-times world champion Usain ‘Lightning’ Bolt appears to consider himself an expert on UK tax law. Bolt, who earns around £12.7million per year, has decided to boycott performing in Britain until tax laws are loosened. His complaint? As well as taking a cut of his winnings in the UK, Revenue and Customs also wanted a percentage of his £12.5m sponsorship deal with Puma. He only agreed to run in London due to a competitors’ tax amnesty for 2012, after three years of prior refusal to run in this country, and pulling out of 2010’s Grand Prix over his political position on taxation.
Remember how angry the great British public was when Tory grandee Lord Ashcroft was ploughing money into offshore accounts, claiming non-domiciled status? Or Philip Green and his £2.4bn tax dodge? Perhaps the worst was the case with Vodafone, who were essentially let off from £6bn worth of taxation by Hartnett at HMRC, in a case broken by Private Eye which reeked of a Berlusconian level of corruption. This is, we need barely be reminded, in the midst of entrenched and crushing austerity, where due to a supposed lack of state funding, ordinary citizens are losing everything from their pensions to sickness benefit to youth centres to hospitals to jobs under a swathe of crippling cutbacks. In light of this, it hardly seems that HMRC is the most stringent on taxation at all. Indeed, proposals in 2011 were made to undertake perhaps the largest corporate tax cut in UK history, whereby companies would be exempt from paying any contributions on foreign earnings. (Under the initial system, if Company A pays, say 5% tax in Country A, and the UK tax rate was 10%, it would have to pay HMRC another 5% from its foreign earnings to meet the total.) This is despite the 4% corporation tax cut already implemented -money that could have protected vital public services. There is no salient evidence to suggest that the British private sector has even particularly grown off the back of this cut. The phrase ‘government of the rich, by the rich, for the rich’, becomes ever more apparent.
Yet this is about Usain Bolt, not a general list of grievances against austerity and tax law. The point is that Green, Ashcroft and his ilk are in essence no different from Bolt in the sentiment they express. In a fair society, you do not get tax breaks for being rich, famous, and being able to run round a track almost as fast as your money does when escaping to the Cayman Islands. One should really expect no more from a competitive, ruthless individualist, yet I couldn’t help but be disappointed by Bolt’s assertions after having no small degree of respect for his athletic achievements. The reality is, his sponsorship earnings are part of his income. If he is competing on UK soil, as part of an event which in the case of London 2012 has cost the British taxpayer up to £24billion along with a raft of state oppression and house clearances, there is no reason why the public should not be able to recoup some of the profit from the Games. As the glow of the closing ceremony closes, it becomes ever more apparent that we are not going to have a sporting renaissance. School playing fields are being cut back, and youth services around the country have lost their ability to offer sporting provision. It is no surprise that the majority of Team GB were privately-educated and had access to world-class sporting facilities. Yet I doubt Bolt is concerned with, or has even really considered, the repercussions of loosened tax laws. He evidently seems far more concerned with retaining more money than he is likely to ever spend. So much for ‘sport for sport’s sake.’ HMRC’s position is hardly draconian in any case- as one official told the Telegraph, ‘”The Government put in place a tax exemption so that non-resident Olympic and Paralympic athletes would not pay UK tax on their income from Olympic and Paralympic appearances…Any tax on other UK income such athletes receive can in most cases be set off against tax paid in their home country.”
So, Bolt has once again exiled himself from our shores. It really is no great loss, one can watch him on TV from Rio de Janeiro just as simply as they could from East London. Maybe another runner will compete, win, and actually not mind too much about putting something back in to the system they have benefitted from. Yes, Bolt is very talented at what he does. That, however, does not hand him carte blanche to do as he wishes and pursue his own greed and self-interest at the expense of others. Bolt should take his self-imposed exile to have a long and serious think about the repercussions of his statements. In the meantime, we have Mo Farah to watch.