The Manchester medal factory: Be grateful for this strange cluster of genius

 
Marc Sidwell
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THE Manchester velodrome is a medal factory. It won as many golds in this summer’s Olympics as the whole of Australia. As well as a cause for national celebration, that’s a problem. Because the truth is, we don’t know enough about why.

Genius clusters. Renaissance Florence. Elizabethan London. The Scottish Enlightenment. Extraordinary individual achievements, sporting or cultural, tend to overlap in time and space.

The problem is, it’s not very clear why. Genius is a bolt from the blue – sudden achievement at a historically high level. But its clustered nature suggests it gets summoned forth as much by external circumstances as the birth of extraordinary individuals. If only we knew what those necessary conditions were, it might be possible to reach the heights of our potential more often.

David Banks of Duke University wrote about this “problem of excess genius” in 1997, calling it “one of the most important questions I can imagine” but bemoaning the lack of progress on resolving it. The author Jonah Lehrer recently flagged up Banks’ article and offered a few answers of his own: the importance of a commercial spirit, open immigration, educational experimentation and a tolerance for risk-taking. Those all sound sensible enough, but the truth is they don’t add up to a magic formula.

Look at the Manchester velodrome. It is not just an almost unbelievable success, but an unexpected one. Born of Manchester’s failed bid for the 2000 Olympics, it was Britain’s sole Olympic-standard track and seen by many as a white elephant. By 1996, British Cycling was too broke to pay its £130,000 electricity and gas bill, and the council had to step in to keep the lights on. It was, on one account, ten days from becoming a B&Q warehouse. In the aftermath, cat shows took precedence over cycling, as the emergency committee tried to make ends meet. Yet somehow this project became the hub of Britain’s cycling renaissance.

There will no doubt be claims that Manchester provides a model for how to invest in the future of British sport. The real lesson seems to be only that sometimes we get lucky, the stars align and a cluster of genius emerges, even when the odds of a white elephant are far higher.

Perhaps the best response to such moments of fortune is simply a mix of gratitude and humility. Humility because the sudden appearance of high achievement under certain conditions suggests it is latent in all of our lives to a degree uncomfortable to contemplate. Gratitude because something so mysterious, so hard to force into being has somehow emerged. Such protective, generous thoughts are easy to have for Team GB’s Olympian achievements. But they ought to be our response to clusters of achievement of all kinds, whenever they emerge – including the City itself, and the new tech cluster on its borders, Silicon Roundabout. We don’t know enough about how to build such clusters up, but we do know how little it can take to close them down.

Marc Sidwell is managing editor at City A.M.