When the Georgian Olympic women’s beach volleyball pair came out for their showdown with Russia last week, there was more at stake than simply sport. While most coverage focused on the political side to the clash, one other interesting development was playing itself out. Both girls were Brazilian. They were not recruited because they are Georgian or members of the Georgian émigré community. However, they were good and available at the right price: they are mercenary athletes.

This year’s Olympics were marked by a rise of the mercenary athlete. By the time the London Olympics come around, the mercenary athlete is likely to be a well-entrenched, possibly not well-loved, feature.

In the past two weeks, American commentators have become extremely agitated by the sight of US athletes lining out for Russia and Germany. This is a bit rich as the US was the first country to practise the habit of ‘naturalising’ brilliant foreign sportsmen and women and making Americans out of them.

Our interest here is not the moral, ethical or indeed nationalistic credentials of the mercenary athlete, but the notion that what we are seeing in the Olympics is part of a wider pattern. As the world becomes more globalised, top talent will move to where it is in most demand.

And as a result, migration patterns are likely to change dramatically over the coming years. Only the very brilliant and the very destitute will migrate. The very brilliant will go so that they, like the mercenary athletes, can compete at the highest level. The very destitute will leave because they have been shut out of ever earning a living in their home towns. For the former, the gravitational force is more pull than push; for the latter it is more push than pull.

This pattern is repeated in many areas. For example, when I was doing the Leaving Cert, it was practically unheard of for an Irish school child to aspire to go to the likes of Cambridge. Our world view, if we were going to college, was limited to universities in Ireland. In contrast, these days it is commonplace for bright Irish children to go to Oxford or Cambridge, Stanford or Harvard as undergraduates.

The reasoning is simple: Harvard is, by repute, the best university in the world and why shouldn’t the best Irish children go there? The implication of this is that, far from the world being flat, as argued by many proponents of globalisation, there is a natural tendency for the opposite to be the case. There is now an inbuilt dynamic where the best universities, hospitals and companies will get even better talent and thus will have a huge comparative advantage over the others.

If this is so, the countries whose talents are seen to be the best, the most cutting edge and offering the best opportunities will also get the lion’s share of mobile talent. It is a cliché to talk about a global talent war, but it does seem to be true. To get the best people and to prevent your own best people from leaving, a country has to benchmark itself against other countries across a whole variety of indicators.

The most fundamental indicator, indeed the cornerstone of any country’s social policy, must be education. If you can educate the most people possible to the highest level possible, then everything else will follow. In the week before our political parties gather for their annual think-ins, it would be refreshing if this fundamental principle were embedded in every speech, every press release and every initiative.

At the moment we are slipping way back. Our universities talk about creating ‘world-class fourth-level institutions’, yet they hardly employ any foreign academics. How can you be the best in the world if you don’t fish in the talent pool of the best in the world? Our failures seem to be across the board. For example, according to the Irish Primary Principal Network — an organisation representing the principals of our primary schools — most state primary schools have to fund raise from parents every year just to keep the heating on in the winter. Anyone reading this who has a child with learning difficulties will also know that getting any extra help is extremely difficult and is usually something that you end up having to do on your own.

Furthermore, our curriculum needs to be constantly monitored, re-jigged and changed. A company would not offer the same training to its employees in 2008 as it did in 1988. Such a company would have collapsed years ago. We simply need to keep up with the times. How can we create a flexible, creative workforce if we have a rigid, unyielding education system? If the main obstacles to change are insiders, such as the teachers’ unions, these people must be persuaded to adapt. We need to drive home the fact that once a country gets education right, so much else falls into place.

Ireland has many natural advantages and the Irish have an ability to be creative and entrepreneurial. Our education system isn’t bad at all if you are one of the 70pc who do the Leaving Cert, but we are leaving far too many behind. The social cost alone of these underachievers is enormous, irrespective of where you stand on issues of equity and fairness.

If you doubt the connection between education and other indicators, look at the leaders in the OECD Pisa tests for education and then examine the countries and cities ranked highest on a broad range of quality-of -life indicators and we see an almost complete overlap.

In a world of mercenary athletes/students/computer programmers where talent moves to where it can find the best opportunity and the best blend of career and lifestyle, education is the most crucial foundation.

Let’s hope that the downturn serves to focus the minds of our political class on this big picture. Let’s hope that next week when they sit down for their think-in, that they try to consider Ireland’s place in the world. Do we want to be the best and compete or do we want to settle for less? Ireland must choose.

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