UK Sport and the Philosopher’s Stone

05
May

Bob Fromer

by Bob Fromer

Not so very long ago, and certainly not in a galaxy far, far away, the British government waved its magic wand and a new agency, called UK Sport, was created.

The year was 1997, just after Great Britain had recorded a particularly disappointing medals haul at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta (just one gold medal, 15 overall and 36th place in the medals table).  UK Sport was set up to organise and control government funding to elite sport in future so that this dire situation could never happen again to a country that had once more-or-less ruled the world.

It took UK Sport a few years to figure out exactly how it was going to approach the task.  But eventually, around 2005, they came up with a policy that they felt was so impressive they gave it a special name: “No Compromise!”

This was a name, and a policy, redolent of toughness and focus and the ability to make “hard decisions” – a phrase that generally means that a lot of people are going to get screwed and that the decisions are going to be much harder on them than on the decision-makers.

UK Sport’s “No Compromise” policy, or plan, was elegantly simple.  Not a single penny of UK Sport’s considerable Exchequer and Lottery funding would be given to any sport, discipline or athlete that could not show proven or demonstrable Olympic medal potential. 

Or, in other words, no money for losers.
 

Team sports

It’s interesting to note the position of Olympic team sports in the “No Compromise” approach. 

Multi-discipline sports such as athletics, swimming, equestrian, sailing, canoeing, rowing and especially cycling -- even though some of them are undoubtedly upper-class sports with fewer participants in the UK than say, softball -- can potentially return loads of medals, sometimes more than one per athlete.  But a medal-winning GB Olympic team, with maybe 20-25 athletes and associated staff, can only ever win one medal per Olympic Games. 

From UK Sport’s point of view, this is not very cost-effective.

So the only British team sport with an outside chance of medal success, women’s hockey, was given far less funding than they felt they needed in the run-up to London 2012, where they won a bronze medal.  And the other Olympic team sports apart from football -- basketball, handball, volleyball, beach volleyball and water polo -- were given only token funding because the Games were in London and no funding at all for Rio 2016.  Hockey is the only Olympic team sport that is getting any UK Sport funding for Rio.
 

Success

Initially, no one was much concerned with any of that (except the victims of the “hard decisions”), because “No Compromise” was such a wonderful success story. 

Britain had begun to recover from the low point of 1996 in Atlanta in the subsequent Games in Sydney in 2000 (11 golds, 28 medals, 10th place) and held on to 10th place in Athens in 2004.  But the major breakthrough came in Beijing in 2008 (19 golds, 47 medals, 4th place).

And this was crowned by our glorious Home Olympics in 2012 (29 golds, 65 medals, 3rd place), where we finished behind only the world’s two super-powers, the USA and China.  We had Mo Farah and Sir Chris Hoy, Jessica Ennis and Ellie Simmonds and the Queen and James Bond floating down together into that magical stadium of dreams.

Never can a policy and a plan have been so dramatically vindicated.
 

But....

But you know what the British are like. They like to grumble. 

So it wasn’t very long after the Olympic circus left town, when East Londoners were left with the curiously named Westfield Shopping Centre and a largely boarded-up Olympic site, that some people began to mutter.

And while their voices were muted at first, they had a disconcertingly long list of questions that they wanted to pose to the UK Sport mandarins in Bloomsbury.

One of the earliest questions was whether it had really been necessary to deprive eight out of 26 British Olympic sports of meaningful funding before London 2012, when hosting the Games in your own country happens once in a generation if you’re lucky.  Shouldn’t all of our Olympic sports have been given a chance to shine?

Then the questions became slightly more sophisticated.

  • Should Olympic medals be the only, or even the main criteria, by which a country’s sporting success is judged?
     
  • Does it make any sense to keep giving money to the same sports in every Olympic cycle, no matter how little some of them impact the nation’s sporting life or consciousness between Olympics?  Wouldn’t it be worth giving some funding to sports that may be further behind on the talent development pathway but have far more participants, so their elite performers could improve?  Wouldn’t that give you the potential for even more medals in future?
     
  • Should the social significance of a sport be taken into account, along with medal potential, when making public funding decisions (basketball has become the poster child for this question)?
     
  • Is it really true that if “No Compromise” became “Just a Little Compromise” that the whole medal-winning edifice would collapse?
     
  • Shouldn’t a society where sport matters in terms of social wellbeing be offering as many options as possible where talented athletes can realise their potential, rather than cutting off so many Olympic and non-Olympic sports at the knees when it comes to elite achievement?  (This isn’t about development funding – the Home Country Sports Councils provide that, and on a much less restricted basis, which is why baseball and softball get quite substantial funds for development and nothing for national teams.)
     

Consultation

Initially, UK Sport tended to play these kinds of questions with a dead bat: “Thank you.  We have noted your concerns.” 

But the questioners weren’t particularly appeased by this, and if anything their voices became louder.  The groundswell began in 2013, but grew significantly in 2014.  There were opinion pieces on the sports pages of the broadsheets and occasionally on the editorial pages as well.  Ministers of the church had a say.  There were speeches in the House of Commons and a Select Committee report.  In the other chamber, noble Lords rose to speak.  And all of them questioning, with all due respect, whether the “No Compromise” policy, for all its evident success in winning Olympic medals, might not be a little bit harsh, a little bit narrow-minded and a little bit short-sighted.

So the mandarins of Bloomsbury then changed their tune:  “Ok, let’s have a Public Consultation!”

And so it was that as the yuletide festivities approached in the Year of our Lord 2014, with Christmas food banks and bankers’ scandals multiplying like sugar plum fairies, UK Sport published a six-question questionnaire, circulating it to governing bodies of sport, sporting agencies and even the public at large, inviting responses to the overarching question of whether its strict “No Compromise” policy should be moderated.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t the most incisive and penetrating of questionnaires.  Five of the six questions were simply variations on Question 1, which was “Should the primary focus of our investment policy continue to be delivering medal success [in Olympic and Paralympic sports] as our key outcome…?”

Well, most people are going to say yes to that, because that’s why UK Sport was created in the first place and no one is suggesting that its purpose should totally change.  But framing the questions that way has allowed UK Sport, in the Stakeholder Consultation Report it released in March, to headline the fact that a large majority of respondents seem to want them to carry on doing what they’re doing in exactly the way they’ve been doing it – ie, “No Compromise” rules!

Of course, the more complex truth is that while most respondents among both the sports sector and the general public want UK Sport to continue to use its resources to achieve Olympic and Paralympic medal success, there were caveats to that position.  There are many ways in which people would like to see “No Compromise” moderated so that UK Sport funding can reach more Olympic/Paralympic sports and athletes and take into account other factors beyond medals, such as social impact, inclusion and diversity.

UK Sport’s report acknowledges these points of view, and quotes from many of them, but mainly to dismiss them as impractical (because it would compromise “No Compromise” to implement them).  There are a few things that UK Sport has pledged to look at further – including taking participation levels into account when settling “ties” between sports being considered for funding – but anything else is generally subject to the caveat “if funding allows”.

And UK Sport, like the rest of the sports sector, knows full well that funding for sport was only maintained at relatively high levels after the financial crash because of preparations for our own Olympics and the fact that it would have been humiliating to have pulled the plug in the immediate aftermath.  But after the election this May and the next Treasury Spending Review, most people think that sport is going to see some very deep cuts indeed.
 

No change

So “funding won’t allow” and the computer will always say no.  And nothing will change, except that UK Sport can say, “Well, you’ve had your consultation.  Sorry it didn’t work out the way you might have hoped.”

That’s pretty much what UK Sport Chairman Rod Carr (whose background is sailing) meant when he said recently, “"Public funding is a privilege, it's not a right.  People wouldn't want us spending money on teams that perpetually underperform.  So they've got to get to a level that justifies public money.”

But of course teams sports in particular are wondering how they can ever get to that level when they receive no public funding at all for their elite athletes and find it increasingly difficult to even send teams to European or World Championship tournaments to get vital competition experience.

The outcome of the consultation on “No Compromise” was probably best summed up by “Inside the Lines” on the BBC Sport website, through an anecdote about the late Brian Clough:

“It was during an interview with Michael Parkinson that Brian Clough was famously asked how he usually reacted to a player who said, ‘Boss, you’re doing it wrong.’ In an answer that has gone down in football folklore, Clough replied: ‘Well, I ask him how he thinks it ought to be done.  And then we get down to it, and we talk about it for 20 minutes.  And then we decide I was right’.”

tagged under: uk sport, no compromise, elite funding, olympic games

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About Bob Fromer

Bob Fromer

Bob was the founding CEO of BSUK and now works for the agency as a Communications Consultant. In a volunteer capacity, he was General Manager of the GB Fastpitch National Teams programme for many years, a former Team Manager for the GB Women and GB Under-19 Women and still serves on the GB Softball Management Committee. Bob has been involved with slowpitch and fastpitch softball in Britain since the sport’s earliest days, and travels abroad with many GB Softball Teams to report on their achievements for the BSF website.

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