UK Sport awards reinforce inequality
On 9 December, the British sporting world – or at least those people with stakes in the outcome – lined up to watch a ritual that takes place every four years: the awarding of money by the government agency UK Sport for the next Olympic cycle, which in this case is the four years leading up to Tokyo 2020.
This year, for the first time since 2005, British baseball and softball did have a stake in the outcome, since our sports will be in the Tokyo Olympics after a 12-year absence from the Games – but we didn’t, of course, get any money (see http://www.britishsoftball.org/news/view/no-uk-sport-softball-funding-for-now).
In a way, the ritual is a bit like the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona – compelling in a blood-thirsty sort of way, because people are going to get hurt.
And it’s hard to repress the feeling that UK Sport, a government agency that has been spectacularly successful in a narrow mission to win Olympic medals, enjoys bestowing money here and taking it away there, pronouncing the fates of those anointed as the deserving rich and the undeserving poor.
It could almost be a Christmas Special of Benefits Street.
UK Sport operates on the basis of a principle that they used to call “No Compromise”, though the term isn’t heard much these days. What it means in practice is that UK Sport’s money – in this case £345 million from a combination of mostly Lottery and some Exchequer funding -- goes only to sports and athletes that are proven medal winners or where the potential for medals is highly probable rather than simply possible.
This policy, as noted, has been a huge success in pursuit of its single objective. Great Britain was fourth in the overall medals table for the Olympics in Beijing, third in London and second in Rio. It’s an amazing achievement, and there has been little doubt about the feel-good factor created by this shower of gold, silver and bronze in a country sorely in need of things to feel good about.
But the policy behind this success is getting steadily more extreme, and more British Olympic sports are finding their elite programmes decimated as a result.
In London in 2012, there were a total of 26 sports in Olympic competition – but even though this was a once-in-a-lifetime home Olympics, UK Sport chose to fund only 18 of them, or just under 70%. The rest – mostly team sports – were given no support at all to realise their Olympic dreams in front of the British public.
In Rio this past summer, there were 28 Olympic sports, but the same group of 18 sports (64%) received UK Sport funding.
In Tokyo in 2020, because the International Olympic Committee has now opened up the Olympics to new sports nominated by the host country, there will be 33 sports in competition, including baseball/softball (regarded as one sport with two disciplines).
But UK Sport’s announcement on 9 December gave money only to 16 sports, removing funding entirely from badminton, weightlifting and fencing (and also from wheelchair rugby in the Paralympics) which means that only 48% of British Olympic sports are likely to be funded for Tokyo.
The uncertainty is around the five “new sports” that will compete in 2020 – baseball/softball, karate, skateboard, sports climbing and surfing. UK Sport has deferred a final decision on whether any of them will get any funding until December 2017 on the reasonable grounds that there has not been enough time to assess their medal potential. But no one at any of those sports, including ours, is holding their breath that a positive decision will be forthcoming in a year’s time.
What we’re seeing here is a policy driven to its logical extreme, with no consideration for its effect on the overall sporting landscape, or on elite athletes in sports deemed by UK Sport to be, in effect, losers. The logic behind “No Compromise” is that “money wins medals” – and more money concentrated in the same place, mainly in sports with multiple disciplines, wins even more medals.
That’s why team sports tend to lose out in UK Sport allocations: not because the agency is biased against team sports as such, but because there is only one medal on offer for hockey, volleyball, basketball, handball, football, rugby 7s – or baseball and softball – compared to the seemingly endless medals that can be won in disciplines of rowing, cycling, shooting, sailing, boxing, swimming or athletics.
So the only team sport to get any money at all for Tokyo is hockey – and only because the GB Women’s Hockey Team turned potential into gold in Rio.
It’s hard not to feel sorry for badminton, weightlifting, fencing and wheelchair rugby, whose elite programmes will now struggle to survive, in the same way that elite programmes struggle in those British Olympic sports that have not received any funding at all since the “No Compromise” policy began in the run-up to Beijing. Athletes in most of these sports have almost no chance of ever representing their country on the world’s biggest sporting stage.
It’s easy to sympathise with David Pond, the CEO of wheelchair rugby, looking at the amounts given to the 16 sports who have won this particular lottery – amounts ranging from £5.7 to £24.7 million – when he says that “we are a sport worth the small investment we requested. If you removed £100,000 from each of the sports that have been awarded huge sums, you would more than meet our request.” And thereby give the sport something to build on.
But UK Sport doesn’t think that way.
Instead, it accepts the logic that has driven neo-liberal capitalism, globalisation and all the other forces that have increased inequality in societies around the world.
It is the logic of “to them that hath shall be given and devil take the hindmost.” It is not a pleasant, compassionate or humane logic. It is not a logic of inclusion or sporting chances.
But it sure does win medals – at least for now.
In contrast to UK Sport’s approach, some people feel that investing, proportionately, in all Olympic sports is a strategy that could yield even more medals in the long run without necessarily doing significant harm to the sports that win medals now, because more sports would be able to develop talent with podium potential. Under the current system, if medals dry up for any of the successful sports, there will be no other sports ready to take their place because no investment will have been made in the future of their elite programmes.
UK Sport rejects this argument, suggesting that sports need to prove that they can win medals before funding is justified. But there’s a Catch-22 there somewhere….
What about us?
As for GB Baseball and Softball, we presented strong prima facie cases to UK Sport this autumn that both our Senior National Teams could – particularly given at least some investment – qualify for Tokyo and then have at least a chance to go on and win a medal at the 2020 Olympic Games.
Despite having very little time to put these cases together, we assembled a lot of objective evidence to support our claims. Although UK Sport’s initial reaction was a quick and blunt no as far as funding is concerned, they have since admitted that our cases are worth consideration, and that they have not had sufficient time to look at them properly.
That’s why the final decision on funding for us and the other sports that will be new in Tokyo has been postponed for a year while UK Sport looks closely at our arguments, at the European and world landscape in our sports – and at our results in 2017.
It’s a small glimmer of light that will keep our national team programmes motivated throughout the coming year. But UK Sport’s philosophy and modus operandi is not on our side.