Where is the Olympic spirit in British sports funding?


Bob Fromer

A story in the Daily Telegraph in the run-up to Christmas started off as follows:

"The Olympic dreams of hundreds of sportsmen and women are all but shattered after they were booted off a funding programme that guaranteed them up to £55,000 a year to meet their training costs in the run-up to the London Games....

"Up to 1,800 would-be participants are trying to pull in private sponsorship to keep their hopes alive. Some have already slipped out of their sports altogether after they were withdrawn from the World Class Performance Programme (WCPP) because they were judged to be falling below the punishing performance standards set for them.  Many more are eking a living making personal appearances and working in pubs and supermarkets while trying to find a way back to the top in time to qualify for the Games."

This is just the latest episode in what I think of as both a scandal and a sporting tragedy.

The beginning of the process took place almost two years ago when UK Sport, the agency that funds elite athletes and GB teams in preparation for the Olympics, announced that eight of Britain's 26 Olympic sports -- almost a third of the total -- were having their funding cut rather than increased in the run-up to the Games.  This has obviously crippled those sports in terms of preparation, and in some cases has led to sports or individual athletes failing to qualify for the Olympics at all.

Had baseball and softball still been Olympic sports at London 2012, the same thing would have happened to us, because UK Sport funding is all about medal prospects.  And our sports -- like table tennis, volleyball, handball and a number of others -- do not have a track record of Olympic medal success.

The finance available to fund athlete training has mushroomed in advance of the London Olympic Games, from £58.9m before the Sydney Olympics to £264m for the 2009-2013 Olympic cycle.  But increased support has brought with it inflexible demands for better performances.  UK Athletics has cut funding to numerous individuals, including heptathletes Kelly Sotherton and Louise Hazel, and now money is being taken away from a large number of other athletes in sports where funding overall has actually increased.

UK Sport has a name -- or at least a slogan -- for all this. They proudly call it their "No Compromise" investment policy, designed to "ensure that investment is targeted where it has the greatest chance of success".

If "No Compromise" means anything at all, it sounds a lot like government ministers saying they have to make "tough decisions," which usually means the poorest (not the ministers) are going to get it in the neck.

My feeling is that the British government and UK Sport has lost sight of what the Olympic Games are supposed to be all about.

A country, if it's lucky, gets to host the Olympics once in a generation.  And when that happens, it should be a celebration of sport in the host country -- a celebration in which all sports, or at least all Olympic sports, can share.

When your country hosts the Olympics, then all of your Olympic sports should get their funding increased so they have the best possible chance of doing themselves proud in front of their home supporters.  By all means give the most money to sports that have shown they can deliver medals -- but make sure all of your Olympic sports can take advantage of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.  And make sure that all of your athletes with Olympic potential have the best possible chance to achieve Olympic standards and make the Olympic team.

To me, UK Sport's focus on "only the best", driven by a government that wants to gain political capital from medal success at the London Games, is mean and short-sighted at best and borderline obscene at worst. 

It runs counter to what I think of as the Olympic spirit, and it certainly runs counter to some of the legacy aims that got London the Games in the first place.

But then, it's a policy in perfect tune with the spirit of the times, in which those that have shall get more and those that have not can get stuffed like the late-lamented seasonal turkey.

tagged under: olympics, uk sport, funding

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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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