UK Sport launches public consultation over funding strategy: should medals continue to be prioritised over participation?

Frank Dalleres
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Max Whitlock (right) and Britain's gymnasts show the system works, say advocates (Source: Getty)

“We cannot assume that the public don’t change what they want. We want to make sure we are on the track that the public want us to be on. It’s like voting: this is your time to use your voice.”

With those words, UK Sport chair Dame Katherine Grainger launched a consultation today that could radically change the way that their funding is allocated – and perhaps more pertinently, to what end.

The current World Class Performance Programme, which prioritises Olympic and Paralympic medals above all other outcomes, has been a huge success in increasing Team GB’s return at recent Games.

Read more: Team GB Winter Olympians are an inspiration, says UK Sport

But critics say it neglects a duty to the grassroots by starving some sports, such as basketball, which have large participation figures but a shortage of medal potential.

The public consultation, kick-started with a panel discussion featuring key industry figures such as Lord Coe, is inviting Britain to have its say on funding for the next Olympic cycle, starting in 2021. The outcome could shape sport for decades to come.

The case for no change

Fruits of the current system abound: second place in the medal table at the Rio 2016 Olympics completed a drastic turnaround from the performance nadir of the Atlanta Games 20 years earlier, when Team GB mustered just one gold and ranked 36th of the competing nations.

British athletes won more medals at this year’s Winter Games in Pyeongchang than ever before, while the Paralympians, who have long been successful, have continued to thrive.

If medals are the most important currency, the £100m of National Lottery and government funding distributed every year by UK Sport has been money well spent.

Coe, now president of athletics’ world governing body the IAAF, warned against changing the system, citing his experience both as a distance runner and a former UK Sport vice-chair.

“We have to be quite careful,” he told the panel discussion in London. “Having seen that history over that many years, it’s a system that is working. I think there are changes that you can make but you have to be very careful what you wish for.”

Lord Coe says participation should not be UK Sport's main concern (Source: Getty)

Australia have suffered a dramatic drop in performance since hosting the Olympics in 2000 – they won just half as many golds and medals at Rio as at Sydney.

Coe said Britain risked following them into an “abyss” by reconsidering its strictly medal-oriented strategy.

Gymnastics was one of Team GB’s success stories in Rio, with Max Whitlock claiming two golds, and Lord Chris Holmes, a nine-time Paralympic champion, told the panel the sport’s improvement had been a direct result of UK Sport’s carrot and stick approach.

How best to inspire participation?

The nebulous nature of sport’s capacity to inspire other to exercise looks set to be one of the debate’s key battlegrounds.

“If we reduce funding to the sports delivering medals then we reduce success on the field of play and also the inspiration that can have,” Paralympics GB director of sport Penny Briscoe told the discussion.

London 2012 organising committee chief Coe echoed that, and harked back to the official slogan of those Games, “Inspire a Generation”, saying that it did not have to mean an increase in participation.

“Yes, we want more people playing sport, but inspiring a generation is also going one better from London to Rio and from Rio to Tokyo [the next Olympics],” he said.

For Coe, it is not UK Sport’s job to drive grassroots sport.

“Participation is not the issue here,” he said. “I think there are ways of achieving what we want and ways of channelling those funds. But I don’t think that’s something you can sensibly ask UK Sport to be worrying uppermost about.”

The case for reform

A reimagined funding model is a chance to “ask ourselves: what can this system be for as well as medals?” said Chris Grant, chief executive of sport for development charity Sported.

Grant argued that a rethink could lead to more funding for sports which remain popular but are unlikley to lead to Olympic medals, such as basketball, which in turn could make Team GB more representative of the wider population.

“We have a propensity to waste talent in this country. This is a productivity challenge,” said Grant.

“Sport is very socially constructed in this country. It would put much more substance behind this inspiration story if the team looks a bit more like the nation.”

A slight drop down the medal table would be a price worth paying for a more representative Team GB and a more inclusive funding policy, said Grant, although he insisted that reform could equally have a beneficial effect on performance.

He added: “Can you imagine how good we would be if you broadened participation? I really want to attack the idea that if we revolutionise who participates in sports it means we have to come sixth or seventh. I think we can still win.”

Standard Life Team GB Men v Portugal - Basketball
British basketball receives no UK Sport funding as its medal chances are deemed too slim (Source: Getty)

The views of Coe, Holmes and Briscoe would suggest that leading administrators favour maintaining the status quo.

But, in closing, Grainger emphasised that UK Sport was not merely paying service to calls for change and was open to whatever conclusions the consultation, which is open now until 19 August and can be found at the organisation’s website, generated.

“It’s a waste of money if we are leading people to answers that we already have,” she said.

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