Posted: Wed, 15 Aug 2012 12:02
No one can deny that the London 2012 Olympic Games have been a resounding success for Team GB, and Great Britain as a whole. The upsurge in support and patriotism for Team GB, and the third place in the medals table, have given us all something to shout about and celebrate.
Inevitably, we now have politicians making announcements and statements on their thoughts and plans for the future, and of course we must welcome these if they are to create the crucial sporting legacy of increased sports participation, and sustain excellence in elite performance. But there remain some underlying problems and issues that if left unchallenged, have the potential to de-rail the progress that has been made. In the UK, we have a two tier funding structure: UK Sport fund elite performance, and the Home Countries sports councils fund participation and "grass roots" sport. Yet we have seen from the London 2012 Olympics that these two are inextricably linked. The medal winning successes of our elite athletes drives participation not only in their sports, but in a range of other sports as well. Furthermore, the unique exposure of lesser known sports where medals have not been won by Team GB (volleyball, handball, basketball and wrestling for example), provides the chance for enhanced participation and performance in these sports as well.
In order to achieve the third place in the medals table, UK Sport have adopted a "no compromise" approach, where the winning of medals is an essential and targeted requirement for future funding. In the build up to London 2012, this has, to some extent, been relaxed, so that sports with minimal chance of winning medals can benefit from "host nation status" and enter teams or individuals, providing they demonstrated "credibility" to the British Olympic Association. But now that the London 2012 Olympics are over, we enter the Rio funding cycle, where the medal winners, and those who can confidently predict winning medals in Rio, are destined for more funds, whilst those who are less likely to win medals, could fall by the wayside. Of course, riding high in the medals table is important, but when reflecting on the success of London 2012, it is clear that the nation wants more than that - we want to see our athletes perform to the best of their ability, and to see Team GB competing in a range of sports, not just those where the chance of a medal is high. Furthermore, the emerging sports that have had such unique exposure during London 2012, are almost certainly those where the potential to increase participation is at its greatest. But increases in participation have to be driven by, and feed into, an elite performance structure. Cutting off funds for elite performance, simply because a team may not win an Olympic medal, seems a poor return for the investment that has been made so far.
Each sport was set a performance target for London 2012 by UK Sport. I have heard of a Performance Director who was close to tears after one of his squad won a medal, not just because of his delight for the athlete, but because he knew his sport had hit their medal target, and gone a long way to secure funding for the next four years. Surely results which are affected by the performance of a single individual, a poor decision by an umpire, or an untimely injury cannot be the best foundation for sustainable sports development and future funding?
The position with team sports is even worse (and here I must confess to being the Chair of the British Handball Association). Fund, for example, 20 swimmers, and the multitude of distances, strokes and relays offer the potential for - say - 40 medals. Fund 20 members of a team sport squad, and there is at most the chance of a single medal. The financial model makes it more sensible to fund the individual sports, yet as a nation with team sports embedded in our culture, and with the potential for huge increases in performance and participation, we must surely find a means of funding all of our sports on a sustainable basis, not just those who can offer the best medal return for every pound invested.
So my plea is not to get carried away with the success of our third position in the medals table, and assume that the existing funding structure is perfect and not open to challenge. If we are to really benefit from the success of the London 2012 Olympic Games, we must look at how best to provide sustainable funds for all sports, improving participation and supporting excellence.
Professor of Sport, University of Bedfordshire
Chair, British Handball Association