UK Sport’s funding approach under challenge

Mon 3 Jul 2017

A group of 11 Olympic and Paralympic sports that receive no funding from UK Sport, including baseball and softball, have come out in strong opposition to the quango’s approach that leaves many top British athletes with no chance of ever reaching the Olympic stage.

The group released a Manifesto to the media on 29 June titled “Every Sport Matters: A Call for a New Approach to Investment into Olympic and Paralympic Sport”, and the document asks Dame Katherine Grainger, the new Chair of UK Sport and a former Olympic gold medal rower, “to conduct an urgent, thorough review of the funding agency’s objectives for Tokyo 2020 and the Games that follow.”

The Manifesto argues that a narrow focus on winning Olympic medals, while successful in its own terms, has disenfranchised many of the country’s best sportsmen and women, creating a two-class system that runs counter to Olympic ideals.

UK Sport is the British government agency that was created in 1997 to fund and support British Olympic and Paralympic athletes and teams and to boost Great Britain’s medal tally at the Olympics.  Their approach, which the agency has termed “No Compromise”, has taken Britain to fourth position in the medals table in Beijing in 2008, third in London in 2012 and second in Rio in 2016.

But the approach has meant that while UK Sport funded 70% of British Olympic sports at London 2012 – with eight missing out even though it was a home Olympics – that figure went down to 64% in Rio and will be only 48% in Tokyo based on funding decisions made by the agency last December.

In February this year, UK Sport received formal appeals from seven sports whose funding had been removed, and it turned down every one of them.

The Manifesto issued by the unfunded sports wants to know where the policy of giving more and more money to fewer and fewer sports will end.  “At the heart of a revised purpose,” the Manifesto declares, “should be a celebration of Olympism and Paralympism as ends in themselves.”

The Manifesto has been signed by the British governing bodies of archery, badminton, baseball/softball, basketball, fencing, handball, table tennis, volleyball, weightlifting, wheelchair rugby and wrestling.

Aims and objectives​

At the heart of the Manifesto is a call for UK Sport to adopt a revised investment model that embraces every Olympic and Paralympic sport through a tiered support structure, and that gives every sport a base level of funding for athletes and for a coach, programme manager and a core competition programme.

“Currently,” the Manifesto states, “athletes in sports deprived of Lottery funding will find it almost impossible to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.  Even athletes with recognised medal potential created by Lottery funding have now been completely abandoned by the system.

“Their national governing bodies have also been deprived of funding to support British teams’ and athletes’ training programmes, sport science and sports medicine programmes and international competitions, and to represent their interests with International Federations.”

However, the Manifesto does not call for a redistribution of money from funded to unfunded sports so as not to jeopardise British medal success at future Games. 

Instead, it insists that “this new approach is readily affordable from economies within UK Sport’s existing support costs, international influence and major events programmes, and from economies within the English Institute of Sport.

“We would welcome the opportunity to work with Dame Katherine and her team,” the document states, “to assist them in identifying the cost savings that would enable the implementation of a revised system that will truly make the nation proud.”

The figures that lie behind the Manifesto suggest that providing a base level of support for all of the currently unfunded Olympic and Paralympic sports would only amount to around 4% of the current total budget controlled by UK Sport and its associated sports science organisation, the English Institute of Sport (EIS).

The Manifesto says: “We urge UK Sport to recognise that medal targets alone should not be the sole criteria for its funding, that it has a responsibility to ensure that all our Olympic and Paralympic athletes are encouraged to achieve their potential and that a system of development opportunities should be there for all of them.”

Tiered structure​

What the Manifesto sports are proposing is a new tiered structure for funding, based on Gold, Silver and Bronze categories, that would work as follows: 

  • GOLD sports to receive full investment where medal success is very likely.
  • SILVER sports to receive significant support if there is a recognised medal opportunity.
  • BRONZE sports to receive a baseline investment to enable a reasonable level of programme management, as described above.

In return, every sport will need to agree clear programme development measures and targets in return for investment.

“Providing opportunities for elite British athletes in all relevant sports to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics need not run counter to the pursuit of medals,” the Manifesto claims, “and will make the nation even prouder of Team GB’s and Para GB’s triumphs.”

Will UK Sport listen?

Many people involved in British sport believe that the Manifesto has a strong case to make, and this is not the first time that UK Sport’s “No Compromise” policy has been challenged.

In 2014, questions raised in the media and even in Parliament led the agency to conduct a consultation exercise that many felt was designed solely to produce the answer that UK Sport wanted to achieve, which was that they should continue to focus on winning Olympic and Paralympic medals.

So what are the chances that UK Sport will listen now?

There are a couple of factors that may give the Manifesto sports a chance of a fair hearing.

One is the changing of the guard at UK Sport, with Dame Katherine Grainger taking over at the top of the organisation from outgoing Chair Rod Carr, whose sports base was in yachting.  As a recent Olympic athlete, Dame Katherine may be more receptive to the concerns of high-level athletes who are currently being shut out by the system.

Another is that UK Sport has been under severe pressure recently over the part they have played in duty of care concerns that have emerged in high-level sports such as cycling, swimming, canoeing, bobsleigh and others, and the fate meted out to whistleblowers.  At this point in time, the agency might find it harder to turn a deaf ear to the unfunded sports, especially if their case resonates with the sporting media and the public.

What does this mean for baseball and softball?

Both the GB Baseball and GB Women’s Fastpitch Teams feel that on the basis of talent, they have a genuine chance of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics from Europe.  But without funding, their chances against well-resourced opponents from countries such as the Netherlands, Italy, the Czech Republic, Germany and others are certainly diminished.

Even a baseline level of funding as suggested in the Manifesto will put GB programmes on more of a level playing field and give our talented national teams a fighting chance.

More than anything else, external funding would allow the GB Men’s Baseball Team and the GB Women’s Fastpitch Team, who have players scattered around the world, to come together more often to train and compete, which would make a huge difference to performance.

You can help

Please support the campaign launched by the unfunded Olympic and Paralympic sports on Twitter (#everysportmatters), Facebook and other social media and by contacting local and national media outlets, your MP etc.

UK Sport’s current funding policy is exclusive, divisive and unfair – but there is now a chance it can be changed.

If it is, the possibility of GB Baseball and/or GB Softball making it to the Olympics will be enhanced, with attendant public profile and GB games from Tokyo televised live on the BBC.

And if that occurs, our sports in this country won’t look back.

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