Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Christmas Greetings from UK Sport

It’s Christmas – the season of goodwill to all men, and indeed women, as long as the man or woman doesn’t play Basketball, Handball, or Table Tennis and isn’t a wrestler. If you’re any of them, the season of goodwill is going to pass you by courtesy of UK Sports ‘no compromise’ approach to the distribution of public money for the next Olympics.

‘No compromise’ actually means zero tolerance. Zero tolerance of failure to win medals, because all of these sports, together with indoor volleyball and men’s beach volleyball have seen their funding cut to zero as a result of their failure to contribute to our medals total and general feelgood bonhomie this summer. In contrast the sports that put a smile on our patriotic medal winning faces are getting big increases from a budget that is itself increasing by 11%.

Compared to the fate that might have awaited underperforming athletes in the Soviet era, UK sports zero tolerance response is small beer. You don’t succeed, you lose your funding, but nothing else. But it is still fairly draconian, and at odds with a mantra that it’s the taking part and not the winning that counts. Clearly winning, or at least beating the odds and exceeding expectations, is everything where funding is concerned.  

The justification for the zero budgets, given by Liz Nicholl, UK Sports chief executive, is that ‘they are not likely to medal in Rio or the Olympics beyond that. They probably won’t qualify to even be in Rio’. Well if they weren’t likely to qualify before the funding cuts, they definitely won’t do now. Cutting finding effectively turns a prediction into a self fulfilling prophecy. If you don’t have the money to prepare for the Olympics how are you going to get to Olympic standard?

An argument could be made that these sports should be given more money, not less, as they are clearly the ones in need of more development? Perhaps before simply taking away all funding there should be some detailed analysis of why their Olympic targets were missed. Was the failure to win medals down to under-performing athletes and sports people? Was it because national teams had coaching staff that failed to bring out the true potential in them? Was their failure because of their tactics and management style, or because they had to deal with sporting facilities that were always going to mean they’d face an uphill struggle? And were the medal targets they were set unrealistic from the outset? Was some other measurement of improvement between 2008 and 2012 necessary to make an adequate assessment of their success?

I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but the sports that have had their funding cut are putting forward convincing arguments to say you have to look beyond the medal count. But the targets doesn’t allow for that. The focus is only on the winning, and winning is, for the most part, defined in the narrowest sense of coming first. It may be that this is outside of UK Sports control. If the external measurement of their success is based on delivery of medals it is easy to see why they have effectively written off some sports and reduced funding of others. It’s a pragmatic way to achieve a target that is reflected simply in number of medals, not overall levels of sporting achievement and participation across a range of sports.

In defending the cuts, they have argued that the excluded sports still have grassroots funding and need to rebuild themselves. However, by taking the money away without first giving them a chance to say how they would make better use of it next time around, the task has been made that much harder. If they fail to progress in the next four years it will be used as evidence to show the ‘unlikely to win medals’ justification was correct. If they surprise everyone and make real progress it will be claimed that the UK Sports kick up the backside was what they needed to get their house in order. Nothing will show what could have been achieved with continued funding as there is no sport where this is being tested out.

Investing in them would obviously have been very risky, given the lack of medal prospects, but why give large increases to sports where we already win most of the medals? How many more medals can we gain from this investment, when there are so few that we don’t already have?

The increases to the elite sports of cycling, athletics, rowing and sailing, are probably needed to consolidate, and protect, our position, in case other countries decide to target the sports we cornered the market in when no-one else was interested, but will they do that? And if they do, will our increased spending have any say in whether or not they succeed. The evidence from Football suggests that if someone wants success really badly, they will pump inordinate amounts of cash into achieving it irrespective of what the current winners invest to preserve their position. One of the main factors that will determine the lead we have in our elite sports, will be how bothered other countries are to try and take them off us. If America or China decided to extend their dominance into cycling or rowing, we’d probably find that no amount of cash would keep our medal haul at a similar level in 2016.

Maybe we should anticipate this, and rather than pump new money, and divert old money, into these sports we should look for the next set of Olympic events that no-one is paying attention to so that we can then become trailblazers in them. Perhaps we should look at any nation that got one or two Gold’s in London, see what the Gold was in, revert to our imperialist traditions and draw up plans to take them away from them next time round.

Or maybe we should look beyond the immediate medal count, not try and pass off the cuts as something that won’t affect grass roots funding, and so is not as damaging as these sports claim it will be, and use the additional money to at least keep their funding at 2008 levels while developing more meaningful ways to decide if the money is being well spent. It’s just a thought.