Elite sport — sport for the elite

Olympic funding bucks the populist trend

History will surely look back on 2016 as the year the people kicked back against the elites. Politics on either side of the Atlantic was turned on its head as the average Joe stuck it to the man at the ballot box, albeit led by millionaires and billionaires.

Politics is one thing, sport, it appears, is something completely different.

Pic: BBC website

The latest round of UK Sport funding decisions have entrenched the position that in fact Olympic sport, or at least what we as lottery players and tax payers will support, is still very much elite — and not in a good way.

As someone who long ago declared the UK Sport Emperor was naked, even I was surprised by the brazen way in which the Emperor chose to flaunt their nudity, basically daring us to notice.

At this point, those who know me, or scanned my biog, will probably say ‘ah, this will be a rant about the lack of funding for Great Britain’s basketball teams’.

Well if that’s what you came for, sorry, but actually, it’s not.

Allow me, dear readers, to let you into my grubby little secret: If I was in charge of UK Sport and I had to work under the current rules, I wouldn’t fund basketball either. Not now — and if I’m honest — probably not ever.

Team sports? Well they’re just so expensive for such a small reward with only one medal per gender. And a globally popular team sport like basketball? Are you serious? Can you imagine how much money France have invested in their men’s national basketball team for their two silvers in 1948 and 2000? And when it comes to basketball, we are not France.

VFM people, VFM. If I had £350 million to buy medals I could waste it all on basketball and still not get even one, certainly not by Tokyo 2020.

Ahh the old ‘team sport is too expensive and difficult argument eh, Daniel? C’mon you know that’s not true, what about field hockey?’.

True, hockey is a team sport that UK Sport has invested in and who can forget the glory of Maddie Hinch saving penalty after penalty as GB roared to gold in Rio?

But hockey was also funded to the tune of about £50m over three cycles before they finally managed a medal in London, no other team sport has been afforded such leeway.

UK Sport don’t publish that on their website, because funding was done differently for hockey prior to 2006, which is convenient in the current climate.

Oh and, let’s be honest, hockey is not exactly a huge global sport, there is less competition than pretty much any of the other Olympic team sports. Certainly if you are looking at value for money in team sports, hockey gives you the best shot at it in this country.

In the Rio cycle hockey was funded £16m for a target of 1–2 medals. The men spectacularly failed, finishing fifth in a six team group and not making it out of the pool stages, but the women’s gold meant the target was met.

Now you might think a target of 1–2 suggests the men were expected to get somewhere vaguely close to a medal, so it’s on the low end of meeting the target, but hockey funding went up to £18m in the Tokyo cycle.

Compare that to badminton, who got £5.7m for a target of 0–1 medals in Rio — a target which suggests ‘you know what, we probably won’t, but if the stars align, just mabye’. Marcus Ellis and Chris Langridge managed to align the stars for bronze, so badminton was on the high end of meeting their target.

Their reward? £0. A complete funding cut. Even to someone who has oft cursed ‘those bloody lines’ and the cost to basketball of the badminton market, that is amazingly harsh.

So what have we learnt? Maybe that actually the targets don’t really matter at all. Yes it would be nice, but if they mattered then why has badminton been cut and hockey increased?

As a numbers in boxes guy I know a thing or two about targets. Often we misuse them, or focus on the wrong things to try and achieve them. But, when someone meets their target, they expect praise or reward, not a pat on the head and an ‘oh by the way, you’re not getting a penny’.

So maybe it’s nothing to do with the funding you receive, it’s about what UK Sport thinks you might do with the next round of funding? One assumes they felt that badminton’s success couldn’t be replicated in 2020, so why bother? The stars are unlikely to align twice, right?

But hockey…surely the women have a great shot at winning again and maybe the men won’t be so poor next time?

If the targets mattered badminton would have got at least some funding wouldn’t they?

But if previous targets don’t matter, then we’re just guessing about the future right? Guessing badminton won’t, guessing hockey will. Well informed guessing for sure, but guessing nonetheless.

Hey, who cares right? As long as we come back from Japan with a fist full of medals, isn’t that all that truly matters? Well if you did happened to scan my biog at the start, you will have noticed I list school governor as one of the things I felt worthy of a mention. As it happens I’m the Chair of Governors at my local infant school.

It’s a great privilege to help support the people who are educating the children in my local community. But we’re not just educating them; we’re helping them to develop and understand. We’re giving them opportunities to grow.

Sure externally we’re judged on how well they can read and write when they leave us, but if that is all they can do when they leave us then, in my view, we have spectacularly failed.

‘So what?’ you may ask. What does any of that have to do sports funding?

Imagine I was not just Chair, but the Overlord of the school — in total control. If I felt my very existence for being was to get an ever higher pass rate in Key Stage 1 tests, I might force the teachers to focus entirely on that.

I could set targets and any teacher not getting enough kids through the tests I could sack. Maybe if I could control the intake, I’d only want kids from the most affluent corners of our catchment, as they have probably had the better start in life when it comes to reading and writing. They’d be easier to get up to standard (and beyond) than the children who had little or no exposure to books or language before starting school.

I wouldn’t waste my time on science or sport, well-being or nurture; just reading and writing all day, every day. I could top every league table; none of those other schools with their broad curricula could stop me.

Man, this Overlord stuff is intoxicating!

But you can see the futility of that, right? It’s a perverse incentive of what seems like a reasonable target, simply wanting more of our kids to read and write to a better standard by the age of 7.

The kids would probably hate it, the teachers, I can assure you, would certainly hate it. The parents, well some of them probably wouldn’t mind, there’s always a mix, but in the main they’d want their children to experience and do more than just reading and writing.

Now re-read this section and replace me for UK Sport and this is how we got here.

Of course the one place where my analogy doesn’t stack up is we all need to read and write, these are important life skills. But what if the target of my maniacal focus was playing the oboe or learning Latin?

There is nothing inherently wrong with the oboe or Latin, both are fine skills to have, but not many of us have access to or a desire to learn them. We might just prefer to read or do science or something a bit more mainstream.

I bet I could get to the top of the oboe and Latin league tables faster than reading and writing, because everyone is trying to teach reading and writing — how many are doing the oboe at age 5?

In its funding decisions, UK Sport is teaching the oboe and ignoring reading because, well everyone else is trying to be good at reading too, so it’s harder to be the best.

The day before the UK Sport announcement, Sport England published its latest APS participation data. The juxtaposition is stark. Aside from the sports that are bloated by recreational participation — athletics, swimming and cycling — we simply don’t play the sports we win medals at.

More people in this country do snow sports than rowing, our highest funded sport. More people in England go to St James’ Park every week to watch Championship football than go sailing, but we’re not giving £26m to Geordie football fans.

Yet people play badminton, it’s the sixth most popular sport in the country with nearly half a million of us whacking a shuttlecock every week.

What has happened to badminton takes the legs out from under any semblance of an argument that UK Sport’s role is anything other than buying medals.

It is a race to a golden bottom, in which participation is completely and utterly irrelevant. And what of inspiration? C’mon now, three months after they ‘inspired a generation’ to play badminton you basically tell the medallists to do one?

The beauty of sport is that it is the ultimate meritocracy, if you are good enough you will succeed, but our funding of it, as Nick Humby, the erstwhile Chair of the British Basketball Federation points out, is not.

He is no basketball lifer, he spent a year in the game, his previous roles were at the likes of the Lawn Tennis Association and Manchester United. And yet he has seen enough to tweet that funding of sport in the UK is not even vaguely meritocratic.

We are essentially funding sports only affluent white people do. Is it a surprise that our Olympians are disproportionately private school educated? No. Where else can you get exposure to the sports we fund?

And yet affluent white people make up a relatively small proportion of our society, why are we so happy to give them an extra advantage? Could it be because affluent white people are making the decisions? If you learnt the oboe and Latin at school, wouldn’t you think being good at the oboe and speaking Latin was a good thing?

I dunno, maybe that’s too obvious, too cynical, but it’s open to that perception, isn’t it?

Yeah, but it’s only winning medals though, it’s not the end of the world is it? We want to win medals, so why not put our focus and considerable investment where it’s easier to win them? Makes sense doesn’t it?

Of course it does, but the elephant in the room is health and social care. We have far too many inactive kids and adults. The pressures on our health service and our social care system brought about by sedentary people and poor lifestyle choices is huge and getting bigger every year.

Sport offers us a chance to, forgive the pun, kick some of those pressures into the long grass. If we can get our kids and our adults active, they will cost us as a country less in the long run.

I mean just ignore the benefits sport teaches kids (teamwork, work ethic, all that good stuff) for a second. And ignore the positive life outcomes it can give to our poorest and most disadvantaged, it also helps keep us all healthy and potentially out of the waiting room.

So spending a third of a billion pounds every four years on inspiring a nation to watch their TV to see people doing stuff they have no access to seems a somewhat futile exercise doesn’t it?

I mean what is the point of winning medals if not to get people to replicate it? A little national pride only lasts so long. And if the only people who can replicate it are the same small group already doing it, have you really achieved anything beyond that fleeting moment of national happiness?

Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend the same money on stuff people can actually replicate, even if it meant we finish sixth in the medals table? Wouldn’t the potential societal benefits offset the ‘disappointment’ of ‘only’ winning 40 medals? Wouldn’t opening up Olympic sport to more people be worth a few less medals? Wouldn’t it?

Call me crazy, but I’d rather give a few more million to badminton — and anyone who knows me knows how much it pains me to say that — even if they can’t quite align the stars again for a medal, but if post-Tokyo they made a few more kids and adults think to pick up a racket (just preferably not on perfectly functional basketball courts).

When I started writing about funding of sport in this country post London 2012, I did so because I felt our funding of Olympic sport was elitist and that ‘no compromise’ would lead to a narrower and narrower focus on more inaccessible sports at the expense of those we as a nation play.

I petitioned Government to try and change things, not because I thought it would work, but because my alternative was to do nothing.

Badminton is just the latest example of that spiral away from the games we play and towards medals at all cost. Is this who we are? More oboe, less reading? Elite sport being sport for the elite?