FOR young, ambitious athletes inspired by Britain’s successes at London 2012, the message last week was loud and clear. Don’t waste your time playing something that we’re not already good at. Don’t bother with team sports, unless they are of the posh variety. And, if you want funding, get on your bike.
They didn’t say it in so many words, but that was more or less the gist of UK Sport’s announcement that some of the world’s most widely-played sports were among those excluded altogether from their funding plans for Britain’s elite athletes in the build-up to the next Olympic Games in Rio in 2016.
While cycling, rowing, sailing and athletics were allocated a combined £114.5 million from the £347m budget, basketball and handball – which together received £11.53m ahead of London – will receive not a penny in preparation for Rio. Volleyball, which was granted £3.5m last time, has been asked to accept an 88.7 per cent cut.
It is a ruthless statement of the so-called “no compromise” approach that underpins the funding strategy. The thinking is that, with money set aside elsewhere for grassroots development, backing for elite sport should be offered only in those cases where the beneficiary is a genuine medal prospect.
As a philosophy, there is something to be said for it. While the total funding for British high-performance athletes has increased by £34m, it is not a bottomless pit.
There have to be losers as well as winners and spending on athletes who are never likely to become role models would be an odd way of raising standards at elite level.
But the inconsistency apparent in the distribution of funds is such that many are crying foul.
Basketball, volleyball and handball didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory at the 2012 Olympic Games but they are not the only ones. Archery, fencing, water polo and weightlifting also failed to deliver medals, but they are still being funded. Badminton has taken a 20.6 per cent cut after a frustrating Olympics but it is still good for £5.9m.
Basketball was granted £8.6m in the lead-up to 2012. Volleyball received £3.5m. Handball was given £3m. To now offer them nothing at all smacks of a public relations exercise designed to demonstrate Britain’s new-found intolerance of failure.
It reverses the progress made in those sports as a result of funding for London, and makes a mockery of the much-vaunted “legacy”.
Pressed on the matter last week, UK minister for sport Hugh Robertson admitted that there would no longer be backing for everything, as UK Sport felt duty bound to do ahead of London. This time, without host-nation places available, there is no guarantee that some sports will even qualify for Rio, never mind win medals.
The suspicion is that team sports do not offer enough value for money. You throw resources at a squad of players and all they come back with is one measly addition to the medal table.
By contrast, the individuals who cycle and row have opportunities in a range of different disciplines. “Basketball teams are expensive,” said Robertson. “If they have no chance of qualifying for Rio, would you want to fund them and then take the money away from a cyclist or rower who has a good chance of getting a medal?”
Point taken, but it does not follow that basketball should be abandoned on completely. To do so is nothing short of an insult. It is politics gone mad, a decision taken by people who don’t care if it is justified, only that it is seen to be justified.
The administrators are being paid to eclipse the 65 Olympic and 120 Paralympic medals won in London and they are damned sure they are going to do it, even if it is at the expense of other deserving causes.
Was it really beyond them to give at least some backing to sports in which progress is just as important?
Individual pursuits – such as cycling, rowing, fencing and weightlifting – are not more worthy just because they have more prizes to shoot at. Even if we accept that as a basic principle, the funding of elite sport should be based on ability. It should be remembered that the ultimate objective is not to count medals, but to aspire to them.
If anything, team sports can claim to be more valuable – socially and ethically – in the development of young athletes but the kind of socialism that legendary Liverpool manager Bill Shankly used to admire on and off the football field is not a feature of the Olympics.
Roger Moreland, British basketball’s performance chairman, hinted at a political context when he said that the loss of funding had dashed the hopes of a sport whose British heartland was in the inner cities. He might also have added that 37 per cent of Britain’s medal-winners in London had been privately-educated. In some quarters, there is resentment that money appears to be poured only into those sports associated with fee-paying schools.
Water polo’s continued ability to attract funding suggests that there are team sports and then there are team sports.
The British men’s team were thrashed in all five of their matches at London 2012. The women lost all six. UK Sport’s response was to give them £4.5m for Rio, a rise of 53.6 per cent. At least hockey, which has received £15m, won a medal in London.
Over-sensitive? Maybe, but there is a lack of explanation for the slap administered to basketball’s face. Sure, the British men’s team only claimed one victory in London, but they came close to pulling off a historic shock when they pushed Spain all the way, and they have made stealthy progress up the world rankings. The women’s team took France, eventual silver medallists, into overtime.
Volleyball and handball have similar tales to tell. They have made strides of late but require that little bit extra to threaten the elite. They could argue that they need the money more than cycling and rowing, which now have the profile and the expertise to get by with a little less.
UK Sport’s announcement has provoked an outcry.
Bill Baillie, head coach of the men’s handball squad, has set up an online petition demanding a separate funding system for indoor team sports.
Martine Wright, the sitting volleyball player who won the BBC’s Helen Rollason Award at the Sports Personality of the Year Awards last Sunday night, said that she was “devastated” by the news.
British Basketball, who will appeal against the decision, cannot believe that, despite an 11 per cent increase in the overall pot, their sport has emerged with nothing.
UK Sport has pledged to review the allocation if basketball can produce better results in the months ahead but it is a classic chicken-and-egg situation.
The sport might recover its funding if it improves, but it is unlikely to improve unless it recovers its funding. Without financial assistance, British Basketball will struggle to afford the insurance they need for their two NBA players, Luol Deng and Joel Freeland, to appear at next summer’s Euro Basket finals.
If the long-term plan is to stick with pedals and paddles, that’s fine, but UK Sport should remember that cycling wouldn’t be where it is now without the lottery funding that brought it back from the brink of bankruptcy.
By all means reinforce Britain’s strengths at elite level, but those who refuse to compromise are also reinforcing its weaknesses.