The funding system which has pushed the UK’s Olympic and Paralympic performances to unprecedented heights could be radically re-shaped if the British public demonstrate an appetite to invest a diminishing pot of public money across a wide range of sports rather than exclusively targeting medals at the expense of all else.
The chair of UK Sport, Dame Katherine Grainger, has revealed a national consultation will be undertaken later this year which will seek feedback on the no-compromise philosophy which has ignited the ascent from a single gold at the Atlanta Olympic Games of 1996 into the once-unthinkable heights of second place in the medals table at Rio 2016.
However, the elitist policy has received increasing criticism for cultivating a divide between the haves and have-nothings, with sports like basketball and badminton, with large participation numbers, placed in financial peril when their allocation of National Lottery-generated backing was withdrawn after it was assessed that they could not deliver high-level success.
Now those outside the bubble are to get their say via an online survey and through focus groups set to be held around the country, including within Scotland, before UK Sport’s board deliberates the findings ahead of launching their Paris 2024 plans in the autumn of 2019. And Grainger, the five-time Olympic rowing medallist who took charge of the quango last year, insists she will act if the tide of opinion demands a change of course.
“This is a really open-minded time,” said the Scot, pictured. “People genuinely want to know ‘how do you define success?’ Is it different from what we’ve done before or is it the same as we’ve always had? We want to know from the public. If it is different, then things need to shift. And then we have to talk to the government so it’s in line with their policy. But it is timely to have that debate.”
The agency, which has received calls from the Scottish Government to push for some of the lavishly-financed British high performance programmes to be relocated out of England to other parts of the UK, has shown a small but unprecedented degree of flexibility during Grainger’s brief reign, with a £2.5m pool of monies provided directly to a small group of competitors in badminton and archery, even though their governing bodies are no longer supported.
That could be a model worth extending, Grainger hinted. “Without wrecking or threatening everything we’ve all signed up to, is there some flex where money could make a difference?” she added. “We think results do inspire people – and we’ll see it here. But within that, is there any way to have more money in the system that is about building sports and supporting athletes with potential?”