Katherine Grainger: Sport is an incredible teacher

Dame Katherine Grainger, chair of UK Sport, was in Dunblane to address the sportscotland High Performance Conference. Picture: Peter Devlin
Dame Katherine Grainger, chair of UK Sport, was in Dunblane to address the sportscotland High Performance Conference. Picture: Peter Devlin
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There have been setbacks before and there have been challenges. But Katherine Grainger did not earn the title of Dame or her Olympic gold medal by succumbing to those.

This is a woman who epitomises determination, oozes passion for sport and has the drive to make things happen. An inspirational figure, the five-time Olympic medallist and six-time world champion rower has taken all those qualities into her role as chair of UK Sport.

Ambitious as ever, the focus is on sport in the wider context rather than just the rhythm of the strokes, the personal goals and top place on the podium and while there could be challenging times ahead, with fears that funding will be cut with no guarantees that the government will continue to underwrite the estimated £25m annual shortfall from falling national lottery sales beyond 2020.

In Scotland to deliver a keynote speech at the sportscotland conference in Dunblane yesterday, the former elite performer spoke of her career and the two decades of benefits provided by lottery funding and the professional infrastructure and support it spawned.

“The UK always had fabulous people working in sport but they just didn’t have the infrastructure around them to help. We didn’t have the Institutes of Sport, didn’t have the national lottery funding, which is what allowed so many people to eventually fulfil that amazing potential.

“As the money came in, the ambitions grew and so did the results and, with that, comes increased expectation which was inevitable and, to be honest, brilliant. You want people to have the expectation that when they tune in and see Scottish and British athletes competing, there is a good chance they will be on the podium. That is a great inspiration to everyone. The challenge though is where next? It is not that the money buys medals, but the national lottery funding has enabled so much of this to be possible.”

Since National Lottery funding for elite sport began in 1997, British athletes have won 633 Olympic and Paralympic medals, not to mention European, World and Commonwealth success, and those performances could be one of the greatest enablers going forward, according to Grainger.

“I think the last few years, with Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games, then London 2012, Glasgow 2014 and now, with the European Championships coming back to Glasgow in 2018, there is a confidence in Scotland and in Britain that we can hold these really great events, real international events featuring top, top competition. And having it on our doorstep is something special.

“Sport is like music. I love music and films, but going to hear it and see it live, witnessing these things in the flesh, there is a different appreciation, a greater understanding. There is an incredible drama to the whole thing. Hopefully, in Glasgow, schools, families, people can have a day out and go down to Strathclyde Park or the East End of Glasgow and see these iconic sportspeople competing. I think that is really powerful. It becomes tangible to people and there is something quite magical about that and it gives people that spark of inspiration wherever that takes them.”

It can take them all the way to the top, with those hoping to follow in footsteps buoyed in tough training runs by the memory of the noise in the crowd or the hairs on the back of their neck rising to the occasion. It is a potent motivation, says the Scot.

“Legacy is always the hardest thing to measure because, for me, the most powerful aspect of it almost can’t be measured because it is a feeling. It is an attitude, it is inspiration and aspiration and I have gone into schools, clubs, charities and various organisations and it is not just sport based. Yes, sport has been transformed in the past 20 years, but it is also incredible because it seems the door has suddenly been opened for every young person, or every person of any age, to feel that people from Scotland, the UK as a whole, can actually be at the top of the world at something. That creates an emotional reaction and ambition in people that can spread in lots of different ways and 
that is why it is almost impossible to measure what that effect is.”

That wider impact of sport is something Grainger hopes people will eventually come to appreciate, with a ripple effect that benefits the health service, education, police, industry and hones a positive, tougher, more resilient and respectful society. “If you work within sport you see the reach it has. There are so many problems facing young people and society at the moment, whether physical well-being, mental health or the need to find a purpose to life, and while sport won’t solve all the problems because no one thing will, there is so much research that shows that just taking part in sport, in exercise, and not even with ambitions to take it to the top level but maybe just being part of a team and having a responsibility to others, helps.

“You have the confidence to try things and, yes, make mistakes and get disappointed, but then get back up and try again. Just doing some level of activity helps you in class and makes you perform better education-wise, it gives you confidence as a person and opens doors. A lot of young people can feel isolated but sport helps with that. So there is a lot of not obvious but direct consequences.

“When you are in it you take all of that for granted because you experience it and see it all the time. Sport is an incredible teacher. You learn life lessons. I was an international level athlete for 20 years and I was still learning right up to the end. There can be a frustration that it is not always obvious to everyone.”