Yet the pursuit of the solution to this eternal conundrum will, Katherine Grainger knows, frame her term as chair of UK Sport with the high-performance agency’s raison d’etre under almost-constant debate, especially as the prospect of deep cuts to a budget that has generated unprecedented levels of Olympic and Paralympic success loom over the horizon.
Back in Edinburgh yesterday, where she completed the first of her three degrees and where her parents still live, the Dame conceded the initial three months of her reign have focused on listening rather than finessing her personal vision for the role.
“You have speak to enough people,” she said. “I knew it would have the political part and the public part. But it’s still mainly about sport.”
Grainger’s first agenda item was to meet with the group of 11 sports who have protested over their omission from the £345 million-worth of funds, provided by the National Lottery and the Treasury, made available up to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The mantra for so long has been no compromise on the idea of funnelling cash towards those with the best odds of reaching the podium. Its numerous critics argue that all should get some rather than some getting all – and ask how can sports improve without the funding in the first place?
“You can’t start pulling money away from sports who have planned up to 2020,” Grainger said. “But what was great – and they were in the room with myself and [UK Sport chief executive] Liz Nicholl – was that we all know what the problem is.
“We all know there’s not enough money to go round at the moment. It’s more difficult now even than in the past. What is the situation now? What would make a difference to the sport? Where might that be possible?”
Even though a sporting career that brought five Olympic medals, including gold at London 2012, appears an endorsement of the philosophy, Grainger has lent the critics a sympathetic ear. Short term, a few crumbs of comfort might be found, she hinted.
After Tokyo – when it is widely expected that UK Sport’s pot will shrink due to falls in Lottery revenues and the end of a guaranteed level of additional backing from the Treasury – more radical shifts might arise to bridge the chasm between the haves and have-nothings and break the cycle of failure which those affected decry.
“What sports have said is the hardest thing is, ‘if we’ve gone from some funding to none, or they’ve never had funding, so how do we start again towards success? How do we prove ourselves and get the success that encourages funding? How do you get over the first bit?
“It does cost – whether it’s paying for coaches or equipment or travel. It costs to be involved in sport. But there is not the assumption – which I think is right – that there is money for everyone and it should all be the same.”
However, the inequalities are not limited to the figures on the cheque. The proportion of privately-educated Olympians still exceeds the societal average. Rowing and sailing, first and third on the list of sports in terms of investment received, are still a million miles from the mainstream and held up by those who accuse UK Sport of perpetuating elitism ahead of populism while neglecting the grassroots.
“Realistically, we need to fund both ends and we do,” Grainger underlined. And the returns on each, she argued, may not be so linear as they appear.
“Young people can be inspired by the Olympics and Paralympics to go and be great architects or writers or go into industry or be entrepreneurs. They won’t necessarily all become Olympic athletes. That’s why the inspiration is much wider. It’s much more complicated than saying: ‘you watched that event, you will become that person next’.”