It is a journey that has taken Great Britain’s Olympians from 36th to third over 16 rollercoaster years. Amid tears and triumph the so-called “no compromise” system that has remorselessly funnelled hundreds of millions of pounds into our best medal hopes has changed the British sporting psyche.
Where we once celebrated plucky losers or gloried in one-off victories against the odds, we now luxuriate in mounds of precious metal delivered via an emotion-free, highly analytical funding model.
But on the day when the elite funding agency UK Sport will announce the results of appeals by seven sports that have had their funding withdrawn – basketball, synchronised swimming, water polo and weightlifting, blind football, goalball and wheelchair fencing – and peers in the Lords will debate the Olympic legacy, some are wondering whether we have lost something along the way.
And those who minted the model that has resulted in an unprecedented run of sporting success are wondering, with equal validity, whether we have forgotten how far we have come.
“UK Sport’s ‘no compromise’ approach to funding has been a key part of helping established high-performance sports to do better in terms of securing medals in major competitions,” said Lord Harris, who chaired a Lords committee on the Olympic legacy and will lead Wednesday’s debate.
“However, too strict an adherence to this approach will develop a growing gap between the sports which already do well and those which have little realistic prospect of developing in the next few years. Unless it is moderated, this approach will fail to foster the long-term development of sports from grassroots level up.”
The story of Britain’s rise from the lows of Atlanta in 1996 to the highs of Beijing and then London, boosted by a step change in the amount of public funding poured into our most successful sports, has been well told.
After John Major introduced Lottery funding, investment went from £59m in Sydney to £70m for Athens four years later before a huge increase when London won the right to host the Games. A desire not to be embarrassed at our own party preceded a jump to £235m for the Beijing cycle and £264m for London. Amid the gold fever a further rise to £272m for Rio was rubber-stamped.
Peter Keen, who set British Cycling on the path to success before doing the same for UK Sport, and Baroness Campbell, then UK Sport chair, promised the government they would deliver 65 medals in return for the unprecedented investment – and promptly did so, including 29 golds.
“What we got out of London was an idea of how to come at this quite systematically and build a portfolio of sports so that in any given year some would do well and some will underperform but that as a nation we can hold our place,” says Keen, now director of sport at Loughborough University. “To expect UK Sport to do anything else would be very odd.”
The standards are tough: prove you have a genuine chance of a medal in the next two Games and maintain a series of annual performance targets or have your funding withdrawn.
But the debate that has coalesced around basketball in particular has focused on whether it is now time to take a more rounded approach, to introduce some shades of grey into a black or white philosophy. Should medals be the only metric for apportioning public funding to elite sport?
Can it be right that a sport such as basketball, so popular in inner cities and in schools, with so much potential in legacy terms, can have its elite funding cut from almost £9m to nothing within a year? Or that water polo could earn an enhanced funding package before having it withdrawn completely after finishing 13th rather than 12th in the world championships because there were no play-offs?
Should a sport like cycling, in which competition is drawn from a handful of nations, be considered on the same basis as one like table tennis, where there is a production line of Asian talent standing in the way of a medal?
Liz Nicholl, the UK Sport chief executive, has stood firm. She feels critics are forgetting the other half of the equation – £300m a year of public cash poured into grassroots sport by Sport England. UK Sport is doing its job, she argues, and it is up to governing bodies to get themselves to a position where they can challenge for medals.
“Do we, as a nation, value the drive to deliver more medals in Rio? If we do, you have to invest what we’ve got in that. Once you start to take a broader approach and start to invest in sports that are a long way off medal potential, you reduce the amount for those that do have medal potential. That would be a compromise and we have a no-compromise approach,” she said.
Others point to Australia, where success is so closely entwined with the national pysche. Five years ago a government review suggested too much money was going into Olympic sport and more should diverted to team sports and the grassroots. A more modest top 10 medal table finish should be ample, it said.
But following relative underachievement in London, there is a huge desire to focus again on winning medals and an arms race has begun anew, with Australia attempting to reverse the brain drain of coaches to Britain and elsewhere.
Keen believes that to unpick the model that has transformed British sport in a generation would be “dangerous”. “If you don’t have something that is a merit system with a clear ambition to be the best, I think you’re really going to struggle in elite sport. You can’t have your cake and eat it,” he says.
“We can’t say we want to win things and we want to have a culture of aspiring to be the best and at the same time, in effect, reward something that isn’t. My fear at the moment is that we’ll end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater if we’re not careful.”
While there was a one off policy decision to fund every sport in London so a full team could be entered, Keen argues that it’s right to focus limited resources where they are most likely to bring home medals – even if that results in a lumpy landscape where “sitting down sports” like rowing and cycling get more than £30m each while basketball gets nothing. “What I don’t think anybody should be doing with public funds is just paying for people to tour abroad and compete. There’s got to be some direction of travel, some intention to succeed,” he says. “If that isn’t ultimately trying to be the best in the world it gets very vague about what you’re trying to achieve. That’s the lesson, however unpleasant and challenging it’s been culturally.”
But the mindset that Keen engendered has become a mantra at UK Sport’s central London offices and some fear it is working against the wider interests of British sport.
Keen says it is “mythology” that team sports are disadvantaged by the UK Sport approach. But he does accept his successor, Simon Timson, may have to wrestle with the inconsistency of funding sports for a four-year cycle and then reviewing their award in its entirety every year. If a stick is needed alongside the carrot, perhaps a more long-term metric is also required.
It is that “all or nothing” approach that has led to basketball going from almost £9m in funding to nothing. One solution, already being talked about by some in Whitehall, may be to follow the Canadian model where a modest fund exists specifically for team sports to continue to be able to operate elite squads.
Keen admits: “There are some genuine questions about whether this work is joined up enough. If there are sports that are falling between the cracks and where good work is going unrewarded, or great opportunities are missed from an investment point of view, that can’t be right.” The problem is one of focus. UK Sport is measured by how many medals it will deliver and has been tasked with the hugely challenging goal of matching the London haul in Rio. Sport England, meanwhile, is mainly focused on the oft-criticised Active People survey and battling to deliver an uplift in grassroots participation in return for its £300m annual investment.
The aspiring young athletes on the so-called “performance pathway” and those competing in sports where there is unlikely to be a medal challenge for the next eight years have become the squeezed middle. It is perhaps time for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the governing bodies themselves to work out how to bridge that gap.
In the meantime UK Sport must solve the riddle of how to maintain its medal-winning drive while softening its rhetoric and acknowledging that some sports are more equal than others when it comes to their wider benefit to society.