UK Sport, which invests £125m a year in elite sport, has rejected appeals from basketball, water polo and four others against a decision to withdraw their funding one year into the Rio cycle for the 2016 Olympics. The decision prompted a furious response from British Swimming, which called it “a dark and sad day for British sport – and women’s sport in particular”.
The funding agency announced last month that it was pulling the £7m it had allocated basketball for the four years to the Rio Games, plus the £4.5m earmarked for women’s water polo and £4.3m for synchronised swimming, because they were no longer considered realistic medal prospects in 2016 or 2020.
The decision has sparked a wide ranging debate about the “no compromise” funding formula that requires sports to demonstrate medal-winning potential and has taken Great Britain from 36th in the medal table in Atlanta in 1996 to third in London with 65 medals.
David Sparkes, British Swimming’s chief executive, said he found the synchronised swimming decision “illogical” because the case presented to UK Sport for a duet to medal in Tokyo in 2020 was a strong one. “Where is the logic? This is about judgment calls and this is a poor judgment call,” he said.
“We’re a responsible governing body, but I have to say this is so unfair to synchronised swimming. We’ll be considering it in the next few days and I’d be amazed if we didn’t take this further.”
In the case of water polo, Sparkes said it illustrated a wider truth about the need for a different approach to funding team sports. “I have some sympathy for UK Sport. The mistake is not revisiting the strategy post-London. It will focus minds on whether this is right for British sport,” he said. “There’s a gap in the system and we can all see it.”
In some other countries such as Canada there is a specific pot of money ring-fenced to fund elite team sports, and British Swimming called on the sports minister, Helen Grant, to reconsider the system here. British Basketball’s performance chairman, Roger Moreland, also called for an overhaul of UK Sport’s “no compromise” system.
“The vigorous debate on how we fund elite sport in this country has identified a gap in the funding system, which can particularly affect team sports. Winning medals now and in the future should be celebrated, but we need to consider its impact,” he said.
“Basketball has a grassroots base bigger than any other British Olympic team sport. A funding system with nearly £350m available for elite sport cannot be working to the best of its ability, if it can leave sports like basketball behind.”
UK Sport, which will invest around £350m of exchequer and lottery funding directly in sport in the run up to Rio, said the six sports were “not yet at a level at which we could continue to fund them”. Weightlifting had £894,000 of funding reinstated, taking its total to £1.3m. But the Paralympic sports of goalball, wheelchair fencing and visually impaired football will also no longer be funded.
Blind footballers had a high media profile in the run up to the London Games and during the FA’s 150th birthday celebrations, but will now no longer receive any public money.
UK Sport’s chairman, Rod Carr, defended its funding plans. “We have got a certain pot of money and we have to spend that widely in the best interests of winning across a wide range of sports in a limited timeframe,” he said. “Given a limitless amount of money and limitless time frame, there might be different policies.”
Carr said that funding basketball until 2024 would have cost £33m. “That is an awful lot of public money with no certainty of qualification, let alone winning a medal. To invest £33m at that rate is not a good use of public money,” he said.
UK Sport’s chief executive, Liz Nicholl, said there were no plans to change the “no compromise” system, arguing that any money diverted to team sports without medal potential could impact on podium chances elsewhere.
Some critics have argued that the “no compromise” approach has created an uneven system where perceived middle-class sports like sailing and rowing receive more than £50m between them while basketball gets nothing. “The public is delighted to see British athletes on the rostrum. I don’t accept that the general public come at this from it being a class based system. If the dice falls that way, so be it. We don’t have a social indices policy,” said Carr.