Has the sport sector’s obsession with the podium become unhealthy?

Updated: Nov 16, 2018

In this blog, Jack Waddingham, Marketing Manager at Sport:80 discusses if the sport sector’s medal obsession has become unhealthy and whether the quest for gold is actually detrimental to the sector as a whole.

The dust is starting to settle following UK Sport’s decision to withdraw funding for seven Olympic and Paralympic sports; a decision which now threatens the existence of the sport’s elite programmes. The widespread outcry from the announcement has brought UK Sport’s funding rationale in to contention, questioning whether the quest for podium places is actually beneficial to the sport sector as a whole.

If you’re not familiar with how UK Sport allocates funding to National Governing Bodies of Sport (NGBs), their decision is almost exclusively based on how athletes perform at the highest level. UK Sport’s mantra is that success at the Olympic and Paralympic Games plays a significant role in inspiring the nation to participate in sport, therefore justifying the use of public money (whether there is evidence to back this up is something we’ll get to a little later). The ‘success’ of a sport is then measured on its medal haul and those with a bigger pile of bronze, silver and gold are deemed to be more worthy of funding than others.

photo credit: UK sport

If you take a look at the funding figures it’s clear to see which sports are considered to be the most successful. Just shy of £345.3m was allocated to 24 Olympic and Paralympic programmes, around 78% (£271.75m) of which was dedicated to just 11 sports. These included Athletics, Rowing, Cycling, Swimming, Sailing, Canoeing, Equestrian sport, Hockey, Gymnastics, Boxing and Triathlon. The other 13 sports then received a share of the remaining £76m or so, with the lowest single amount of funding received being £668k and the highest, £9m.

So winning medals is the most important factor when it comes to a sport receiving elite funding, but surely there has to be a more progressive approach for all of those sports that sit outside the big 10 or 11? Support that gives them the opportunity to reach the level where they are deemed to be ‘successful’?

This is where UK Sport’s decision has become a very contentious issue. If you were to talk to any of the NGBs that had their funding cut, they’d tell you that they had met the targets set by UK Sport. One of the unlucky sports, Badminton, became the focal point of this argument as they actually exceeded expectations by picking up a medal at the Rio Games. Regardless of this feat, Badminton England (alongside British Fencing, Table Tennis England, British Weight Lifting, Archery GB, Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby and Goalball UK) received the news that no funding would be made available to support their elite programmes for the next four years.

Upon hearing the news, each NGB released statements expressing their shock and the intention to challenge the decision. Seven appeals were filed and each sport was given a short amount of time to argue their case in front of UK Sport. All seven appeals were rejected, leaving an elite funding shortfall that amounted to millions of pounds for most of the NGBs. The likeliness is that these sports will now follow in the footsteps of Synchronised Swimming, Water Polo, Handball and Wheelchair Fencing; all of which were on the sharp end of cuts in previous funding cycles and now struggle to maintain their elite level programmes.

So is it right that UK Sport just backs the strongest runners?

Let’s be honest, funding allocation can’t be an easy task, particularly in a climate of widespread budget cuts to the public sector and the continued expectation to deliver podium places. So you might forgive UK Sport for ploughing money in to the sports which are most likely to return with medals around their necks. Having said that, there’s a very good argument that the sports who received the lion’s share of funding should actually be in a position where they don’t need it.

Ironically the NGBs deemed to be the most successful are probably best placed to deal with funding cuts. The majority have huge accessible markets, equally big membership and event revenues, as well as lucrative commercial partnerships and elite athletes with sponsorship deals. If the Government, Sport England and UK Sport are truly looking to guide NGBs to the ultimate goal of self-sufficiency (a message readily plastered across its strategies), then those with the money in the bank should be their first targets. To me it seems counter-intuitive to continue ploughing more and more money in to these NGBs in an attempt to guarantee medals, and doing so at the expense of other sports.

The inspirational effect of Olympic success is also coming under serious scrutiny. There are many in the sport sector that argue against the belief that athletes winning medals at the Olympic and Paralympic Games increases levels of participation in sport across our country. The ‘many’ includes one of Paralympics GB’s most decorated athletes, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson. Talking as part of a panel at a Pro Bono Economic debate at London’s Royal Institute, Baroness Thompson said:

“In the UK we like to think we are a nation that loves sport but perhaps we are more of a nation who loves watching sport. We know there is a disconnect between elite sport and participation. Currently inactivity costs the nation £20bn a year so this is not something we can keep putting off. Unless we look more creatively about how we engage everyone in physical activity, we may win medals but we will be bottom of the league table on health and wellbeing.”

This sentiment was backed up by a recent YouGov study that found only 7% of respondents said they had been inspired to take up sport by the Olympic Games. Add this to the steady decline in participation reported as part of the annual Active People Survey and it’s hard to find yourself jumping on the ‘Olympic success’ band wagon.

It’s not unreasonable to argue that the obsession with the podium is actually becoming unhealthy for our country and our sport sector. We are already seeing it segregate the sector whereby the bigger NGBs continue to prosper and everyone below just manages to keep their heads above water. With funding being exclusive to what are considered as the ‘successful’ sports, there will undoubtedly be a knock-on effect to the NGBs not deemed worthy. A lack of resource will result in NGBs being unable to present more opportunities to get involved in, and excel (as in reach the highest level) in the diverse range of sports enjoyed across our country.

The pressure to guarantee medals is also exposing a really negative side of sport with NGBs being embroiled in scandals that involve sexism, bullying and suspected doping. All of this is taking place against a backdrop whereby NGBs in the UK are being told to become more professional, transparent and self-sufficient, yet the processes in places seem to contradict this. You could even argue that they go as far to create a ‘win or die’ atmosphere which sees governing bodies of sport compete against each other for funding. If those in charge of the strategies and the handing out of public money are serious about a sustainable sport sector, then maybe it’s time to reform the structures in place to align them with this aim.

There’s no hiding from the fact that one day in the not too distant future, the amount of public money available to the sport sector will be a fraction of what it currently is. If the Government’s ultimate goal is for a self-funding and sustainable sport sector, then maybe Olympic and Paralympic success has to take a back seat for the time being. There are many examples of self-sufficient and successful UK NGBs that operate outside of the Olympic banner and have never received public money. These organisations stand as evidence to all publicly-funded NGBs that it can be done and how they have the potential to follow suit.

With everyone seemingly acknowledging that the stream of public money will eventually dry up, perhaps it’s time for the Government, Sport England and UK Sport to approach the sustainability of each NGB on a case by case basis. Carry out detailed audits on their activities and use this data to establish viable timelines to transition them to a point at which funding is cut-off. I think everyone would be surprised at how this transparency and the realisation of losing the safety net (usually something NGBs only experience once it’s too late) would focus minds. Start with the bigger NGBs that are best placed to tackle the inevitable, and then systematically approach each sport, providing the required level of support and resource to guide them to the ultimate goal of self-sustainability.

This approach may seem a little radical to some, but I have no doubt that it would transform the governance of sport in our country. It would mean that NGBs have a business-critical reliance on growing participation and quality engagement with the people that are involved in their sport. Becoming successful at this will have knock-on effects to both NGBs in terms of sustainability and the pool of talent that it has available at the elite level. You only have to look at National Governing Bodies in the United States to see how a self-funding sport sector can be successful.

While sporting success on the world stage goes some way to unify our nation, and we love to watch athletes push the boundaries of what we believe is possible, surely the sustainability of the sport sector has to be the number one priority. I think it’s important to remember that people aren’t going to fall out of love with sport and stop being physically active if we don’t come back from the 2020 Tokyo Games with a huge medal haul. Nor will millions of the considered ‘inactive’ population suddenly be inspired to take up Pole Vault if they see a member of Team GB win gold on the TV.

The sport sector’s medal obsession does however potentially put the position of our NGBs at risk, and as a direct consequence, the public sector’s control over the governance of sport. The elite funding cuts are already having a widespread effect on the way NGBs operate, and without the required support and succession planning many could cease to exist. If this does happen a very big decision will have to be made as to whether the governance of sport remains in the public sector or is handed over to the highest bidder. I just hope that those in charge make profound and positive changes before we get to this point.