UK SPORT yesterday claimed that a "fantastic 2011 shows British sport on track for success in 2012", and presented statistics to back its assertion that 2011 has been more successful for British sport than the pre-Beijing Olympic year of 2007.
They cite 44 world championship medals won this year across all Olympic disciplines, plus 73 global medals in Paralympic ones.
In 2007, UK competitors won 42 world medals in Olympic disciplines. Changes in their calendars made impossible similar comparison for Paralympians, but UKS assures us that Paralympic sport is “very much on track for success in 2012”.
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This data coincides with their World Class Performance Conference which concludes today at ExCel, in London’s Docklands. It will host more Olympic and Paralympic events than any other venue: boxing, fencing, judo, table tennis, taekwondo, weightlifting, wrestling, and Paralympic table tennis, judo, powerlifting, volleyball, boccia, and fencing.
More than 250 Olympic and Paralympic performance directors and coaches are assembled for the last time before next year’s Games, and UKS delivered compelling spin to suggest that their system is producing outstanding results.
Of 26 Olympic disciplines, 16 have matched or surpassed this year’s UKS targets. The 27th, sailing, is odds-on to do so at next month’s world championships. In the 17 relevant Paralympic disciplines, only two have failed to measure up. Yet there are serious question marks over whether Britain gets value for money in the multimillion-pound elite performance industry.
In the four years of the London Olympiad, UKS funding has risen to more than £100m a year. For the four years prior to Sydney they channelled £59m to British sport; £70m in the four years to Athens; and £235m in the next four, up to Beijing. Even acknowledging that Sydney and Athens figures include podium funding only (as home nation sports councils backed development and talent) elite funding is at mind-blowing levels.
Sport is a business for those at UKS, and certainly for most of next year’s Olympic medal contenders, so on the basis of return on investment, we should be looking for at least four times as many medals in London than Britain won in Sydney. It’s not going to happen.
This is not to criticise or downplay the role of UKS, whose professional approach, bankrolled by the lottery, we ardently support.
However, UKS is audited on the basis of Olympic and world championships results. On that basis, they do what it says on the locker-room wall. Winning is everything. But that message is not just questionable. It’s wrong.
It’s imposed by government, who ignore the integrated approach which would underpin appropriate links between elite performance and promotion of grass-roots participation -- key to a healthier nation, attacking obesity, drugs, vandalism, and a raft of social issues, to promote exercise and reduce NHS bills. This failure to link elite funding to lifestyle is government negligence.
Only with that in place can Britain hope to reap the required financial dividend for this massive investment. If they don’t get this right when hosting the Olympics, they have missed the boat forever. In Scotland, this is mirrored by a national agency -- sportscotland -- obsessed with elite performance at the expense of the mass-participation targets it purports to support, and which are the real key to unlocking social change.
The Commonwealth Games and Olympics can help do that, but not by the Treasury giving sport what sometimes seems like a blank cheque: “Show us the medals and we’ll show you the money” is their mantra. It is simplistic and will fail to deliver sport’s true potential.
Scratch beneath UKS figures, and it’s disturbing. Fourteen of next year’s Olympic disciplines garnered not one global medal between them. They are receiving £54.89m between them over the four-year term.
Paralympic sport is far more cost-effective. One wonders, given the UKS obsession with results (ie medals) why they do not better fund Paralympic sport. Only four Paralympic disciplines failed to medal. They are receiving only £2.88m over the current four years. Olympic sport is receiving £235m over this Olympiad, Paralympic sport just £48m -- 42 medals to 73 this year, remember. It smacks, almost, of discrimination.
The figures, incidentally, are UK Sport’s own. They just choose not to present them as I have done. Maybe more disturbing is the irrefutable evidence that all this funding -- and the sports science, medicine, nutrition, biomechanics, strength and conditioning and raft of professionals it bankrolls -- has driven standards down, not up.
The one-size-fits-all approach does not work, however much UKS points to success in technical events such as cycling, rowing and sailing.
Take athletics, where events remain constant and measurable, effectively unchanged by technology. Before British athletics enjoyed Lottery support and there were four UK teams in the world cross-country, back in 1987, serious endurance mass participation prevailed across the UK.
Five Brits ran inside 1:46 for 800m in 1987, and 10th fastest was 1:46.38. This year just three men were inside 1:46 and 10th was 1:48.38. In 1987, six men were under 3:36 at 1500m and 10th was 3:39.72. This year not one man broke 3:36 and 10th was 3:41.36. A total of 29 people ran under 13:50 for 5000m in 1987, but just 14 did so this year. At 10k, there were 30 sub-29:40 in 1987, but just 15 this year. Eighth-fastest Brit in the marathon this year was 2:18.26. Back in 1987 there were 29 men that fast.
So don’t be deluded by arguments for elite sport investment promoting health. And don’t be surprised when the Olympics fail to deliver the health and social legacy the nation hoped for.