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A greater prize than medals should be prime target of public funding for sport

What price those four Winter Olympic medals?

What is the real value to the nation of Lizzie Yarnold's medal in the Sochi Winter Games?
What is the real value to the nation of Lizzie Yarnold's medal in the Sochi Winter Games?

It may seem curmudgeonly but having had time to reflect, it is a question we should all be asking because, when public funds are being used, there must always be proper scrutiny of how that money is spent. At last, it seems others are beginning to ask.

The sports in question are not part of the capitalist world of English football's Premier League or Formula One. This is about spending collective funds for the greatest possible good.

When, some 15 to 20 years ago, the decision was made that it was in Britain's interests to start bidding for global multi-sports Games there should have been a proper debate with two options on the table:

l Focus spending on maximising the talent pool by broadening development programmes substantially in the hope that world-class competitors would emerge in time for those home Games;

l Or invest heavily in the best talent emerging from existing development programmes which, in many cases, revolve around tiny sporting communities, the aim being to raise the profile of sports that are unknown to the vast majority of our youngsters.

The danger of the first would have been that, without established talent identification systems, it might have been too random. The danger of the second is that it could become what is sometimes termed, rather unkindly and unpleasantly in sports circles, as an exercise in turd-polishing.

For argument's sake, let us accept that, in the rarified atmosphere of some London club back in the mid-1990s, that debate took place and the decision was made to pursue option two. That it would never have been my choice can be justified for the reasons provided above.

Even if that happened, though, the process will be completed by the end of the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, the third major event of its type to be staged in the UK in a 12-year period during which existing sporting communities have benefited from a disproportionate share of the public purse.

It is, then, time to think again. A serious nationwide conversation should be taking place about how we fund sport for the greatest good. Within the current framework, those who have benefited from financial support received over the past decade and more - and the cost of some Commonwealth and Olympic medals has been quite staggering - have had their chance to promote their sports.

As with the NHS, libraries, museums and public transport, money raised through tax must now be used to benefit the many rather than the few. We must, in that context, now assess which sports are worth investing in heavily and which are not.

The winter sports in which British competitors won medals demonstrate the issues, given their substantially different natures, demographics and potential.

Some may continue to sneer at curling but if sufficient ice facilities can be provided its mass appeal and potential are obvious. That said, it is clear from spending time among curlers that, for too long, there has been a reliance upon/provision of opportunities for (delete according to perspective) far too few since, with few exceptions, everyone seems to be related to everyone else at elite level.

The interest generated means that can now change with a healthy infusion of fresh blood and, while the Royal Caledonian Curling Club's chief executive recently admitted they bungled the marketing opportunity provided by the last Winter Olympics, he claims they have learned from that experience and are ready this time.

If curling is a sport with centuries of tradition behind it, Jenny Jones and her fellow snowboarders are among the poster boys and girls of a generation who relate to extreme sports in a way they do not when it comes to traditional sports.

By contrast we need to take a serious look at whether investing in bobsleigh, skeleton and luge can be justified, regardless of the gold medal successes of Amy Williams and, now, Lizzy Yarnold. It is telling that leading winter sports officials in Scotland were unable to tell me recently how young people can get involved in those sliding sports.

The appeal to administrators, eager to justify their own existence, is pretty clear, though. By focusing on sports that are participated in by a tiny number of countries and investing - whether on ice, water or wheels - public money in equipment that the vast majority do not have access to, it is clearly easier to acquire medals. But to what benefit for the greater good?

If a statistic unearthed recently - that people who attended fee-paying schools are seven times more likely to win Olympic medals - there really is a major question to be asked about this use of public funds.

Generating civic pride through medal success has its benefits, but the real value of bringing Commonwealth Games to Manchester and Glasgow and the Olympics to London, can only be measured in how future generations are inspired to participate in sport and therefore make our nation physically and emotionally healthier. That can only happen through investment in sports geared towards mass participation, which is why it is vital that eyes stay on the real prize.

We should be delighted for those who got to Sochi and succeeded. However, when all concerned are dependent on money gathered for the greater good, the value of gold, silver and bronze medals issued to individuals has to be a secondary consideration.

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