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Teams only count for one medal . . . not enough for UK Sport's administrators

IF the director of commercial and communications at UK Sport was promoting Real Madrid, their famously elegant strip might look like the gaudiest of Christmas cakes with 225 gold stars on a plain white backdrop.

Ice hockey golds, if counted individually, would have given Canada top spot in the medals table at the Sochi Winter Olympics. Picture: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Ice hockey golds, if counted individually, would have given Canada top spot in the medals table at the Sochi Winter Olympics. Picture: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

That, by logical extension, is the conclusion to be drawn from Vanessa Wilson's latest attempt to present things in a way that suggests her organisation is spending money wisely when it comes to supporting elite sport in this country.

Regular readers may recall that, in this space last week, I examined Wilson's contention that UK Sport has created a "high performance system that is the envy of the world" and responded by saying that they do not even seem to understand team sport.

In doing so I pointed out that UK Sport and our other sporting policy makers such as sportscotland and Commonwealth Games Scotland are selecting what they see as relatively easy targets for medal accrual while failing to offer proper backing to those sports that have mass appeal and, by definition, the widest reach in terms of involving youngsters in sport.

Furthermore I noted that, even in doing so, they were failing, since they sent 57 competitors to the Sochi Winter Olympics who won a grand total of four medals as opposed to the 24 that were brought back to the Netherlands by the 41 competitors they sent.

Wilson's first reaction to that was what some would term typical spin in terms of seeking to exaggerate what success was achieved.

"I think any debate around sport and sport funding can only be a good thing. However, I will take this opportunity to point out that for the four medals achieved in the Winter Olympics in Sochi there were in fact 12 medallists and of these 10 were from team sports," she said.

It is on the basis of that attempt to reinterpret Brtain's medal haul that I make my suggestion regarding Real Madrid, since convention now permits them to place a star on their shirt for every European Cup win, and no fewer than 225 players have earned winners' medals for them down the years.

Of course, in offering this re-calculation, she merely strengthened my argument rather than her own since anyone who has a clue about team sport knows that this is not how it works.

I sent her a link to the official medal table to help her understand better, albeit admitting that she may have missed out on a real propaganda coup since western politicians would have loved it if the medals from the ice hockey at Sochi had taken Canada to the top of the pile above Vladimir Putin's Russia.

That was never going to happen, of course, and while team medals only count the same as those won by individuals, the incentive is significantly reduced for silverware-obsessed UK Sport to invest in groups of competitors rather than individuals who, in some cases, can pick up several medals at a single Games.

Having had that pointed out, Wilson finally addressed my original point and effectively admitted it was accurate, saying: "Our remit from government is to invest in medal success and to win the right to host major events, and so that is what we are focused on."

She went on to say that basketball, the most clear-cut example of a sport with vast potential reach which has had its funding cut in favour of substantial expenditure on the likes of the skeleton, lost out because it has been "unable to demonstrate medal potential within an eight-year pathway".

There is no consistency to that argument. The British women's basketball team have just qualified for the European Championships next year but do not have the funding to go or, more importantly, to prepare properly.

In other sports, funding has been axed as soon as teams have missed out on a mid-term target, even by the narrowest of margins, yet, in others, the funding has been increased despite failure to hit those targets, all of which gives an impression of favour and patronage.

The truth is that projects in major team sports, such as that of the Belgian football association, which is now just beginning to see a return on the structures it started mapping out some 14 years ago, take longer to build than eight years.

This hints at another, more sinister conclusion. Perhaps it is not so much that UK Sport does not understand team sport, but that it realises just what is involved and is not prepared to make the necessary investment in the most popular of them, when relatively cheap silverware is available elsewhere.

At the moment the cart is being put before the horse with an attempt to sell minority sports to children following successes, as opposed to identifying the sports children are interested in and then offering the necessary programmes to generate involvement and, perhaps, success.

The key thing for a country that is struggling horribly in the important league tables, namely those relating to health and well-being, is that word - involvement.

That does not seem to matter to people who are getting away with setting their own modest targets in terms of overall medal tallies then trumpeting their successes without being properly challenged, as short-termist politicians continue to neglect their responsibility to do so.

That was my original point and nothing in Vanessa Wilson's messages has so far persuaded me that it is in any way mistaken.

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