• Text size      
  • Send this article to a friend
  • Print this article

Debuts to broken dreams as water polo runs dry

AS the man running the Great Britain water polo high performance programme, Graeme Thompson should have been glowing with pride following last week's Commonwealth Championships in Aberdeen.

Members of Scotland's squad celebrate after defeating South Africa to take the  bronze medal at the Commonwealth Water Polo Championships in Aberdeen at the weekend.  Picture: Courtesy of Scottish Swimming
Members of Scotland's squad celebrate after defeating South Africa to take the bronze medal at the Commonwealth Water Polo Championships in Aberdeen at the weekend. Picture: Courtesy of Scottish Swimming

Instead, the experience merely compounded the frustration that the former Scotland rugby league internationalist has been suffering since being told, less than a year after he was appointed to head up a proposed seven-year programme, that their funding had been savagely cut.

It is to the enormous credit of his players that they rallied from that blow to such an extent that England won gold in both the men's and women's events at the event in Aberdeen, while Scotland's men won a surprise bronze medal.

Yet, for all concerned, the dream of greater success ended last month with confirmation that their appeal against the loss of all their funding from UK Sport had failed, the funding body explaining that it was giving priority to those sports that had the best chance of winning Olympic medals

"You feel utterly disappointed for the athletes who have lost their dream and a vision and that's the hardest part because some of their life choices, education, career, the sacrifices they have made and were prepared to make were based on that," said Thompson.

"In rugby league, I've seen clubs go into administration and the players can go and play for someone else and still go for the national team. For our players, though, this is the end of their chance of going to the Olympics which is what these players wanted.

"We appealed the decision and were in Russia with the GB women's team when the outcome came through. I didn't learn it until I stepped off a plane at Heathrow and I had to tell two 17-year-olds who had made their debuts the night before that their dream was over."

Previously an employee of UK Sport, Thompson joined GB Water Polo in March last year as their first director of performance for several years. The post had been created because of the funding the organisation had been awarded by UK Sport just weeks earlier and he was charged with assembling a team that could achieve the agreed plan of getting to the Rio Olympics in 2016 then medalling in Tokyo four years later.

The extent to which people's careers and lives have been toyed with is further demonstrated by the fact that he hired a coach from Greece who moved his family across in November, while others among his six-strong staff relocated to Manchester from across the UK.

All those appointments were made late last year and Thompson, who was told by UK Sport last year that the strategy pursued was sound and being well executed, admits to feeling responsible for the turmoil caused, although he does not believe he could have done anything else.

"You can't really know how to judge the risk," he explained. "It's a comparative exercise with other sports. There were some rumours about some financial deficit they have at UK Sport, but nothing confirmed.

"I didn't think they'd do this because I've been at UK Sport and have never seen them act this way before in terms of the severity of the decision-making. I've had it from ex-colleagues at UK Sport that there have been some very, very tough decisions and some of the toughest UK sport has ever made, but my greatest disappointment and anger is at the inconsistency of the decision-making.

"The sport was given this money in December 2012 and the press releases at the time said these sports had credible medal potential for Tokyo and they're going to support these teams. Now they're saying there's no credible medal potential.

"Where's the consistency in that? If they were going to fund, they should have funded all the way through because you can't expect anything within a year."

That raises serious questions about the cost to the tax-payer with substantial sums having been handed over without proper planning.

Thompson's strong suspicion is that UK Sport has made miscalculations so has now decided to maximise its backing for sports it believes it can bank on claiming medals. That in turn raises serious issues about how and why public funds should be used to back elite sport, but the problem here is that even if it is accepted that the existing parameters are correct, then the process has clearly been destructively flawed.

"Everyone knows every sport has an annual investment review and, hand on heart, we missed our milestone target of top 12 at the 2013 World Championships," Thompson acknowledged.

"We were 13th and weren't able to play-off for ninth to 16th, but I've seen other sports miss by more. Judo and taekwondo missed last year's targets and they got more money.

"I'm not against 'no compromise'. We should be held accountable if we'd made a complete stuff up. Yet they told us they thought our strategy was good, they think we've executed our strategy, but they've re-evaluated and decided that almost no strategy could make it.

"It just feels like we've been in the wrong place at the wrong time. I think what's driving it is the record medal haul they want to go after and they've taken from the sports who are towards the bottom of their banding and they've shored up the top."

Contextual targeting label: 
Sport

Commenting & Moderation

We moderate all comments on HeraldScotland on either a pre-moderated or post-moderated basis.
If you're a relatively new user then your comments will be reviewed before publication and if we know you well and trust you then your comments will be subject to moderation only if other users or the moderators believe you've broken the rules

Moderation is undertaken full-time 9am-6pm on weekdays, and on a part-time basis outwith those hours. Please be patient if your posts are not approved instantly.

226917