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Further proof that team sport is fighting losing battle for funding

It was hard to know whether to feel elated or devastated for the Great Britain women's water polo team when they claimed their historic 9-7 victory over world champions Spain on Tuesday evening.

There is no correlation between success and funding for many team sports. Picture: Markus Stitz
There is no correlation between success and funding for many team sports. Picture: Markus Stitz

Even for a first-time water polo watcher it was a wonderfully exciting encounter decided only by two penalties in the second half of the final eight-minute quarter of their World League encounter.

By any normal sporting standards, there should have been no question that the British team should have been celebrating a first victory over these opponents, which in turn ought to inspire them to greater things.

Instead, they knew that this was something of a last hurrah, having been told just a few weeks ago that the funding that has allowed them to make the progress in the last year that has resulted in this win, had been withdrawn by UK Sport.

That has proved to be a life-changing decision for a squad who had planned to spend much of the next two years working together towards their target of qualifying for the Rio Olympics. Some will continue in the sport but others now have no choice but to retire after this summer's European Championships.

Their mood was eloquently summed up by Angie Winstanley-Smith, a straight-talking Northerner, after the match. "We celebrated as if it was a final for us because we've been through so much the last three or four months. It's been horrific. We've had to look at our lives totally differently, so to come up with a result like that, it just shows you the strength of character we have," she said. "We're not a water polo team, we're a family. We lost five players after the Olympics so you're going to need a little bit of time. Transition was last year and since we've heard about the funding all we've proved is that we're a great team and everything we're doing we're doing together and proving a lot of people wrong. Because we're based all around Europe, I've never used my Skype account as much over the last few months. I've not gone a day without being in touch with every one of the girls so it's definitely brought us together and we've got a shared passion to really show everyone out there that UK Sport have made a mistake. We can beat anyone; we beat the world champions.

Of the loss of funding, she added: "It's about what a team sport brings, and the importance of getting teams in the Olympic Games. Not only is it about bringing the team in the water together, it brings the public, it brings the community, schools, it brings everyone together, so UK Sport really, really need to look at that and the way they're funding team sports."

That observation touched on a growing concern that UK Sport's obsession with medals demonstrates a complete breakdown in terms of political understanding of how elite sportspeople should be funded when it comes to those in the less commercial pursuits who require backing from the public purse.

What is emerging, with the cutting of support for basketball, volleyball and handball, as well as water polo, is that administrators aiming for silverware are seeing sports where individuals compete as a more attractive proposition for support than team sports.

Backing squads who can, collectively, win just a single medal is, by definition, more expensive than those in which an individual competitor can bring home a prize.

Yet when we are talking about spending government money, it has to be about much more than medals and there is a strong argument that, as well as involving more money, team sport generates greater life lessons than individual sports.

All concerned really must start considering whether the values our society should champion are those generated in sports where large groups must learn to work collectively as opposed to those in which it often seems that vast support groups are expected to pander, deferentially, to the whims of self-obsessed individuals.

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