Mike Rowbottom: UK Sport - "Never mind the taking part, feel the medals..."
Tuesday, 18 December 2012
Any wild notions that, in the heady aftermath of the medal-rich London 2012 Games, the nation's elite funding regulators would kick back, take a chill pill and start talking about sport being all about enjoyment were brutally dismissed today as the new funding arrangements for Olympic and Paralympic competitors for the four-year cycle to the Rio 2016 Games were revealed.
On this occasion, they were literally revealed as eager UK Sport operatives stood ready to roll up the blinds on two display boards at either end of the press conference room within UK Sport's Russell Square HQ – and did so at the request of the redoubtable UK Sport chair, Baroness Sue Campbell.
Both the Olympic and Paralympic boards bore the headline "Mission 2016" – and that mission, it was soon confirmed, involved record investment of £347 million ($563 million/€427 million) to support Britain's Olympians and Paralympians to Rio and beyond, representing an overall increase from the London Games cycle of 11 per cent and targeting the high ambition of ensuring Britain became the first nation in recent Games history to better both its Olympic and Paralympic medal totals in the wake of hosting the event.
Inevitably, there was a downside, as Campbell's early warning – "We had to ensure that every penny we invested in elite sport would produce the results that the public and our nation expected...it wasn't about being popular..." – had indicated.
For four Olympic sports – basketball, volleyball, handball and table tennis - it was more a case of Missin' 2016 as they were dropped from the main list of recipients. Meanwhile swimming and boxing were offered one-year deals on the understanding that they sorted out their governance – or in boxing's case, compliance – tout suite.
Hugh Robertson, Minister for Sport, declared himself "very relaxed" about the general position outlined.
"There is not a lot of point at this level funding teams who are not going to qualify for the Olympics," he said after the main press conference, "because the evidence of this summer is that what people like seeing is a successful Team GB. For all that we have more money available in the pot than we had before, we still need to make hard choices.
"So would you want to fund basketball teams, which are expensive, if they have no chance of qualifying for Rio, would you want to fund them and then take the money away from a cyclist or a rower who has a good chance of getting a medal?
"There isn't an endless pipeline. You have to make tough decisions. The evidence from this summer is that the British public like to see us winning, so they want us to back those who are going to win.
"If you have no potential of getting into the top eight in your Olympic sport you will not attract UK Sport funding, but that does not mean you will not attract Sport England funding, . And I am very relaxed about that.
"Where people have plans where they can demonstrate that they have real potential to participation, Sport England, will fund them. And there is now a proper talent pathway that leads up to the area where UK Sport could start funding. I think this is the first time this has ever happened."
Robertson added that he had spent two and a half hours 10 days earlier in company with Campbell, UK Sport chief executive Liz Nicholl and Jennie Price, chief executive of Sport England, going through every sport and checking its suitability for UK Sport, and then Sport England funding.
"We made sure in those conversations that the talent pathways coming out of Sport England would join up with UK Sport funding," he said, before insisting that the new targets announced for Rio 2016 were "realistic".
Robertson maintained: "Casting our minds back to pre-London, it was looking extraordinary if we were going to do better than in Beijing. The main London target was just to get one more medal than in Beijing. That worked out very well.
"If you look at where we are now there are very few sports, when you analyse it, where you can see a reason for a huge fall-off in performance, and there are quite a few sports where we could very reasonably do better in Rio than we have done in London, so it's on that basis.
"When you go through it sport-by-sport, you can see the four or five sports that underperformed in London, and if we can get them back up in time for Rio it is perfectly reasonable to think that we might do better.
"None of those previous host cities invested as we plan to in the next Games. That is the first mistake that we haven't made."
Robertson is currently engaged in trying to smooth the way for the creation of the proposed British Sports Marketing bureau, which Sir Keith Mills is hoping to launch early next year with the intention of levering private sponsorship for Olympic and Paralympic sports to supplement their current revenue streams from the Treasury and National Lottery ticket sales.
The Sports Minister is currently trying to engage football, rugby league, rugby union, tennis and cricket in a project which is primarily aimed at benefitting less commercially huge Olympic and Paralympic sports.
"I've written to the professional sports this week," he said "It is wrong for all this purely to rely on public funding. The best possible way of doing this is to try and get all the sports together.
"Cycling obviously has its own arrangements with Sky, but we will try to do what we can to bring them on board. Frankly, if you are an Olympic sport I do find it hard to understand why you wouldn't want to make use of a man with the expertise of Sir Keith Mills.
"Athletics wants to do it all in house at the moment. But take your own view on this – would you rather have your sponsorship negotiated by an in-house team at UK Athletics or would you rather have Sir Keith Mills, a man who pulled in over £700 million ($1.1 billion/€860 million) to London?"
Robertson accepts that sports such as football will always want to retain the right to negotiate their own commercial rights, and that the big professional legions will also be keen to ensure no new group bargaining starts treading on their toes. But he remains optimistic.
"Am I absolutely certain that we will wrap this up? No. Am I reasonably comfortable? Yes. I am 100 per cent committed to the idea."
But whether the income stream is swelled by a new, private tributary or not, the Government – through UK Sport – has set an unprecedented course for ever greater tangible achievement at the Games.
The bubble is going to have to get bigger and bigger. Can you imagine which Government will want to announce that the record total of 758 British Olympic and Paralympic medals at the most recent Games cannot realistically be bettered, and that funding will be cut by 25 per cent accordingly. Not a big vote-winner, is it?
Robertson, grinning as he is probably very entitled to do, makes the point that the most recent successes were bedded in his party's decision two years ago to increase the cut which sport got from the National Lottery – a position which, he adds, was opposed by the Opposition.
"There isn't going to be a great new dollop of funding that is suddenly going to materialise," he said. "If you were to go back to sport getting 13.7 per cent out of the Lottery and not the 20 per cent it gets at the moment that would create a hole – you work out the chances of it being filled."
There are, of course, no guarantees in perpetuity.
"I'm a bit like the curator in a country house," Robertson concluded. "All I can do is look after it as best I can for the length of time that I'm in charge and hand it over in the best possible condition."
It has to be said that, as plans go in to extend both the west and the east wing, the country pile is looking in a very good state of repair right now.
Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, covered the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as chief feature writer for insidethegames, having covered the previous five summer Games, and four winter Games, for The Independent. He has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian.