Alan Hubbard: UK Sport's uncompromising approach to Lottery funding contravenes spirit of sport
Wednesday, 26 December 2012
Christmas spirit seemed to be in somewhat short supply in London's Bloomsbury, where the Government-backed distributer of Lottery and Exchequer funding is based.
A few days before the festive season began loadsa-money was lobbed from Russell Square in the direction of Olympic and Paralympic sport, some £347 million ($563 million/€427 million) of it, though most escaped the desperate clutches of the poor and needy in an act some might describe as Dickensian, others positively Thatcherite.
Among those pursuits denied a slice of the expansive handout towards Rio 2016 were handball, indoor and sitting volleyball, basketball and table tennis.
British Volleyball chairman Richard Callicott admits he spent Christmas holding the wrong end of the turkey wishbone. "The phenomenally hard work and commitment of our athletes and coaches has been rewarded with the utter obliteration of our sport at elite level," he declares angrily.
He goes on: "We could not be more disappointed. We have stars, and world-class athletes like Dami Bakare now playing in one of the most competitive leagues in the world in Korea, but the opportunity for him and his outstanding teammates no longer exists for them to play for their country.
"There are over thirty players playing professionally for clubs throughout Europe and North America as well as Dami. We have produced British athletes from our own programmes across all six of our disciplines.
"It seems frankly unfair after our brilliant endeavours at London 2012 when we were required to produce credible performances, where the GB indoor women's team rose 49 places in the world rankings, winning a match against a much higher ranked team, and sitting volleyball created so many new enthusiasts at the Paralympics, that both sports should be rewarded with precisely nothing for their efforts over those past five years.
" I am simply shocked that our sporting leaders could be so dismissive of such a mighty effort."
Now here's the irony. Callicott, as a former UK Sport chief executive himself, was originally responsible for distributing Lottery funding to sport when it was initiated by then Prime Minister John Major. His was a more sympathetic approach than the invidious "no compromise" philosophy augmented by the present incumbent, Liz Nicholl, which leaves her predecessor's sport, virtually without hope of getting to Rio despite their valued presence at London 2012 to boost ticket sales.
Callicott tells insidethegames: "It's heartless. Liz Nicholl says sports with limited or no funding can go back annually for the situation to be reviewed if they have made progress. That's like telling a Formula One team on the starting grid that they no longer have access to fuel but if they can catch up with the rest they can re-join the race. What do they do? Push the bloody car?"
Another irony is that three days after being honoured by the BBC with the prestigious Helen Rollason award for outstanding achievement in the face of adversity Martine Wright, who lost both legs in then 7/7 terrorist bombings, learned that sitting volleyball, which helped rebuild her shattered life, has, like the able-bodied indoor game, lost all funding.
She says she feels particularly gutted because it will undermine the sport's role in rehabilitating injured servicemen and women.
"As a new team in just two and a half years we performed to our expectations in London and were looking forward to continuing to make progess. It's disappointing but we are determined for the programme to carry on."
I have never been a fan of UK Sport's uncompromising diktat which surely helps promote the sort of win-at-all-costs mentality that contravenes the spirit of sport, rewarding the already-haves rather than the have-nots.
"It is a philosophy which simply mean that unless you medal you don't get the money," argues Callicott.
Now I happen to like Liz Nicholl. For one thing she has sprung from the grassroots of sport as a former netball player who became that sport's inspirational chief executive.
She is pleasant and extremely able example of British sport's growing Girl Power as is her formidable chair, Baronesss Sue Campbell.
But I strongly contend that between them they have got this one grossly wrong, as has the supportive Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, with whom I do not often disagree.
He insists that if you give money to those sports that won't win a medal, you will have to take it away from athletes that might.
"Denying athletes in a sport like cycling the chance of winning a gold medal is not fair or right," he says.
The phrase Catch 22 comes to mind, while Baron Pierre de Coubertin would be turning in his proverbial grave.
Cycling isn't short of cash, nor are many of its stars (Sir Chris Hoy, Bradley Wiggins, Victoria Pendleton and Lizzie Armistead to name but a few).
They are big earners who, I doubt no longer have the need for Lottery funding, like others who have become both rich and even more famous on the back of the 2012 Olympics through endorsements and other and luctrative commercial deals.
Jess Ennis, Mo Farah and Ellie Simmonds are also prime examples as are those GB boxers who now are virtually full-time pros earning up to six figures for taking part in the World Series Boxing tournament.
Good luck tio them all.
Assuming they no longer receive for Lottery funding (it would be a scandal if they did) could not the money they otherwise would have been given be diverted to sport's lesser mortals who might then have the resources they need to progress towards the Rio rostrum?
Here's a thought: Nothing to do with UK Sport of course, but an astonishing £200,000 ($322,000/€243,00)) bonus, on top of his £440,0000 ($708,000/€535,000) salary has been paid to the Lawn Tennis Association's Roger "The Dodger" Draper who heads a body deemed "useless" by Baroness Billingham, chair of the All Parliamentary Tennis Group.
That would more than cover the British Volleyball hiring a top class coach and an assistant after having to let go the one they had because they could no longer afford to pay him.
It is true that Sport England can provide some funding for sports at grassroots level, but cash-strapped youngsters who want to fulfil their potential need world-class coaching and sports science back-up which only UK Sports elite funding programme can provide.
There are some good people at UK Sport but I am not alone in questioning the fairness or morality of their distribution of Lottery and taxpayers' money.
"Lust for gold has blinded UK Sport to the needs of the poor," reads the headline in The Times above over a piece by former British Olympic table tennis player Matthew Syed.
He says UK Sport "has lost the plot", that socially inclusive inner-city sports like volleyball, handball, basketball and table tennis have been cynically "shafted'' by an organisation that has lavished public money on posh public school-practiced sports such as equestrianism, rowing and sailing.
"The implications are, in their way, deeply regressive. Money from taxpayers and lottery players is being siphoned into training opportunities for athletes from often wealthy backgrounds. Meanwhile, high-potential children from poorer families, who could never afford elite coaching without public support, are left on the scrapheap. This is social engineering in reverse. It is the very opposite of meritocracy. And it should be confronted."
Strong words from a one-time Labour parliamentary candidate.
It is certainly true that these elite sport have done better than most because of their success yet they are ones in which it is far easier to win medals because fewer nations participate.
Question: Why should UK Sport be the sole arbiter of who gets what and why?
Would it not be fairer to have an independent panel making the final assessment on UK Sport's recommendations?
British Volleyball, for one, say they will be appealing - and that surely should be heard by an independent panel.
Meantime I doubt their Christmas card, depicting Tiny Tim beseeching Scrooge "But sir, zero won't be enough to fund a competitive volleyball programme" rests prominently on Liz Nicholl's mantelpiece.
Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire