Emily Goddard
David OwenIt is almost impossible not to admire the success of UK Sport's elite sports funding and performance programmes.

The body's hard-nosed approach, with cash awards geared to outstanding achievement, has ensured that Olympic and Paralympic sports golden windfall of Lottery funding has not been squandered; it also powered Britain up the medals tables in Beijing and London.

Now though I fear we may be getting a tad overzealous.

Sentence two of UK Sport's February 4 press release outlining updated funding awards is the nub of it.

It reads: "Most rigorous annual investment review process ever confirms goal of becoming the first nation in recent history to be more successful in both Olympic and Paralympic Games post hosting is deliverable with targeted investment."

Don't get me wrong: to win more medals in Rio than in London would be both a stupendous achievement and infinitely preferable to finishing 36th in the Olympic medals table, as Britain did in 1996 in Atlanta.

Britain finished 36th in the Olympic medals table at the Atlanta 1996 Games ©Getty ImagesBritain finished 36th in the Olympic medals table at the Atlanta 1996 Games ©Getty Images

But now that the country is again an Olympic power to be reckoned with, would this produce a significantly greater legacy for British sport than if the team finished a highly creditable fifth or sixth in the medals table?

After a week or two of fist pumping, the difference would be at best marginal, I'd say.

Furthermore, now that the underlying performance level of so many sports has risen so high, I suspect that some of the chief determinants of whether Britain matches London or falls some way short, at least at the Olympics, are essentially outside UK Sport's control.

Much, I think, will depend on issues such as whether track cycling changes its qualification criteria to permit more than one athlete per country per event and whether British athletes deliver in the new Olympic sports of rugby sevens and golf.

More importantly, there really is more to sporting legacy than Olympic and Paralympic medals, particularly now that, I repeat, 36th place is a dim and distant memory.

It's winter sports time, so let me use the much-cited example of Eddie Edwards who, along with Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, is probably the best-known Winter Olympian Britain has produced.

His comical efforts on the Calgary ski jump have been much scoffed at since 1988 by sports officialdom.

But with his single-minded determination to do his own thing and his oddball courage, he must have inspired more kids not to be deflected from pursuing their dreams, whatever those dreams may be, than a lorry-load of genuinely elite Olympians.

Eddie Edwards may not have won an Olympic medal but he must have inspired many children not to be deflected from pursuing their dreams ©Getty ImagesEddie Edwards may not have won an Olympic medal but he must have inspired many children not to be deflected from pursuing their dreams ©Getty Images

Britain's medal lust was mitigated somewhat in the run-up to London because of the desire for Team GB to be represented in as many sports as feasible in its home Games.

That mitigating influence has now gone, leaving us with what is starting to appear to me too blunt an instrument.

Yes, earmark the bulk of elite performance funding to medal prospects.

But, to produce the best all-round Olympic legacy, a proportion should be ring-fenced for sports which, while they should be prodded continually to use the money wisely and adopt best performance practice, are in all likelihood going to be pushed to win a medal, be it in 2016 or 2060.

You never quite know when an inspirational Edwards-type maverick is going to emerge who, while not getting within a country mile of an Olympic podium, may inspire a significant number of youngsters to begin to make the most of their lives.

My other gripe is that UK Sport's methodology seems inadvertently to work against team sports.

UK Sport says, in essence, that everyone plays by the same rules.

"UK Sport's investment principles are reviewed every four years to align with targets agreed in consultation with Government," it told me.

"They are consistently applied to individual and team sports, to summer and winter, Olympic and Paralympic, on a meritocratic basis entirely focused on future medal-winning potential."

I accept that, but think of it this way: Snowboarder Jenny Jones' bronze medal at Sochi should, one imagines, help her sport to achieve a favourable funding settlement for the run-up to Pyeongchang 2018.

The extra cash, though, is unlikely to be lavished entirely on Jones herself, but used to nurture more Jenny Jones', ie to bring the sport as a whole up towards her level.

And quite right too.

Team sports though, expensive by their very nature, have, moreover only one shot in their locker - or one per gender - in terms of medal potential.

Jenny Jones' bronze medal at Sochi 2014 should help her sport to achieve a favourable funding settlement for the run-up to Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty ImagesJenny Jones' bronze medal at Sochi 2014 should help her sport to achieve a favourable funding settlement for the run-up to Pyeongchang 2018 ©Getty Images

The world's best handball player could be a Briton, but if the team as a whole did not perform and showed little prospect of improving to the point where it could be considered world class within a time horizon of around eight years, it seems clear to me that it would struggle to justify funding.

One cannot be quite categorical about this because of the complexity of the analytical tools UK Sport presses into service.

"UK Sport uses a number of different types of evidence when applying the investment principles at annual review points," it told me.

"Each sport's current and previous performance is scrutinised using major global event results and milestone targets agreed with the sport at the start of the four-year cycle.

"In addition, more rigorous evaluations of sports' future performance and medal potential in Rio and Tokyo have been undertaken using techniques such as trajectory, situational and precedent analysis.

"Analytics, current and previous results in major events are then considered in the context of information gathered through continuous improvement tools such as Mission 2016, the talent health check, and athletes' insights to create the most rounded, professional and rigorous understanding of a sport's current and future world-class performance potential."

I merely observe that of the 19 Olympic sports receiving slices of UK Sport's £272 million ($451 million/€332 million) investment cake in the run-up to Rio, only one - hockey - is a pure team sport.

For all its scrupulously objective complexity, the system can have brutal, and frankly rather mystifying, outcomes if you happen to be a) an outsider or b) an athlete whose Olympic/Paralympic prospects hinge on an ample and reliable flow of cash.

Of the 19 Olympic sports receiving funding from UK Sport, hockey is the only pure team sport on the list ©Getty ImagesOf the 19 Olympic sports receiving funding from UK Sport, hockey is the only pure team sport on the list ©Getty Images

As evidence of this, I submit what has happened to British water polo in recent years.

When the funding pot for the Rio cycle was first divvied up just before Christmas 2012, while men's water polo was cut, the women's team got an impressive increase to £4.54 million ($7.53 million/€5.54 million).

This compared with £2.93 million ($4.86 million/€3.58 million) given to the sport in the London 2012 cycle.

In August 2012, the British team had placed eighth and last in the Olympic women's water polo competition, though it put up a good fight in the quarter-finals, losing only 9-7 to Spain, the eventual silver medallists - and current world champions.

So what happened when the Rio funding adjustments were announced on February 4?

That £4.54 million ($7.53 million/€5.54 million), or whatever was left of it, disappeared, or more accurately was redistributed, cut literally to nothing.

"Water polo was among the sports that were not able to demonstrate they had a realistic chance of performing well within the top eight in Rio 2016 and targeting a medal performance in 2020," UK Sport told me.

"We therefore made the decision not to fund in line with our investment principles, and to ensure this resource was re-invested to enhance and protect medal opportunities in the challenging Rio environment."

What changed so radically between December 2012 and February 2014?

Well one thing was that the team failed to meet its performance target at the 2013 World Championships.

This called for them to finish in the top 12.

They came 13th; furthermore, I am told, there were no play-offs for ninth to 16th place at the tournament, which might have enabled them to improve their ranking.

So is that what it comes down to? An Olympic programme obliterated for the want of one World Championship place?

If not, then I think UK Sport seriously needs to explain what else contributed to its decision to the affected athletes, who must be devastated.

British water polo's funding for Rio 2016 has been cut literally to nothing ©AFP/Getty ImagesBritish water polo's funding for Rio 2016 has been cut literally to nothing ©AFP/Getty Images

Frankly, it seems to me that the odds on the team finishing top eight in Rio and vying for a medal at Tokyo 2020 were every bit as long in December 2012 as on February 4, 2014.

That, surely, would have been the time to cut off funding; instead it was sharply increased.

Since then, notwithstanding the marginally disappointing Worlds, the team has appeared to be doing OK: they have qualified, after all, for this year's European Championships in Budapest, a championship place which, I am told, they may not now be able to take advantage of.

They are/were, if not potential champions, then at least consistent second-drawer performers, and may well have played a part in lifting sports participation rates among British women, which would be to the benefit of everyone.

At all events, nothing spectacular or unforeseeable, one way or the other, had happened in the pool; yet, in funding terms the plug has been yanked unceremoniously and the team beached in mid-Olympic cycle.

Quite apart from the team themselves, one wonders what the sport's leaders are supposed to say to the youngsters being developed with the help of what I am told is £90,000 ($150,000/€110,000) a year in funding from Sport England.

Change nationality, perhaps; or take up slopestyle.

There is, at least, an appeal process, which British Swimming announced this week it intends to make use of.

To me, a longer-term solution would again have been to ring-fence a proportion of UK Sport's Rio cycle funding for exclusive investment in team sports.

They could then compete for it among themselves, in line with accepted performance criteria, rather than vying with primarily individual Olympic sports which, by their nature, have far more medal opportunities.

Good as the UK Sport programme has been, it always struck me as a great shame that World Cup-winning rugby coach Sir Clive Woodward's talents were deployed, in the run-up to London 2012, at the British Olympic Association (BOA) and not UK Sport.

Had he been appointed performance supremo for Olympic and Paralympic team sports, leaving the brilliant Peter Keen in charge of their primarily individual counterparts, then I think that the results obtained might well have been even better.

David Owen worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the 2010 World Cup and London 2012. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed here.