It’s the end of my first year at UK Sport and what a year it’s been! At this point I expected that we would be celebrating the successes of our athletes at the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. I certainly didn’t plan for, or predict, the year that we’ve had.
Who’d have thought six months into this role the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics would be postponed? Who’d have predicted that we’d be working from home every day of the week? There have been so many different challenges that we’ve faced, and continue to work through as individuals, as a team at UK Sport and as a community in high-performance sport.
"Unforgettable" is a word I would certainly choose to describe my first year as chief executive of UK Sport - but mostly for reasons none of us could have anticipated 12 months ago. As challenging as this year has been, what it has demonstrated to me is the incredible resilience and determination of athletes and those working within the high-performance system and this gives me confidence to look ahead at what we might achieve next year and the prospect of our athletes lighting up the Olympic and Paralympic stage once again.
Light in the darkness from our frontline heroes
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on nations and individuals in every corner of the globe. The sad but inevitable postponement of the Games this summer is just one of a multitude of consequences.
Restrictions introduced in response to coronavirus presented a huge challenge to UK Sport, to the National Governing Bodies of sports and, of course, to athletes.
But even in these challenging times, there were reasons for pride, not least in the inspirational role so many athletes and staff played in responding to the crisis. There are numerous examples of magnificent individuals who put aside their focus on performance sport and worked selflessly and tirelessly in their communities and on the front line with the National Health Service (NHS) in its hour of greatest need.
Sport can lead the way in fight for equality
COVID-19 was far from the only challenge faced by our sports in the last 12 months. The related issues of racial equality and diversity in sport were put under the spotlight by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death in the United States. I feel proud that athletes in our high-performance sport community have added their voices or actions to enact change.
Sport has an incredibly important role to play in tackling racism in this country. It is essential that we listen and understand how, where and why it exists in sport and we must leave no stone unturned in stamping it out.
When we consider the shocking events that brought BLM into the mainstream consciousness, it encourages us to look at ourselves and where we stand in the present and the future. We need to be honest with ourselves, as individuals and as organisations, on where we could, and should, have done more; we should be inspired to lead change that ensures a sporting system that is ethical, fair and truly reflective of our society.
Diversity and equality must be at the heart of our approach in the months and years to come. We must ensure that our future Olympic and Paralympic teams, and the community of dedicated people that support them, are reflective of Britain’s diverse society. It is sobering to reflect that only 10 per cent of the coaches in our teams in Rio 2016 were female.
One of my ambitions is to see sport in the United Kingdom play a greater role in influencing societal change for the better. I firmly believe sport has the power to have a positive impact well beyond the sporting arena.
Sport cancelled but is coming back
I am reminded on an almost daily basis how important sport is to the people of the UK. One of the consequences of the COVID-19 lockdown that was felt most keenly was the cancellation of virtually all elite sport for several months. A huge amount of work has gone into enabling the safe return of training for our athletes and bringing competitive sport back where possible. Whilst initially behind closed doors, much planning has been undertaken to welcome spectators back safely when restrictions are lifted. This has been thanks to the incredible collaboration by our industry - Olympic, Paralympic and professional sports - and that has led the way for other sectors to follow.
Positive culture will enable success
Research consistently tells us that seeing members of Team GB and Paralympics GB excel in major events is one of the things - alongside the NHS and the Armed Forces - that makes people most proud to be British.
The successes enjoyed in recent decades by our athletes in the Olympics and Paralympics have delivered so much joy to the people of the UK - and our ambition to enable those inspirational and extraordinary moments remains at the heart of our future plans.
However, medals should not come at any cost and my experiences tell me that winning and a positive environment are compatible - you do not need a win-at-any-cost attitude to be a winner. Indeed, I firmly believe that a positive culture will enable more athletes to achieve their ambitions and deliver an even greater level of success. Aiming to become the best in the world is a really tough challenge that requires athletes to push themselves physically, mentally and emotionally but I feel strongly that athletes should enjoy the journey and look back positively on their time in an elite programme.
One upsetting challenge for us in the last 12 months has been the emergence of stories of unacceptable behaviour in some of the sports we fund. It is distressing to be confronted by revelations that individuals within our high-performance sport community have been subjected to bullying or abuse and it is important that people who suffer in that way feel they are able to speak out. We will continue to work with the NGBs, the British Athletes Commission and others to ensure there are safe routes for concerns to be raised and addressed.
It remains my belief that the vast majority of people working in the high-performance sport community have good intent and are doing the right thing. Continuing the work of creating a balanced, healthy and ethical culture is one of our most important missions. All of us in our high-performance sport community must play a part in making it clear that people who do not view athletes’ welfare as a priority are simply not welcome in Olympic or Paralympic sport.
The world needs a boost in Tokyo
We are aware that difficult times lie ahead and we have already distributed more than £1 million ($1.3 million/€1.1 million) from our Continuity Fund, set up to help sports suffering from the impact of COVID-19.
The public commitment we received from the Government following the postponement of the Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo means our sports can plan ahead for those rearranged Games.
In sport, you do not always get second chances. However, while the cloud cast by COVID-19 still hangs heavily over the world, we are working on the basis that the Games will go ahead in Japan next summer.
No other event comes close to the Olympics and Paralympics in terms of the diversity of nations in attendance and the interest they create among lovers of sport all over the world.
Given what that world has been through in 2020, I believe the Games in Tokyo next summer can be more than simply a stage for marvellous sporting action and the creation of a new generation of extraordinary moments; they will be a celebration of humanity.
We must harness sport’s power to do good
Since my first day in this role I have been acutely aware of the importance sport plays in people’s lives, and of the responsibility that goes with the position. I have been struck by the commitment and dedication to excellence of both the team here at UK Sport, and of others across the high-performance sport community, that work so hard to give our athletes the best possible support to enable them to achieve their dreams and ambitions.
Please allow me to take this opportunity to thank you for your efforts; they are valued and appreciated, and I look forward to moving onwards and navigating our future together.
When I reflect on this extraordinary 12 months, I always come back to the realisation that sport has a timeless power to bring people together and be a potent force for good and I am incredibly proud to be part of that.