The centre of the bow tie
The next three years will undoubtedly be the most exciting in the history of British Olympic sport. As the 2012 Games in London loom ever larger on the horizon, the focus for the country's sports authorities is not just on ensuring that the Games are organised and managed smoothly but on maintaining Great Britain's recent Olympic medal success.
The Beijing Games in 2008 were a high watermark for Britain's Olympians. In total, 47 medals were won; 19 of which were gold. With the unique added incentive and pressure of a home Olympics, the aim for the London Games is at least to match the fourth place in the medals table achieved in Beijing and to win more medals across more sports.
Whether that target is reached or surpassed is, in no small part, down to decisions made by UK Sport. Founded in 1996, the organisation is ostensibly a vehicle to distribute money – generated by the National Lottery in Britain – to sport in the country, in order to raise performance levels and with the ultimate aim of achieving greater world-class success. Accountable to the British Parliament through the government Department for Culture, Media and Sport, it is currently chaired by Sue Campbell and led by the team of former rugby executive John Steele, who is chief executive, and Liz Nicholl. Nicholl, chief operations officer, joined UK Sport in 1999 after running English Netball for 16 years as chief executive.
As Nicholl puts it, UK Sport has a mandate to help produce what she calls "the legacy of a really effective high-performance system." She expands: "By high-performance system we're talking about the pathway through from talent identification and confirmation right through to podium success in as many sports as possible. That's what we want. If we can achieve that by working with and supporting the Olympic sports and Paralympic sports, in as many sports as possible, we'll have gone a long way to achieving a performance legacy."
In precise terms the organisation has UK£256,588,649 to distribute across the Olympic and Paralympic sports. Outline funding plans for the four-year period leading up to the Games were revealed in early December last year. They have since been tweaked slightly but the final allocation shows that of the 27 sports included in the funding – tennis and football are deemed financially self-sufficient – ten will receive less funding in this quadrennial than in the previous one that led up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. In percentage terms basketball and synchronised swimming were the big winners, with funding levels raised by 137 per cent and 110 per cent respectively. At the top end of the scale, rowing usurped athletics (which saw its funding cut by five per cent) as the biggest recipient at UK£27.47 million while the smallest beneficiary was beach volleyball, which qualified for only UK£394,607.
Overall, the sum of UK£256 million available to distribute is well up on the previous cycle, in which UK£235 million was split across Olympic sports. That is largely down to an increase in public funding through the British Exchequer. "There was a decision taken in 2006, when additional money was provided for 2012, that in fact we would support at that point in time every Olympic and Paralympic sport," Nicholl says. "We reviewed our funding post-Beijing and, again in consultation with government, the decision was to fund every Olympic and Paralympic sport, so no sport would be cut adrift at that point."
Once funding is allocated, each sport is under constant review by UK Sport as it tracks progress across the funding period. "It's only once every four years that a sport has a performance target for the Olympics. In the intervening years we have a performance target agreed with each sport which is about what they are aiming to achieve in the most significant competition of each year. We are reviewing each of those performances with every sport every year. Mission 2012 is a process whereby we are tracking progress from 2006 right through to 2012 so we know where each sport is. We have a tracker board which shows where every sport is and its athlete dimension, its system dimension and its climate. We also log their performances against targets in that year; we have to because we invest across the sports for a high-level collective goal. We need to look at that collective of performances very regularly. Mission 2012 allows us to reflect on that three times a year with an annual review as well."
She adds: "We're in a quite unique situation at this point in time with the home Games in London so our focus has been primarily on supporting medal success and the system that will support that in 2012. The high-level target is top four in the medal table and more medals across more sports but, because of 2012, all our Olympic sports and Paralympic sports have the opportunity to compete. Where the resources can stretch to supporting a creditable performance in those sports that are unlikely to medal, then we've supported that approach. For example, we're putting UK£1.4 million in handball over at least four years to support them achieving a creditable performance in London. For them, they've identified top eight as being a creditable performance."
Every sport is different and, when the funding decisions were announced for the 2012 build-up, UK Sport faced some inevitable criticism that it was prioritising already-successful Olympic sports such as rowing, cycling and sailing where medals have become almost commonplace in recent years. Nicholl, however, argues that, to at least some extent, prior success has to be factored into decisions on distribution. "Our investment positions are about investing what it takes to surround athletes with world class support, and we support the number of athletes that equate with the relative potential of the sport. For sports like sailing, cycling, rowing, we really want to support them to continue to do the really good work that they're doing in their programmes.
"We've got another group of sports that are in the middle of that hierarchy, that didn't medal in Beijing but should medal potentially because they've done it before: like judo; like archery; where we've had medals at world level but didn't medal at the Games – so there's potential there yet to be realised – triathlon, too. Maybe 2012 is the coming of triathlon. We've had great results recently and it would be fantastic to see medal performances in London. We have a number of sports where there is unrealised potential. To other sports we're saying, ‘keep doing what you're doing' because sports like sailing and cycling have probably maximised the number of medals that they can get. It's probably unrealistic to think that they'll get more, so sustaining what they achieved before will be a challenge in itself."
Nicholl uses a somewhat strange, but nevertheless apt, analogy to describe UK Sport's place in the overall national sporting structure. "We see ourselves almost at the centre of a bow tie," she says. "To one side of us there is the public and government and the accountability that lies on that side – and our sponsors, the lottery, and the public, through the Exchequer and government money. On the other side are our sports, and we connect with CEOs, boards, chairs, performance directors and head coaches right through to athletes. We see ourselves at the middle of that bow tie; we have to know about the sporting system and we need to have enough intelligence about what athletes are doing and about the environment in which they're being supported to be able to represent sports' needs effectively to government. Most importantly, we have to position ourselves as an organisation in which the government has confidence, and the sports understand that. We make representations to government about the need to invest in performance sport, and we could only do that if we were very confident about the relationship that we've got with sports in receipt of our investment."
She adds: "It's a real balancing act. There are some accountability requirements but, balanced with that, is the opportunity to make a performance difference in sports. We position that relationship in a way that describes the investment and the must-dos, which provide for the accountability needs and the opportunity that we can bring to the table because we have a unique perspective across sports, so we can help drive solutions that provide better performances. At the end of the day, we're investing in order to achieve success. We have a number of people in our performance team concentrated on and working with each and every sport to help them be better and to succeed. That's balanced with the team of people that we have to manage the accountability relationship through to government."
The fact that the organisation is accountable to government as well as to the public makes transparency of decision-making imperative. "It's tough," Nicholl says. "But it's one of the things we've been very consistent about. Even if decisions are tough to make, we will always explain the decisions to sport because the decisions have to stand up to public scrutiny, because we're just investing public funding. It has to stand up to the scrutiny of the general public, government and the sports. We're very transparent, we have to be, but we can only invest what we've got and our investment can only reflect the economic realities of the time."
Apart from government funding, which is confirmed until at least 2012, UK Sport remains reliant on National Lottery funding – a situation it is keen to change with the development of a new third stream of private income. "As long as people keep buying the tickets we'll have enough money to be able to distribute," Nicholl laughs. "It's important that we don't forget that we are reliant on lottery income for a significant percentage of the investment we make in world class programmes. The importance of the general public buying tickets can't be underestimated but, so far, we're ok. This third stream of income we're trying to generate from the private sector is obviously going to be impacted by the economic climate and the number of people that are going to be able to come to the table and support that."
UK Sport's Team 2012 programme offers prospective corporate partners the opportunity to be associated with any medal success at the London Games as well as, crucially, access to athletes.
As Nicholl indicates, it is an exciting time to be involved in developing British sport, with the carrot of the London Games drawing ever nearer. Beyond the immediate funding required by each sport for 2012, UK Sport also has at least one eye on the 2016 Games, recently awarded to the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro. "Our focus is probably an eight-year focus, so we're always looking at the next Games and the Games thereafter," Nicholl explains. "In sports that we fund, we are not only focusing on performance funding but we also have development-level funding, which is 2016 funding. So about half of our investment is actually for 2016. There's not a lot of talk about that because obviously the focus is on London, but it would be irresponsible for us just to invest in those performance sports for London 2012 and not invest in the system below it to ensure that there's a pathway for athletes to come through. We're investing in 2016 and beyond as far as we can and with whatever resources are available for our distribution post-2012."
Nicholl admits that the success of Beijing for Team GB, and in particular the surprise nature of it, has made UK Sport's life harder, but she quickly adds that "it's a great problem to have." She says: "It surpassed our expectations. We knew we were in a very good place leading into the Games because a year out from the Games we had more medals across more sports at a world level than we'd had prior to Athens in the same period. So we knew that we were going to do pretty well but nobody really expected 47 medals and nobody, more importantly, really expected the number of gold medals. The conversion to gold medals was outstanding and a lot of that was probably down to the fact that we had a lot of early gold medals, which creates an environment in which athletes believe they can do it. It raises the psychology around it. That was a fantastic Games but of course it makes our life more difficult because we thought fourth was the best we could ever achieve as a nation of our size.
"We had fourth as our target for 2012 but now we're saying top four; it could be third. We have to be at least as good as we were in Beijing, but the target is more medals across more sports. That will show that there have been further advances since the Beijing Games and using the unique opportunity that London presents."
Indeed Nicholl believes the success at London's Olympics will provide a validation of the funding model overseen by UK Sport over the last 13 years. As she puts it: "Our aim is to support every sport to the extent that they need to deliver against their medal potential. If we have got to a place by 2012 where the public enjoys some fantastic performances and successes across a huge number of sports, and the British public feels good about that and whatever the government of the day is feels good about that, and if everybody thinks that this system is working and has a positive impact on the general public in terms of their engagement with and enjoyment of sport but also on their participation, and if future governments think we must continue to invest in sport, that would be a great success story for us at UK Sport – we will have done it and created a winning British nation."blog comments powered by Disqus
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