CEO GB Wheelchair Rugby Address to the Westminster Forum 13 July 2017
I was struck by a phrase Liz Nicholl, CEO UK Sport used in an article for Inside the Games, she said ‘we know what it takes to win and what it costs to win – we believe the investments we have made for Tokyo will inspire a nation’.
Let’s unpick that a little – we are told that medals are the measurable success criteria and the assumption is that we want an ever greater number because this inspires the nation. But what actually is it that inspires? One argument is that it inspires more people to take part in sport and exercise. The data does not appear to support that. A YouGov survey found that only 7% of respondents said that the 2012 games had inspired them to take up sport. We know that during and post big national sporting events there is a flurry of activity – the Wimbledon factor where for a week or so during and after Wimbledon, school and community courts are full of budding Serenas and Andys. We know that Beth Tweedle has been the inspiration for an increase in the number of young girls taking up gymnastics but the litmus test is how many continue with this or another activity and also whether these individuals are new to activity or just new to gymnastics. The Sport England Active survey stats show that overall rates of weekly sports participation in England have declined since 2012. That is particularly true for disadvantaged socioeconomic groups and disabled people. Increasing participation is about much more than whether a sport gets 62 medals rather than 59. Over the last 5 years Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby has increased the number of clubs in this country from 7 to 22 and is growing clubs at a rate of 2-3 a year – it wasn’t Paralympic medal success that inspired that.
Then there is the issue of medals instilling a sense of national pride and achievement. It is true that we all love seeing our national teams do well but celebrations are short lived and whether it’s sport, politics or business we are all as good as our last success.
So my premise is that people are not just inspired by numbers and colour of medals. Stuart Robinson was a corporal in the RAF, whilst on patrol in Afghanistan his vehicle hit a landmine. He was blown into the air, he lost his legs and suffered other terrible injuries. His journey from a battlefield operating theatre to the GB wheelchair rugby squad inspires everyone who has ever met or heard of him. Chris Ryan, one of the top junior professional golfers in the country was coming back from a tournament and his car crashed. He broke his neck and saw his golfing career disappear. A quadriplegic he is now the GB Wheelchair Rugby Captain. These are individuals whose stories are the torches which ignite our very humanity and which are not constrained by socioeconomic barriers, or race, or colour, or age or gender or sexual orientation. This is why the likes of ParalympicsGB, the Youth Sport Trust, numerous corporates, use these athletes to speak in schools, in the media and to businesses – Steve Brown 2012 Wheelchair Rugby Captain and the latest presenter on BBC Countryfile is there because he presents well and demonstrates that a chair is no barrier to a successful life.
The second part of Liz Nicholl’s quote was ‘we know what it costs to win’. I wonder about that. Most leaders know that true cost is not measured merely in monetary terms. It’s about things that are less easy to quantify than a crude number of medals – heart and soul and value and pride and equality. With respect to my colleague Julie, there is a cost for the stained brand of British cycling which goes well beyond the £26m of public money it will get for Tokyo. There is a cost for building sporting heroes and administrators who fail at the first hurdle of scrutiny. There is a human cost for my athletes who on average receive £400 per month in benefits to live, find it near impossible to get a job and without support struggle with life let alone trying to be an elite athlete. And there is a cost of disconnecting from the very sectors of society public funding should support.
It is right that as a nation we should want to aspire to be the very best. But the obsession with numbers of medals has at best become unhealthy and at worst ugly. It troubles me that the current funding model sits uneasily with a public which is increasingly concerned about the polarisation of our society into the haves and have nots. The average person in our inner cities are alienated from many of the sports that have received the most funding for Tokyo – sailing, the sport of the former UK Sport Chair, is to receive £26m, equestrian, the sport of the Interim UK Sport Chair, £15.3m and rowing, the sport of the new UK Sport Chair, £32.1m – all proven medal winners but I will leave it for you to consider which side of a ‘them and us’ divide these sports would most naturally sit.
So, can a nation really feel proud of a funding formula which makes large awards of public money to the sports and individuals who already have the most but disenfranchises vulnerable athletes, denying them the opportunity to reach their potential. To deny them any funding is a betrayal of the 2012 legacy which actually set out to get more disabled people participating at every level and one which the Every Sport Matters agenda seeks to address by proposing a revised investment model. Eleven unfunded sports have come together urging the new Chair of UK Sport to recognise that medal targets alone should not be the sole criteria for funding. It proposes a tiered support structure to ensure every sport receives a basic level of funding to support athletes. We believe that this is achievable from economies within UK Sport existing costs and from economies within the English Institute of Sport. We don’t agree that there isn’t sufficient funding to go around, but that there is money – it’s just a case of how we choose to spend funds given to us by the Taxpayer and those who play the Lottery.