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Reviewing the UK's approach to sporting success

03 September 2018 by Craig Beeston

Reviewing the UK's approach to sporting success

UK Sport’s funding strategy consultation is an opportunity to review our interpretation of sporting achievement

UK Sport, the high performance agency responsible for investing in elite level sport, recently closed a public consultation on its funding strategy – to begin in April 2021 after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This presented the opportunity for stakeholders to deliver their verdicts on the present model, alongside their visions for the future.

UK Sport’s strategy to date has been to target, explicitly and unapologetically, Olympic and Paralympic disciplines with the greatest medal-winning potential. In that respect alone its success has been exceptional. From a solitary gold and a medal table ranking of 36th at the Atlanta Games in 1996, Team GB’s record haul of 67 medals, including 27 gold, at the 2016 Rio Olympics was bettered only by the United States. A more modest but still discernible improvement has been overseen in Winter Olympic performance, never the UK’s strongest suit.

“The consultation is an opportunity to re-evaluate a number of assumptions underpinning UK Sport’s strategy”

The focus given to the Paralympic Games since the run-up to London 2012 seems also to have marked a shift in profile and helped to disabuse many of preconceptions that may have existed about para-sports and people with disabilities in general.Yet misgivings remain over the choice of sports targeted for investment and the culture promoted by UK Sport’s ‘no compromise’ approach.

Defining inspiration

The consultation is an opportunity to re-evaluate a number of assumptions underpinning UK Sport’s strategy. First, that the Olympic and Paralympic Games represent the pinnacle of sporting profile and athletic endeavour. Second, that podium finishes are an easily measurable and widely understood metric of success. Third, that success under this definition is inspirational.

This third notion is one which pervades the agency’s communications. Even the consultation document was premised significantly on this interplay. Exactly who is being inspired, however, and to do what, is not always clear.

In terms of boosting participation, a positive effect is not immediately apparent. The Active People Survey, focusing on England, demonstrates that the number of adults engaging in physical activity has not increased significantly since the middle of the last decade and even dipped marginally after London 2012 – the very point at which, if Olympic success motivates the public to get active, one might expect the greatest increases.

The selection of disciplines in which UK Sport invests is material. Facilities and infrastructure are under pressure across sports of all description, but access to engagement in some of those under the agency’s funding model is particularly restricted. This can be due to their nature – winter sports, for example – or to the prohibitive costs of equipment.

The funded sports may offer the best opportunity for medals, but they may not represent the most accessible and it could be argued there is little point in ‘inspiring’ the public, if they cannot take up the sport they have seen. In fact, a notable feature of UK Sport’s ‘investment’ portfolio is the absence of some sports widely available at leisure centres around the country.Nor do UK Sport-funded disciplines feature prominently in Deloitte’s annual list of those most attended by spectators.

“There is little point in ‘inspiring’ the public, if they cannot take up the sport they have seen”

These observations suggest that decision making under the current model starts by identifying sports with the highest likelihood of medal success and then seeks to generate interest around that subsequent achievement, rather than supporting already popular sports and converting that popularity into elite performance. Such logic might be open to question.

The value of this inspiration, then, might fall on the important, but perhaps nebulous, notion of national pride. No doubt we have seen some unforgettable moments under the current funding approach – measuring this, however, and assessing its impact and value for money is practically impossible.

The Olympics and Paralympics represent only a narrow range of the available opportunities for elite participation across disability and able-bodied sport, both in terms of the sports excluded from those showcase events and the potential to overlook the major international championships which occur between Games. If it is looking to provide inspiration, UK Sport may well find it elsewhere than one mega event every four years.

Target hit, point missed

Targets-based models can be useful in assessing performance against investment, but they are vulnerable to commonly identified adverse outcomes.

In UK Sport’s model, there is the potential for a concentration of time and effort on athletes and teams either susceptible to falling into a lower medal category or capable of being lifted into a higher one. Such a ‘threshold effect’ operating at the macro-level, excluding

from funding those sports and athletes deemed to have an insufficient likelihood of success, risks creating a closed shop – where under-investment means those sports cannot progress talent or appeal to a wider audience and thus remain unlikely to demonstrate the medal-potential demanded in return for investment.

The spate of allegations of bullying and discrimination within a number of UK Sport-funded programmes highlighted serious shortcomings in organisational cultures. Elite sport is by definition a competitive environment, but it is difficult to avoid the suspicion that the door has been at least ajar to a win-at-all-costs mentality.

The conclusions of the independent review into the culture at British Cycling were clear that the blinding effect of medal targets had a negative influence on behaviour. The incentives inherent in a high-stakes, inflexible success-oriented funding model could be argued to have encouraged this.

We have heard repeatedly in recent years that the public would be prepared to accept fewer medals in return for assurances that the environment in which they are pursued is safe and supportive. Stakeholders are increasingly aware of the value of achieving success ‘in the right way’.

UK Sport has recently undertaken some important initiatives in this regard and that impetus must not be lost. Athlete welfare is crucial and must sit alongside performance in any definition of success. A reassessment of the decision not to treat funded athletes as employees may now also be timely.

Alongside this, explicitly focusing on medal potential risks losing sight of what sport is for – rendering success a case of ‘hitting the target but missing the point’. Allied to the concept of ‘what gets measured gets done’, this could invite a sporting equivalent of ‘teaching to the test’, whereby wider benefits are eschewed in deference to the pursuit of a narrowly-defined concept of success.

“Reliance on a single source of income is a significant risk”

Both the achievement of medals and medal-table rankings are to a degree contingent on the performance of other countries. This is not within UK Sport’s control and as such represents a risk in the current investment strategy. What happens to the inspirational value of the funding model if performance begins to plateau or decline, either in absolute or relative terms? A second place finish in the Olympic medal table, for instance, is unlikely to be bettered.

This could be mitigated by shifting the focus, where applicable, onto other measures of performance, such as the achievement of personal bests and national records or some other pre-determined goals, perhaps in disciplines in which the UK currently does not lead the world.

We are often told that we can ask no more of a team or athlete than to perform to their potential. This cannot always yield a medal, but progress, pioneering performances and achievements gained ‘in the right way’ can be regarded as just as valuable under a redefinition of ‘success’.

Financial stability

Now might be a good time to reconsider the financial sustainability of funded organisations. National Lottery income is volatile and the indications are that the total available monies will reduce in future cycles. Reliance on a single source of income is a significant risk for all organisations and the boards of national governing bodies, as well as UK Sport, need to consider how this affects their long-term viability.

Already successful organisations that are able to generate a portion of their own income might be an area worth exploring. If UK Sport were able to scale back public investment in bodies with commercial potential and redistribute funds towards those not currently supported, a more equitable model might be found, which balances high performance with the development of new areas of potential.

This might prompt objections of a two-tier system, which favours those sports able to attract commercial interest. Yet a two-tier system already exists between those funded and those not. Reconfiguring the model might enable UK Sport to better reflect the nation’s sporting habits and preferences, and achieve greater social impact by opening up new opportunities and improving the diversity of its funded sports and athletes.

UK Sport’s chair, Dame Katherine Grainger, has already indicated that the future may require more creativity in approaches to resource allocation. It will be a challenge for both funder and recipients to do more with less. This might involve encouraging different sports to pool some resources.

It could be argued that the UK punches above its weight in the sporting arena and, certainly, many UK Sport-funded World Class Programmes are the envy of the world. By inviting the public to contribute to its consultation, the agency has provided

the opportunity for debate on what stakeholders want to achieve in the future, on the direction of strategy and on the priorities for public investment in sport.

This potentially marks a watershed moment to shape elite sport policy for a decade or more. The ultimate purpose of sport is central to that discussion.

Craig Beeston is policy officer, not for profit, at ICSA: The Governance Institute

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