I can’t draw on personal experience to opine about how a huge, un-earned income influences one’s thinking. We can reasonably say it makes you more prone to extravagance than if you’d worked your fingers to the bone for every cent. And that when it dries up without warning and you’ve given no thought about paying your bills from now on, turmoil is inevitable. This what seems to be happening with the government funding of all Olympic sports in Britain. Our world class program draws a lot of its money from the UK National Lottery, launched in 1994.
After Britain’s dismal performance at the Atlanta Olympics 1996, where we finished 39th on the medal table, the government decided to divert some lottery money to a new state-sponsored elite athletes program, overseen by UK Sport.
But as many Brits have now stopped playing lotto and ticket sales are down nine per cent, sport, in turn, has taken a hit.
After Rio, 11 sports had their funding unceremoniously axed by UK Sport. This week they joined forces to make a very loud noise about what it is like to be skint.
Table tennis is leading the revolt, saying they’ve all been “thrown under the bus.” They argue that the rigid formula of allocating funds based on medals won defies Olympic principles; and that over time world class has created a “culture of fear,” with the “bullying” of athletes (in cycling specifically) by administrators panicked about keeping a foothold on the funding bandwagon.
This is interesting timing, because in recent months there has also been unprecedented criticism of the world class programme, by the heavyweight columnists in Horse & Hound.
While our eventers returned empty-handed from Rio, for the first time since Atlanta, but Nick Skelton, Charlotte Dujardin and our dressage team placated the medal target-setters.
Equestrian has, though, suffered a drop in funding through to Tokyo 2020 of nearly £2.5million (to just under £15.5 million, the para budget is separate and ring-fenced). The practical effect will be more marked in this cycle there are two long haul trips for the teams, with WEG 2018 in the U.S. rather than a cheap and easy ferry ride to the French coast. Visible changes already have ranged from disappearing personnel – notably long-term coaches to the GB eventing team, Tracey Robinson and Peter Murphy – to cutbacks in travel to key overseas competitions. Until now, for instance, the Rolex Kentucky three-day event was a regular date for the GB elite eventing squad. This spring just one Brit, Zara Tindall, took part – because High Kingdom’s owner Trevor Hemmings paid for their trip himself.
Among other riders, Nick Skelton and Peter Charles have hit out at the failure of world class to produce a new generation of jumpers: they write that the “wrong” people have been hired for and fired from the slew of UK Sport-funded administrative and coaching roles.
Britain, the 2012 Olympic jumping team champion, is now languishing in the secondary European Nations Cup division, bringing extra worries for performance manager Di Lampard about opportunities to bring on new combinations on at five-star. The youth program has taken such a hit that at recent multi-team event in Wierden, Clare Whitaker (John’s wife) and Tony Newbery had a staggering 32 riders to chef between them.
Nick was dropped from the world class squad after 2012 to make way for young talent. I hardly need to labour that irony.
On the dressage front, Carl Hester made some intriguing remarks in H&H about the sudden disappearance of loyal team sponsors. We are now hearing that some of them called it a day after being asked to stump up even more dosh to help compensate for the lottery shortfall.
Then last week revered dressage trainer Pammy Hutton shone a light on the number of non-horsey persons filling key roles (yes, Canadian friends, it’s happening to us too.) Historically, these have usually gone to persons steeped in horse sport, often with a military background.
Gordon Burton, Team GB equestrian’s new overall performance director who replaced the short-lived Dan Hughes, came direct from a similar role at UK Sport, with a background in canoeing and rowing.
And while Valegro’s retirement will influence British medal hopes for the 2017 European championship, our domestic dressage community is equally exercised about the effect of losing its well-liked performance manager Richard “Dickie” Waygood. He has moved across to eventing to work alongside Chris Bartle, which means finding decent salaries for two top bods where previously there was one, Yogi Breisner.
Dickie was not replaced at dressage for several months. Now in post, Caroline Griffith is well qualified but also, ahem, mother of team contender Lara Butler. Hutton reports in H&H that Griffith will sit out of selection meetings to avoid any hint of conflict of interest – yet sitting in is surely integral to that job?
Britain’s all-conquering para riders have also recently lost their much-loved coach, Michel Assouline, to the U.S. – how on earth did that happen? I also think Team GB never really recovered from the move of overall performance director Will Connell to USEF in 2014. Connell certainly had the ear of UK Sport and is a logistics ace.
The world class program’s new austerity budget also highlights quite how many roles were created at its inception 20 years ago. When the “lottery money” landed like manna from heaven, a fair bit of imagination must have been needed to spend it all in line with the not-much-relevance-to-horse sport template initially imposed by UK Sport.
Results at world and Olympic championships have been better since the inception of the world class program, though not markedly better than in the 20-year period immediately before it, aside from the Atlanta glitch.
One main difference is actually the transformation of the British Equestrian Federation as an administrative entity.
BEF was formed in 1972 primarily as an umbrella to represent the miscellany of autonomous organisations – notably the British Show Jumping Association, the British Horse Society – to the FEI.
But then the BEF was tasked with handling the new world class budget. In just a couple of years its payroll mushroomed from secretary-general and his secretary to 30-odd world class-related posts. I haven’t found out what the current staff rota looks like, but as BEF is not in itself a major revenue-generator I suspect more pain is on the way.
I somehow doubt the British experience is unique, and that state-funding of minority sport is also losing its lustre in other parts of the world too.
I certainly agree with the 11 “revolting” sports that medal targets should never have been the sole decider of funding. If a national team has been consistently successful, the first year it bombs at the Olympics is surely the very time funding for the next four-year cycle should be shored-up, not pulled, so that a “recovery” plan can be put in place.
I put that scenario myself to UK Sport as long ago as 2003, after I was asked to assist British show jumping whose money was axed through failure to qualify a full team for Athens 2004. I drafted a long narrative in support of a discretionary grant for the qualified individuals.
I dimly recall UK Sport was persuaded to part with £60,000. Once safely in Greece, Nick Skelton and Arko nearly won the gold, and Robert Smith and Mr Springfield finished just a smidgen off bronze – underlining exactly why UK Sport should not kick a sport when it’s down!