Sports that have propelled Britain up the medal table have received extra investment while others have had their funding cut altogether
In the past 24 hours Team GB have rewritten their Olympic history, moving ahead of China into second place in the Rio 2016 medals table after winning a record-breaking five gold medals in a single day.
With Olympic champions in tennis, golf, gymnastics and cycling – and another assured in sailing – the team’s directors hailed national lottery funding and the legacy of London 2012 for the Rio goldrush. So how has funding in British sport changed in the run-up to Super Sunday?
UK Sport, which determines how public funds raised via the national lottery and tax are allocated to elite-level sport, has pledged almost £350m to Olympic and Paralympic sports between 2013 and 2017, up 11% on the run-up to London 2012.
Those sports that have fuelled the rise in Britain’s medal-table positions over the past eight years – athletics, boxing and cycling, for example – were rewarded with increased investment. “It’s a brutal regime, but it’s as crude as it is effective,” said Dr Borja Garcia, a senior lecturer in sports management and policy at Loughborough University.
Sports that failed to hit their 2012 medal target – including crowd-pleasers such as wrestling, table tennis and volleyball – either had their funding reduced or cut altogether. Has that affected their prospects in Rio? It may be too soon to tell, but so far swimming is the only sport that has won medals at this Olympics after having it funding cut post-2012.
The aim is quite simple: to ensure Great Britain becomes the first home nation to deliver more medals at the following away Games. As it stands after day nine on Sunday, Team GB has one more medal than at the equivalent stage in London – their most successful ever Games.
Adam Peaty competes in the men’s 4x100m medley relay final on day eight of Rio 2016. Photograph: Adam Pretty/Getty Images
Spearheaded by the gold medal-winning Adam Peaty, Team GB has already secured its biggest Olympic medal haul in the pool since 1984, but it was one of the elite sports to have its funding slashed from £25.1m to £20.8m after a disappointing London 2012, when its three medals missed the target of between five and seven.
With six medals so far in Rio – one gold and five silvers – it has already passed its target of five for this Olympic Games. Its national governing body, British Swimming, will hope to be rewarded for this success with an increase in funding before Tokyo 2020.
UK Sport funding for medal-winning Olympians is assured, but some of the clubs where they spend long hours training are struggling to survive. Peaty’s City of Derby swimming club was almost forced to close last year when two pools in the city shut down for nearly three months, its chairman, Peter Spink, said.
“If we hadn’t got the focus of the council back on to swimming, things would have got a lot worse for us,” he said. “Worst case, closure could have happened. I don’t think I felt we got that close fortunately but unless we did something drastic and worked our way through it then, if not closed, we would have been a very much diminished club.”
Steve Layton, the club’s secretary, credited the local authority for fixing a roof at one pool and reopening another that had previously been closed, but added that it was only a matter of time before one of the “not fit for purpose” facilities was permanently closed down.
The club is trying to raise sponsorship money through partnerships with local companies, he said, but has so far been unable to raise enough money to pay for coaches rather than rely on volunteers. The ultimate aim is to raise enough investment for an Olympic-standard 50m pool in Derby, so that the Adam Peatys of tomorrow are not confined to the city’s 25m pools.
“Swimming is not like football. It doesn’t draw the crowds and we are in times of austerity. We understand all that, but we are trying to get sponsorship to give us some support,” Layton said.
The grand rhetoric of an Olympic legacy after London 2012 did not add up to much for cities such as Derby, but Spink said he was hopeful now of more investment in swimming following Team GB’s success in Rio. “The legacy of the London Olympics was always a big thing. We saw that a little bit, but of late that has dwindled a bit. The issues we have in Derby demonstrate that there really wasn’t the appetite either in local or national government to fund sport in that way,” he said.
Along with a knighthood for Bradley Wiggins, an increase in funding followed Team GB’s cycling success in London 2012. Their final tally of 12 medals exceeded the target of between six and 10, resulting in a boost to British Cycling’s coffers from £26m to £30.2m.
In Rio, Team GB has secured six medals – four gold and two silver – and smashed two world records, with both the women’s and men’s team pursuit taking gold. It is well on the way to reaching its final Rio target of between eight and 10 medals.
Max Whitlock’s heroics in the Olympics arena on Super Sunday ended a 116-year wait for a British gymnastics Olympic champion.
His double gold also boosted Team GB’s medal count in the sport to four, with Louis Smith winning silver in the pommel horse and Bryony Page becoming the first British woman to win an Olympic trampoline medal by claiming silver in Rio.
Having previously lost all of its elite-level funding, British gymnastics has experienced a steady increase in public investment over the past 20 years, from £5.9m at Sydney 2000 to £14.6m in the current cycle, after it benefited from a 36% funding increase after beating its medal target in London 2012.
In addition to the funding given to each sport’s governing body, some elite stars – described by UK Sport as “podium-level athletes – also qualify for individual funding to help with living costs.
Medallists at the Olympic Games, senior world championships and Paralympics gold medallists can receive up to £28,000 a year in athlete performance awards funded by the national lottery.
Sportsmen and women who finish in the top eight in the Olympics can receive up to £21,500 a year. Future stars, those expected to win medals on the world or Olympic stage within four years, can get up to £15,000 a year.
Has it worked?
Most experts agree that UK Sports “no compromise” funding approach has underpinned Great Britain’s rise from 36th in the medal table in Atlanta in 1996 to third at London 2012.
“It’s a very rational, cold approach. Medals have gone up. British elite sport is certainly booming. The returns of medals per pound is there,” said Garcia.
Some critics, however, say UK Sport’s approach has gone too far and is damaging grassroots sport. They have argued that focusing disproportionately on sports such as cycling, sailing and rowing has meant those such as basketball risk withering because they were unable to demonstrate they would win a medal at either of the next two Olympics.
“We can ask all the philosophical questions, which are valid. What about basketball, which has a lot of social potential in the inner cities? What about volleyball? What about fencing? Why focus on specific sports?” said Garcia.
“Participation is going down. Why do we invest all this money in all those medals? Just to get the medals? To get people active? To make Great Britain’s name known around the world? With a cold analysis of the objectives and the money invested, yes it has worked.
“I have some sympathy for UK Sport as an organisation. They were given the objectives and they delivered.”
In May, Sport England, which focuses on grassroots sport, unveiled a four-year strategy to target inactivity. More than a quarter of the population is officially defined as inactive because they do less than 30 minutes of activity a week, including walking.
The move is a lurch away from the earlier strategy, which was set before London 2012 and focused on getting more people to play more sport with only mixed results.
Severe cuts to local authority budgets are also squeezing resources at the grassroots level. Councils across England have been forced to make cuts since 2010, when grant funding for local authorities was cut by a fifth, more than twice the level of cuts to the rest of the UK public sector
Many smaller, older swimming pools are being closed at a time when more people are being inspired to get in the water, thanks in part to Team GB medal winners Jazz Carlin, Siobhan-Marie O’Connor and Peaty.
The Amateur Swimming Association (ASA) said this weekend that there had been a huge jump in the number of people searching online for their nearest leisure pool during the first few days of the Games.
Alison Clowes, the ASA’s head of media, said 80,000 people had used its “poolfinder” app between 5 and 11 August – almost double the rate for the same period in July – and the ASA was getting dozens of phone inquiries too. “We’ve already seen a boost from our Olympic successes, which is great,” she said.
Meanwhile, the average level of swimming proficiency among schoolchildren requires improvement. ASA research shows that 52% of children leave school unable to swim 25 metres unaided.
Jennie Price, the chief executive of Sport England, said: “Watching our athletes achieving great things in Rio is truly inspirational, particularly for young people. Whether it encourages them to get more active, try something new or even strive for gold themselves one day, Team GB is making a massive contribution to sport back home.
“A relatively small number of sports feature regularly on prime-time TV, so for many the Olympic Games is the moment that catapults them onto the screens of the nation. We need to capitalise on that, for example with programmes like Backing the Best where Sport England supports young talented athletes at the beginning of their sporting careers.
“There will be new Max Whitlocks and Kath Graingers out there who Sport England will support through our funding of the talent system, but most won’t reach those heights. Our main aim is making sure all young people get a positive experience when they try a sport and whatever they choose to do, come away with the good basic skills and having had a great time.”