One phrase has come to define Britain’s transformation from international underachievers to major force at Olympic and Paralympic Games over the last 15 years: “no compromise”.
The slogan was coined to distil a narrowing of UK Sport’s funding focus; from 2004, only governing bodies and athletes likely to win gold, silver or bronze in the next cycle would receive investment. No medal potential? No funding. That is the essence of “no compromise”.
In medal terms, the strategy has been an overwhelming success. Team GB has risen from 10th in the medal table at the Athens 2004 Olympics to third at London 2012 and second in Rio three years ago. Paralympics GB also ranked second overall in 2016, while Britain’s winter Olympic and Paralympic fortunes too have reached new heights.
But questions have been raised about the strategy’s wider impact on the nation. While relatively niche sports in which Team GB could win medals but are not widely taken part in by the general population – skeleton, sailing, rowing – receive tens of millions, others with far larger participation figures – basketball, netball – can be left penniless if they do not represent a medal chance.
Now, however, the end of the “no compromise” era could be nigh. Following a feted and wide-reaching consultation on the current system, UK Sport revealed its investment strategy for the Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 Olympic and Paralympic cycles on Tuesday and it featured perhaps the most significant changes in two decades.
A third tier of funding – called “progression” – is to be added to the two existing channels, “podium” and “podium potential”, in a move designed to help sports and athletes with no short-term medal prospects progress towards that status.
Suitability for each of the three tiers is to be assessed independently so that sports may receive “podium potential” investment even if they do not qualify for “podium” funding. Again, the idea is to take a longer-term vision than the current framework allows.
The changes follow a strategy review launched last summer that took in an independent public consultation which garnered 4,923 responses, input from past and present athletes, support staff and stakeholders, and “futurology experts”.
UK Sport chair Katherine Grainger said feedback reflected a desire for “an investment strategy to be more seen as agile and more flexible”, and that helps “more sports and more athletes and will have a wider social impact”. But how much are things really about to change?
Retaining Team GB’s new-found position in the upper reaches of medal tables remains the chief ambition, with UK Sport reporting that 61 per cent of respondents to the consultation endorsed their current priorities, with only 10 per cent disagreeing.
“People still believe in our principal objective of success in Olympic and Paralympic Games,” said Grainger. “What we have heard loud and clear from the public and the sports themselves is: ‘We’ve not had enough yet. We want more.’”
UK Sport is also unwilling to commit to how much money or what proportion of its total funding will be available via the “progression” channel. A £3m Aspiration Fund announced by the government last year and aimed at sports who do not qualify for elite funding is equivalent to less than one per cent of UK Sport’s £360m pot.
Has there been a compromise, then, or is this just window dressing? Chief executive Liz Nicholl, who is due to step down this summer after 20 years at UK Sport, said: “I wouldn’t use the word ‘compromise’; we use the word ‘agile’. Every system has to change. It’s a natural part of the progression of a high-performance system that is never satisfied with the status quo and is always looking for how it can be better.”
Whatever the terminology, there has certainly been a compromise of sorts from UK Sport. Whether that satisfies those who feel disenfranchised by the existing model, affects medal tallies or proves to be little more than a token gesture to appease its critics, we likely won’t find out until the closing ceremony in Paris more than five years from now.