Olympic cut-backs? Sport has never had it so good

2012 commentary by Steven Downes
It has been the £600 million debate that has been the talk of British Olympic circles for the past three months, but one in which a fundamental point has been missed. Quite simply, to paraphrase Harold MacMillan, British sport has never had it so good.

Three years ago, UK Sport, the government quango that distributes public money to Britain’s Olympic sports, was asked by Gordon Brown to put together a spending plan for performance grants for the period from Beijing to London. The euphoria of London winning the 2012 Games was still fresh. Together with the British Olympic Association, UK Sport devised a set of targets for Team GB to finish fourth on the London medal table.

The sceptics said it could never be done, pointing to the single British gold medal in 1996, and to the hard-won 10th place in 2004. Undaunted, UK Sport, supported by the BOA, asked for £600 million. There was a feel of “think of a number, and double it”: UK Sport was already committed to investing more on preparing British teams in the build-up to Beijing than at any time before, paying £360 million in grants through to 2008, using cash from central government as well as the National Lottery.

Extraordinarily, Chancellor Brown, previously best known for his catchphrase of “prudence”, said that the sports lobby would get most of its cash: £300 million from the Treasury, £200 million from the Lottery. Leaving just £100 million for UK Sport to raise for itself (admittedly, not saying quite how that might be done, without marketing assets such as the Olympic rings or even the unloved London 2012 logo to offer potential sponsors). It is that last chunk of money which to this day remains unraised, and which had caused the gnashing of teeth and wailing.

Fast-forward to September 2008, and British teams return from Beijing with the best Olympic result for a century and a century of medals from the Paralympics. And fourth place in the Olympic medal table – all achieved on little more than half of the budget for 2008-2012.

Therein lies the nub of nonsense surrounding this week’s hue and cry about “spending cuts” from a handful of sports of which most Britons know nothing and care even less – handball? volleyball? fencing?

Even the under-achievers in 2008, such as UK Athletics, came away from Wednesday’s grant announcements with near-parity with what they had received in the Beijing Olympiad. Other sports, such as hockey and, in particular, basketball, walked away with massive increases in their public funding.

There remains a small matter of UK Sport having to somehow raise the balance for its budget between now and 2012 in the least sympathetic commercial environment in 80 years. But for British sport, things really are not so bad.

That has much to do with the manner in which the government has “managed” public expectations. This may, the cynically disposed suggest, have something to do with spinmaster-in-chief Peter Mandelson being back in the cabinet.

Since Beijing, dire warnings of the unraised money, “a funding black hole” and financial cut-backs have seeped out. By Tuesday, when the culture and sport minister went public with an extra £50 million he had somehow discovered in the bottom drawer of a Whitehall filing cabinet, some of the more naïve sports press wrote of how Andy Burnham had “ridden to the rescue of British sport”. Job done, Lord Mandelson.

Still, some in sport are not quite “on message”. Andy Hunt, barely a month into his job as BOA CEO, accused the government of failing “to honour their funding promise to all our Olympic sports”.

Now just hold on a moment, Andy: we are in the midst of the biggest economic recession the world has suffered since the 1930s, people – though not you, of course, in your new £150,000 per year role – are losing their jobs and homes. And the government agrees to spend more than half as much again on sport in the next four years as it did in the previous Olympiad.

Just look at the figures again: £350 million and 19 gold medals in 2008; at least £550 million, plus home advantage and how many golds in 2012?

Back in the bad old days of the mid-1990s, before the then Conservative government allowed Lottery cash to fund Britain’s sports teams, only the under-resourced Steve Redgrave was able to go to the Atlanta Games and come home with gold.

Between now and 2012, even the aggrieved “paupers” among Britain’s teams will be significantly better funded than at any time in history. Now, it is up to their administrators and coaches to deliver some medals.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and in no way reflect official policy of the Sports Journalists’ Association.

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