As a country we are hooked on Olympic success. As our athletes head out to South Korea for the Winter Olympics, back home we await glory in the form of medals. For the athletes themselves it is the pinnacle of years and years of hard work and sacrifice. Behind the glory however is a system that is failing the very people it is supposed to help. UK Sport funds most of the Olympic Sports, with the funding being directly proportional to the medals the given sport is predicted to win. In order to be eligible for the money, each sport needs to adopt a form of governance laid down by UK Sport. This governance includes structured (and supposedly transparent) levels of management ranging from independent Directors, Performance Directors and a Performance Pathway – all designed to create a system which produces medals. Note I disn’t say athletes, or people winning medals. For this is the problem with the system. The system is designed to win medals – period.
The athletes are merely a conduit to gaining more funding to keep the governance in place (and thus jobs). Let’s face it, if you were a Performance Director on say £60,000 a year, you’d be wanting to get more funding at the end of the 4 year Olympic cycle wouldn’t you? This ‘medals for cash’ system creates cultures within Elite Sport that lead to bullying, harassment, unfair selection, cover ups, and nepotism. There have been many high profile instances of this in Cycling, Swimming, Gymnastics and Archery to name but a few.
The victims in all of this are the athletes themselves – caught in a trap of chasing dreams, but being at the mercy of National Governing Bodies and the UK Sport system of governance. When UK Sport deems a sport to be ‘unable’ to win a medal or medals at an Olympics, they either reduce the funding for the next 4 years or cut it completely. This has the effect of leaving the victims with all the governance hierarchy yet no money to pay them and it leaves the athletes with huge choices to make regarding their training and competition costs. The problem is further compounded by the fact the hierarchy do not want to make themselves redundant, and do not want to change the governance structure (as this would preclude further funding applications in the future).
The given sport is then stuck in vicious circle in which the only way out is either giving up their funding model and trying to access sponsorship monies and/or cutting administration staff, coaching and development of grass roots sport, thus compounding their inability to achieve future medal success. Many of the Olympic Sports in the UK used to be run for the benefit of their membership – with the members having a true say in how their sport is run, but with the introduction of money, UK Sport governance rules and structures, this is no longer the case. This is causing a huge amount of dissatisfaction within many sports, leading many ordinary sports people, and Elite athletes too, wondering whether the Olympic Dream is really worth it.