Ashling O’Connor: If we keep funding individual sports just to bolster medal tables we risk losing the soul of what makes being part of a team so special

The current funding system fails to differentiate  between sport and exercise

From an early age, we are taught that being part of a team is one of life’s enriching experiences.

We are better people, we are told virtually from the moment we can run, for learning to share the highs and lows of competitive sport with our peers.

It prepares us for higher education and for our subsequent working life, where “being a team player” is a character trait to be referred to proudly and often during job interviews.

It is, furthermore, a principle upon which the Coalition Government’s new funding system for school sport is predicated.

It is confusing, therefore, to watch how team sports are being stripped of public funding at both the elite and grass-roots level beyond the playground.

Football was the latest to feel the wrath of the quangos as Sport England this week withdrew £1.6m from the Football Association for its failure to reverse a declining community participation rate.

It follows a decision last week by UK Sport, the distributor of Lottery and Exchequer money to elite athletes, to cut funding for a clutch of sports in the run-up to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, including basketball, water polo, visually impaired football and goalball.

The cuts led to accusations that the system is biased against team sports because they are more expensive to fund relative to the potential return measured in medals (a gold won by a team of people counts for just one on the medal table but will have cost many times the amount of money to achieve a gold in an individual discipline).

In our ruthless pursuit of Olympic and Paralympic success, we have diverted money to sports where we can win the most medals for the lowest cost per capita. Hence, cycling – the new darling of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport – is receiving £30.6m in the current quadrennial and basketball is getting nothing.

It does seem a little unfair, although totally in line with UK Sport’s strict “no compromise” formula that has engendered such success across so many sports at international level. It is success few of us would trade in, if we were being honest.

Yet, with Sport England now getting tough with those failing to increase participation at the amateur level, some sports are in danger of being eroded at  both ends.

What is the point of asking our children to fall in love with traditional team sports if we tell them as they leave school that they would be better off on a bike or in a boat if their ambition is to win an Olympic medal?

There has to be something to aim for. Take that away – the prospect of being an Olympic champion, for example – and it will be increasingly difficult to lure new participants and decline becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The nub of the issue is that the current funding system fails to differentiate between sport and exercise. In the week that Britain’s chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, warned that being overweight was increasingly being viewed as the norm, it is not hard to see why.

It makes a compelling case for funding when British Cycling can point to a potential £2.5bn saving for the National Health Service over the next decade if just 10 per cent of journeys in England and Wales were made by bike.

But this has little to do with sport. The political impetus to defuse Britain’s obesity time bomb, which rightly needs addressing, means the parameters have become blurred.

Football will never be able to double up as a mode of transport just as basketball will not get credit if a player goes for a 10-mile run as part of a club training regime. That would be chalked up to athletics.

It is clearly time to acknowledge the grey areas that require a different approach to funding. Lord Coe, chairman of the British Olympic Association, said this week he would lobby ministers to review the way team sports are funded, although this would be too late for the Rio 2016 aspirants.

While the progress made in the run-up to London is lost, there is little sense of urgency. It was nearly two years ago that Sir Clive Woodward, the Rugby World Cup-winning coach and deputy chef de mission for Team GB at London 2012, suggested that money should be ring-fenced for team sports. Still, it has not been dealt with.

Without a rethink, we will become a nation of sporting individualists. This has worrying social implications, given the trend in the digital age for doing fewer and fewer things with other real people.

One of the best things about sport is being part of a team – the collective spirit, the sense of duty to others, shared elation or devastation and a beer in the bar afterwards (only for the grown-ups, obviously).

Lose that, and “sport” becomes little more than jamming in earphones and plugging into a machine. That may enrich the body but it does little for the soul.

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