Whenever the BBC trumpeted a “Team GB” medal-winner at the Sochi Winter Olympics and Paralympics, I confess to a sensation of nausea.
It wasn’t the athlete – well done to them – that turned the stomach but the gushing, at times hysterical, jingoistic commentary which had a Pravda-like quality. Erase “Team GB” from the mind and you could be in Eastern Europe before the Wall came down or, God forbid, the present North Korea. Suddenly, from a country that was content merely to try to participate, we’ve become boasting, shouting champions.
It was the same in the last summer Olympics in London, when any hope of an unbiased commentary was non-existent. Indeed, if you recall, we were supposed to be experiencing collective depression because at first we were not winning medals – no matter that the Games were providing a superb spectacle and the rest of the world was loving them.
This week, this lust for gold, silver and bronze, and hang the rest, reached its nadir with a sad parade of sports appealing against the decision to withdraw their central funding because they’re no longer regarded as serious medal prospects. One by one they’ve been trooping into UK Sport – basketball, synchronised swimming, water polo and weightlifting, and from the Paralympic sports, five-a-side football, goalball and wheelchair fencing – to make their pitches.
They will hear next week if they’ve been successful. But I would not count on it. As UK Sport chief executive Liz Nichol has declared, her organisation takes a “no compromise”, winning-is-all approach towards investing its cash.
No matter that the £100m UK Sport spends each year is public cash, drawn from all of us, from the National Lottery and the Exchequer. No matter, too, that at school we’re always taught that it’s not the winning but the taking part that counts.
Something has changed, so that winning is everything – regardless of how many people actually play the game or the role it fills in society. Basketball is young, inner-city and largely black. Who cares? They’re never going to beat the basketball superpowers, so as far as cash goes, they’re out. They’ve had £8.5m withdrawn.
Goalball is played by the blind and visually impaired. It’s a bit like handball, involving a ball that contains bells and a wider than normal goal. Incredibly fast, physically demanding and requiring a lot of skill, it was started after the Second World War as a way of rehabilitating blinded soldiers. It’s big in the rest of Europe and is growing here – up to 240 UK competitors and 28 clubs.
UK goalball relies upon finance from Sport England (£750,000 a year) to develop the grassroots, and private donations. UK Sport had agreed to help develop its national women’s team to the tune of £800,000 annually over four years. Then the women had one bad tournament, and slipped down the rankings. UK Sport reviewed their funding, decided they were no longer a probable contender for a medal, and withdrew.
John Coles, chairman of Goalball UK, told me the youngest member of the squad is 16, the oldest 27. These are young people with a profound disability who derive enormous pleasure from playing a sport and had set their hearts on going to the Paralympics. Now that carrot has been removed. “They may lose interest if they can’t go to Rio for the next Paralympics or, after that, Tokyo,” he said. “They will probably look for another sport or give up sport completely.”
His argument is that “the balance is wrong. The funding is based too much on medals – and not encouraging people to play the game.”
Within the sports community, arguments rage as well about which activities still continue to be favoured. So the likes of basketball and goalball say goodbye to their UK Sport money but fencing (almost £4m a year), sailing (£25.5m), modern pentathlon (£6.9m), rowing (£32m) and shooting (£3.2m) will get theirs. All of these are not exactly easy to take up pastimes, known for being mass participation, and open to the urban poor or disabled. It could be maintained, as well, that these are sports which might attract private sector, City sponsorship, rather than rely on the public purse. But under the new, all-pervading super-efficiency, they present us with chances of securing medals so their money is guaranteed.
It’s a cold attitude. And distinctly un-British. Of course, we love to win, but we’ve never regarded the medals table as the be all and end all, an expression of our collective self-worth. Carry on like this and it won’t be long before we’re taking small children that display athletic promise away from their parents and sending them to strict training camps to turn them into adult world-beaters. We used to sneer at this sort of behaviour when it was practised by authoritarian regimes. Now we’re not far away from heading there ourselves.
Is it really, despite the breast-beating and screaming of the BBC, what we desire? Is there anything so petty as to remove the funding for a young blind woman who loves goalball because her team may not win a medal? A cherished attribute will disappear from out national psyche if we allow this policy to remain. The joy and romance which we adore so much will perish.
From now on, at the school sports day we will be reminding our kids: it’s the winning, not the taking part. And GB will be the loser.