Opinion: Should we change the way sport is funded, or risk the health, and economy of the country?

scalesUK Sport’s World Class Performance Programme is the centrepiece of sports funding in the UK, and competition for funding is fierce. On top of this, localised funding from councils for leisure centres, athletic tracks, and swimming facilities seem to follow this trend, and are likely to support Olympic/Paralympic training facilities over other sports.  The results of this mean that we are able to punch way above our weight on the Olympic and Paralympic stages.

The trouble with this strategy is that funding is only available to the few, and those who are unlikely to gain medals are penalised. Even those who are able to fund themselves may be denied Olympian status, despite hitting official Olympic qualifying standards in the UK, if the British Olympic Association deems them not capable of finishing on the podium. This is a harsh message, and means that funding for grassroots sports in the UK is very low compared to other countries in Europe.

These policies reduce the trickle down effect that should follow the headlining gold rush of Olympic medals. In order to attract funding, each sports governing body has had to change their own strategy from one that promotes healthy living to one that targets only those who can achieve medal success. To set this in context, figures from the Medical Research Association, and the NHS, predict an obesity rate of 50% in the UK by 2050. The costs of obesity related illnesses to the NHS are already running into billions, with this bill set to rise if predictions are realised.

So what am I saying? Well, I certainly agree there is nothing wrong with having an outstanding Olympic team, and certainly there is a role for competitive sports that we must foster.  The problem I have is that we simply can’t afford this luxury, and funding needs to be more carefully distributed to grassroots levels.  If we don’t do this we’ll develop a country with the facade of sport success, but with an unhealthy population. To sustain the ‘status quo’  means we’ll have a double bill of funding sports, and funding an increasing NHS bill; all this with a less productive economy from an unhealthy population.

This is a controversial argument, because I am effectively saying that the processes that have led to medal success at the Olympics must stop.  However we need a debate because we simply can’t afford the extra billions on an already expanding NHS bill.

* Colin Gell is a Lib Dem member in Stockport, and blogs at www.trepidation.co.uk

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  • Surely a solution is to ensure that a reasonable percentage of the monies that go into “professional” sport, get fed down to grassroots sporting provision. Remember this was the system operated by the Football League, until it got greedy and decided to cut grassroots funding. Obviously with lottery and direct government monies it is possible to do this without too much ado, the lesson from the Football League is to ensure the funding formula is enshrined in law so that it applies to all monies received.

  • Roland, the French have a system which brings in funding from Professional Football Clubs, and works with other funding providers to put the money into grassroots sport, and they do have a healthy population. They do have a problem however with the agenda’s of the Big football clubs dominating however.

  • Colin – great article on an area I’m involved with locally. But it doesn’t mention the impact that elite success has on grassroots participation. After the Olympics, our local clubs had hundreds of people wanting to try new sports: rowing, canoeing, cycling, athletics unsurprisingly, but our handball, korfball, and orienteering clubs as well saw booms by people inspired by sport more generally. And our local clubs – particularly those needing expensive equipment such as rowing – couldn’t cope. They weren’t ready either being prepared for dealing with volume of applications, or lacking coaches / facilities etc.

    So yes we need funding at grassroots level, but we need to understand the effect of elite sport on participation, and link the two to make sure that at times of peak interest, we are ready on the ground to welcome newcomers and to turn them into the core for the next bulge. We’ve not yet worked out how to do that, but it’s what we’re working towards.

  • Thanks tpfkar, yes definetely the Olympic fever has hit, & we do really well on club membership in this country. That’s why this needs people like you debating these topics so we can show politicians what needs to change, as we aren’t geting healthier as a nation. Certainly a group that ensures clubs can perpare for periodic periods of interest on sport i s a good idea.

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