EXCLUSIVE: Top sport administrator calls for UK funding reform
The governing bodies of seven Olympic and Paralympic sports now face financial uncertainty, but Professor John Brewer, former chairman of both the British Handball Association and British Ski and Snowboard, believes that there are many public misconceptions about how funding for UK athletes works.
Speaking exclusively to Sports Gazette, he said: “The understandably emotive headlines around the sports that have lost funding refer to funding that they’ve lost at the top level - we actually have two funding systems in the UK.
“There is the UK Sport funding which funds elite sports performance, that’s the funding that helps us win medals at World and Olympic Championships.
“Alongside that we have the home countries funding so you’ve got the sports councils like Sport England - their remit is to fund grassroots sport.”
Although there is often, and understandably, clear genuine anxiety and distress within governing bodies who have lost top-level funding, money for encouraging grassroots participation is generally retained or occasionally even increased.
As former chairman of the British Handball Association, Brewer has first-hand experience of how a cut in one funding stream doesn’t automatically impact the other.
He said: “The British Handball Association was, in effect, existing purely to support the handball teams going to London 2012.
“We qualified because we were the host nations and we knew that it was unlikely that we were going to win a medal so therefore accepted that once the Games were over the elite level funding would stop.
“What we had to do was to show that we could generate an interest in the sport that would create the demand for handball at club level and school level and we achieved that.
“You’ve now got the development officers working with school teachers, working at club level to really promote a base for the sport.What I would like to see at times is perhaps more of a parachute type payment approach”
I’m very happy about the fact that when I left handball it was in a much better place than it was when I started because our participation in the Olympics had resulted in grassroots funding for the sport.”
UK Sport’s no-compromise approach has paid dividends at previous Olympics with Team GB picking up record-breaking medal hauls at both London 2012 and Rio 2016.
Brewer said: “You only have to look back at how our medal winning performances have changed from the Atlanta Olympics through to both London 2012 and more recently in Rio to see how by funding the best we get great performances.
“I think the difficulty is there are many people whose life styles depend on the funding that they get through the lottery so when that is cut almost overnight, it can have quite a devastating effect.”
One prominent and lasting impact is on the development of up-and-coming athletes.
London 2012 pledged to inspire a generation but, in terms of creating the next Mo Farah or Jess Ennis-Hill, is significantly threatened when a sport loses funding and drops off the radar.
Brewer said: “Athletes have a limited lifespan and sports that have perhaps lost two or three good athletes, just as a result of the passage of time, say well okay that generation is gone - what do we now do? How do we have the support in place to create the next generation?
“When you have a gap, it’s that gap that causes this funding to be cut.
“It’s very difficult to recover from a gap because you’ve lost that funding and you’ve lost that talent.”
Brewer, who helped select Team GB members for Sochi 2014, has a clear idea and message for UK Sport in terms of how best to progress and develop the system.
He said: “What I would like to see at times is perhaps more of a parachute type payment approach where there is a period of time that is given to an athlete, or indeed a sport, to turn itself around and start to have genuine medal winning prospects.
“Let’s make sure we have structures in place that don’t just have this kind of funding-no funding-funding-no funding cycle.
“There needs to be a bit more continuity that enables sport to develop and to continue on the right pathway.”