Ed Warner, the UK Athletics chairman, has called for the end of UK Sport’s “no compromise” approach, saying that “it has had its time” and that the relentless pursuit of Olympic medals should be replaced by a more nuanced policy, in which sports such as basketball are also funded for the positive impact they have on society.
Warner suggested that a “fundamental review” into elite funding was also needed following the bullying allegations and governance problems that have engulfed British Cycling, as well as the unpopular decision to strip all money from badminton and wheelchair rugby.
“We have reached a point where the win-at-all-cost approach of UK Sport has had its time,” Warner said. “These issues must come to a head with a thorough review of the entire elite funding structure and principles underlying it. There is too much of a culture of medal winners and non-medal winners which is unhealthy and doesn’t speak well for us as a sporting society.”
Warner, who is the most high-profile figure in British Sport to speak out against UK Sport’s approach, suggested that the appointment of a new chairman to replace Rod Carr later this year could provide a “magnificent opportunity” for the funding body to change tack, and reconsider some of the decisions to end funding for sports such as badminton.
“It would be my hope, as we are only a few months into this four-year Olympic cycle, that it is not too late for a more elegant and intelligent objective than a pure medal-winning yardstick,” he said. “That might lead to some sports that are being disenfranchised still being able to be included in Tokyo funding.
“Nothing would give a lot of people, including me, greater pleasure than seeing some of the sports that had their funding chopped go to Tokyo and win medals – and be able to stick a metaphorical finger up at those who say right now that they don’t have any chances.”
Warner said that a new chair should aim “to take what has been great in terms of medal achievement and make it greater still” by looking at different measures other than medals of how sports can achieve success and inspire the nation. He also suggested that the majority of the public would prefer to see a British basketball team or wheelchair rugby get funding to compete at the Tokyo Olympics rather than see a big sport win yet another medal.
“Post London 2012 basketball was one of the big losers but this is a sport which is fast-growing and played by people with deprived backgrounds,” he said. “We should do everything we can to have a British team back in the Olympics for the inspirational effect it would have on youngsters.
“Certainly we need a grown-up debate that looks at the benefits of one extra marginal medal out of the very many that Britain wins, versus the ability to fund an aspirant sport like basketball that is hugely important internationally and the benefits of which could be enormous in terms of people participating.”
Warner also suggested that UK Sport could have done better at addressing the problems at British Cycling. “Lottery funding carries obligations in both directions, not only on the governing bodies to do the right thing by the funding agency but also for the funding agency to do the right thing by the sports,” he said. “It would appear from the outside that UK Sport may well have fallen down on its part of the bargain in ensuring that funds are deployed in the right way to the best ends of the public. But there is going to be change at the top and that is wonderful opportunity for a new beginning.”
However the British Olympic Association chairman, Bill Sweeney, insisted that there was not much wrong with a system that brought Team GB 67 Olympic and 147 Paralympic medals in Rio. “We believe we have the best high-performance system in the world,” he said. “The last thing we would want to have is such a squeaky clean system where people are afraid to challenge an athlete and then we come away from Tokyo ninth in the medal table. The public reaction wouldn’t be great.”
Speaking at the SportPro conference at Wembley, Sweeney also disputed Warner’s view that it would inspire more of the public to have a British basketball team in Olympics than fund a 12th cycling medal. “I don’t agree with Ed on that one,” he said. “Look at the Six Nations this year - Italy were thrashed every time they played. If you put a British basketball team up against an NBA all-stars team they would get beaten something like 160 points to 20. Is that going to incentivise a team to play further?”