UK Sport’s funding of badminton, wheelchair rugby, archery, fencing and weightlifting ends at midnight on Friday night. Four months on from hearing they were the big losers in the funding battle we speak to athletes from those sports to discover how they are coping and their fears for the future.
Chris Langridge, badminton
'I'm an Olympic medalist but I'm worried I won't be able to provide for my unborn twins'.
When Chris Langridge discovered shortly after the Rio Olympics that his wife, Emma, was pregnant with twins, it seemed the timing couldn’t have been more perfect.
Langridge and Marcus Ellis had won bronze in the men’s doubles, Britain’s first badminton medal in 12 years, and negotiations with potential new sponsors were well under way.
Then UK Sport pulled the rug from beneath their feet, cutting all £5.7m in funding despite Langridge and Ellis’ success. Sponsors have disappeared and, with less than three months until Langridge has two more mouths to feed, he is consumed with worry about how he is going to manage.
“I have been worrying about how I am going to provide for my family. I’m an Olympic medalist but my finances are bleak as I’m in such an uncertain situation.
“As soon as your sport is told that funding is being removed a lot of sponsors look at you a different way, thinking you’re a risk and maybe they won’t invest. I think ‘I’m one of the best in the world and I can’t get sponsors - this is mad’.
“After I won that medal I thought that finally I could relax a little. Finally I can enjoy this a bit more.
“But no, I can’t. It is financial turmoil all over again. That is so tough and frustrating as I feel I have put in all this hard work for 21 years to achieve this medal and I haven’t really got much reward for it.”
The immediate solution is to compete in more tournaments in the hope of earning more prize money. That in turn means more time away from Emma, and the stress is compounded by the uncertainty over who will fund those trips in the future.
“It is going to get tougher with me away at tournaments trying to support my family,” Langridge adds.
“We don’t know how it’s going to unfold with trips. UK Sport have always paid for them but now we might have to contribute a lot more. If I’m in Asia for two weeks that’s £2000. That means I have to get a certain result or I have lost money, which puts the pressure on.
“This shows you could spend half your life on something you love and when you get there you don’t receive your rewards - it just gets dusted under the carpet.
“You do think ‘Is this heartache, is this pain worth it?’ At the moment it is, because I am still improving and there’s more I want to achieve.
“But their decision shows UK Sport are unwilling to take a risk. They fund the sports that are measured against the clock because they’re easy to analyse. They’ve played it safe and I can’t believe they have made this decision.”
Ayaz Bhuta, wheelchair rugby
'I've been told I'm an example to others and a pillar of my community - but I might have to go back to my dead-end job and I don't know how I'll cope'.
When Ayaz Bhuta looks ahead he sees two very different futures.
If Bhuta and his team-mates can find a private sponsor to cover the £12,000 annual wage they are set to lose as part of the UK Sport cuts, then he can continue in the sport he loves, representing his country and inspiring his community. Otherwise he will be back working in a call-centre.
“Wheelchair rugby has given me a purpose,” he says. “I can’t imagine what my life would be like without it and now I can feel I am going back to those dark days again. My confidence is low, I’m worried about money, I’m worried about my quality of life.
“I used to work in a bank processing centre doing fraud checks. I gave it up to pursue my real dream, which was a Paralympic medal. Now that has been taken away from me. My last resort is going back behind a desk again, which is so daunting for me.”
Back in December the UK Athletics chairman Ed Warner called the funding cuts suffered by wheelchair rugby ‘perverse’. If no other funding is secured Bhuta will lose more than just the sport he loves; he would also lose his burgeoning career as an inspirational public-speaker, travelling the country to give talks to schoolchildren and businesses.
“I try and inspire other people now to play sport, especially within my Muslim community where sport is really a last resort,” he adds. “I have learnt from seeing how others cope with their disability and I have done a lot of talks in schools, telling them the skills I have learnt. Wheelchair rugby has enabled me to tell my story to the world.”
Bhuta has two more months to make his decision after UK Sport extended the Athlete Performance Awards for a number of individuals until June, although he has lost access to his training base at the English Institute of Sport. There are, though, other avenues to try.
He adds: “We are talking to local councils, hoping they can give us access to their gyms for free. In exchange we can maybe do talks or help a local player. Another option is giving talks to universities - I could be a guinea pig for the students studying sports.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen but we love this sport and want to win our first ever Paralympic medal in wheelchair rugby. When the funding got cut our captain said maybe it’ll help us work harder and smarter to prove people wrong. We have got that drive within ourselves and that’s what we want to do.”
Toby Penty, badminton
'I've got no choice - I'm moving back in with my parents next week'
In January Toby Penty won his first major European title, the Swedish Open. The next day he was called to a 9am meeting with Badminton England’s performance director to be told he was one of 12 athletes - out of a squad of 24 - who were being released as a result of the UK Sport cuts.
This weekend he is competing in the Orleans International in France, his final tournament as part of the elite squad. As with the last three tournaments he has competed in Penty has funded it himself, staying in an Airbnb and paying for his own flights, meals, and entry fees.
Next week Penty moves back in with his parents in Walton-on-Thames. He has become a freelance athlete in a professional world.
“I’ve had my last week in Milton Keynes and then I move back in with my parents,” he says. “It’s been five years since I lived with them so it will be a bit weird, though I’m sure it will be nice in the short term.”
But moving home is just one of the effects of the lack of funding.
“I’ve had to pay for the last four tournaments out of my own pocket and that’s when you realise how much things cost, from entry fees to accommodation, travel and food - things you take for granted on a funded system,” he adds. “I won £2,500 in my last tournament but with all the other costs that doesn’t go that far.
“That balance between mapping out costs and living the lifestyle of a pro athlete is not an easy one to find. I am still a professional athlete so I need to look after my body while feeling as good mentally as I do physically. That means you don’t want to stay in the grottiest accommodation and not go out for dinner.
“But I have done really well in all my tournaments in 2017 - I’m hoping this will bring out the best in me.”
James-Andrew Davis, fencer
'I looked into becoming an Uber driver to make ends meet - I'm an amateur in a professional age'
When James-Andrew Davis was crowned European fencing champion in 2014 he didn’t expect that three years later he would be exploring becoming an Uber driver.
“I looked into it as soon as I heard our funding was cut but I couldn’t do it because I’m based in San Francisco and my visa won’t allow it,” laughs the men’s foilist. “But if I was based back in England I’d definitely have become an Uber driver alongside my fencing.”
Instead, he has found employment as a coach at his fencing club on America’s west coast, where he relocated three years ago, but he is now “an amateur in a professional age” with annual costs of £30,000 to cover before he even takes a salary. His fears the sport could again become the preserve of those with rich parents are very real.
“We aren’t getting paid much. I don’t live comfortably off this,” he says. “We get by. Anyone who thinks we live in a dreamworld and just party hard - it’s not true.
“At the moment I’m training in the morning and coaching in the afternoon. But every flight costs me £1000 and when I get to those tournaments I have to be smarter because I don’t have a coach there anymore. We know elite sport is about winning but we hit our criteria and my big fear is we lose a generation. We will have a gap of four or five years now which you can’t make up for.”
Gavin Walker, wheelchair rugby
'Some of my team-mates are already struggling, but if we can get through this we'll get through anything'
If those within wheelchair rugby thought there would be solidarity from other sports in their hour of need they were sorely mistaken. Instead, other Paralympic sports rushed to try and poach their best players. They did not succeed but the squad still face an uphill struggle.
“Some of our athletes are among the most disabled athletes you will see perform in the Paralympics and need extra support - which comes at a cost,” says vice-captain Gavin Walker.
“Right now we are urgently looking at how we fund our gym time and personal trainers, for example. Getting a personal trainer might seem like a luxury but because of our levels of disability we cannot use the machines without them.
“As a team we are looking at how we can give something back in return for help. That could be giving motivational talks on our experiences or being role models for others. We have two choices now - either lay down and feel sorry for ourselves or pick ourselves up, stay upbeat and do what we can.”
Wheelchair rugby has, like most of the other sports, started a crowdfunding page but it is a drop in the ocean compared to what was lost, and commercial sponsorship is required. If it is not, Walker is fearful for the future - although he is not the type to give up quite yet.
“There are a few players already struggling but we will make sure every one of them gets what they need,” he says. “We need to point those who don’t have life experience in the right direction. Some people have been in employment, and others would find it very difficult [if they had to get a job].
“But I’m trying to be upbeat. I’m hoping as a squad it can give us a bit of resilience. If we can get through this we can get through anything.”