Was your favourite Olympic moment when you dialled up one of the extra BBC channels and looked at the medals table? If it was, then I pity you. You’re either the kind of person who sits at the end of the golf club bar talking about how we can still sock it to the foreigners – or you work for UK Sport.
UK Sport has one remit and it is a bizarre one. Its funding support is in the direction of winning medals of Olympics. Not world, European or commonwealth titles, not qualification for global events, not any other marker of sporting excellence or popularity. No, the only measure is Olympic success. So no funding for non-Olympic sports and no funding for sports that can’t guarantee medals.
That is why the Modern Pentathlon gets £7m because no other country seriously invests in it so setting up an ‘elite’ pathway pretty much guarantees a return when the world (i.e. Sue Barker on BBC1) is watching. That is why rowing is now the most significantly funded sport in their portfolio. Rowing. Now, I love watching the Coxless Fours gunning for glory. But I also know that the only kids – with only occasional significant Redgrave variation – who can access it belong to the fee-paying schoolchildren class. There’s also not such a huge number of countries that row seriously so – heh, presto! – medals.
But when you look at handball, basketball, water polo, volleyball and the like (even crowded athletics events like the 100m) then you realise these are globally popular sports will never come with that required guarantee. There’s only one gold available per gender after all. And whilst the British like to think they invented all the world’s sports (and now lose at them) that’s nowhere near being true. I don’t much care for basketball but it takes a special kind of insular Brit to believe it is only popular in the States despite that country’s lock on the gold medal. These sports are mostly straightforward to access and require very little in complicated equipment – they are open to all provided you can get a booking at the leisure centre.
Now, we turn to handball. I strongly believe that most people in this country still don’t get quite how popular handball actually is outside the English speaking world (I’m also coming to the opinion that a lot of international handball organisations themselves also don’t quite get it either but that’s by the by). So whilst we enjoyed the ride in the Copper Box at London 2012 and got to see the handball final live on terrestial TV I suspect some people (and all of UK Sport’s tedious bean counters) were wondering quite why Great Britain didn’t win a match. Just one measly match.
Handball has been here before, of course. Long before this jonny-come-lately started watching. There was no money for anything in 2005 and now we have significant investment from Sport England that will sustain the participation increase noted since before the Olympics which has accelerated since then. We’re not ever going to be as big as the game is across swathes of Europe but without support for internationals it’s difficult to see how we’re going to be able to properly test ourselves against them either.
And that’s where the UK Sport approach fails. It works rather brilliantly when you identify either a sport without mass global appeal (which applies to none of the Olympic team sports) or where investment in a handful of athletes can be all-but guaranteed to put you ahead of Australia in the medals table. But it can never work when its turning mass participation sports which are easy for kids to access into competitive and respected international opponents.
The downside to this year’s Olympics was the snide undertow of the otherwise wonderful patriotism that accompanied Team GB. Unfortunately it is that snide undertow that UK Sport are told to encourage and for which they must direct funding. By every measure they use their decision to withdraw all funding from handball was entirely correct; by everything that is magnificent about sport it was, to use Danny Baker’s phrase, the decision of soul-less pinheaded weasels.