Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Sport Funding

Funding for Olympic sport, rather like arts funding, is often a contentious issue. While people will generally want their country to do well in international competition, they aren't always happy that millions of pounds are spent on the athletes, coaches, facilities and so on that are generally needed to compete at the elite level.

Take my own preferred sport of fencing, for example. The British Olympic Association has announced that, as it has only been able to raise £10million of a projected £50million from private businesses towards the olympics, funding for those sports deemed least likely to produce medals has been cut severely for this olympic cycle. Both fencing and paraolympic fencing have been severely hit. The number of elite athletes funded has been cut by about a third, and there is now no provision at all for elite men's epee.

Why is this? Now, I don't really know enough about the women's game to comment (I barely bother following the men's, and that's mostly so that I have some idea of where I'm up to) but the short answer seems to be that they have looked at current performers and where they are placing. Richard Kruse (foil) and Alex O'Connell (sabre) have done sufficiently well in recent years to save their weapons from the scrapheap, but no one is winning anything internationally at men's epee. It seems logical, doesn't it, that we should concentrate our funding where it will do most good?

Except... Firstly, Richard Kruse strikes me as being on the downslope of a mediocre career, and O' Connell's best days are probably also behind him. Using current senior performances as a predictor of success in four years is therefore probably not that good an idea. Secondly, without some sort of funding, none of our fencers will win internationally. The difference in standard between top domestic and international competitions may be small enough in France, the USA or Hungary for it not to make a difference, but here the general standard is quite low.

Thirdly, I'd be interested in seeing how they decide who is 'elite' enough to get funding. As a friend of mine pointed out, the way the british ranking system works, Kruse could maintain his position as Britain's premier foilist almost indefinitely by attending a few international competitions and coming in the last 64 or so. The points multipliers for such high level competitions could place him at the top of the rankings by a distance without him ever having to fence domestically. As the top of the rankings, he would then be selected for international matches... and so on. Good on him for getting to that point, but now he's there, and getting funded, there must be a temptation to stamp on the fingers on anyone better coming up.

Bizarrely though, having whinged about the money, I'm going to suggest that it isn't what we need. I mean, yes, money to pay for the hideously expensive safety equipment is always helpful, and good coaches are nice, but the main reason this country doesn't make an impact at the top level (and thus doesn't get funding) is that not enough kids are attracted to the sport for talent to arise. Why? My theory is that what we're really being starved of is media coverage. Even at the Olympics, the BBC showed about ten minutes of our fencing, all featuring Richard Kruse, with no sign of either O' Connell or our women. People tend to play sport because they are surrounded by it, either in person or in the media. Now, people aren't going to be sword-fighting up the high street, so really the latter option is the only one that matters. Give us that over funding any day.


Tim said...

Actually Jon Willis has won one of top three men's epee tourneys in recent years. However, given that he has a million a year sponsership deal with B&Q I guess british fencing didn't feel the need to add more.

stu said...

Well that's even worse then. Still, more money for cycling.