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What looks like a dull story reveals Britain's attitude to sport

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Matt Slater | 12:01 UK time, Wednesday, 28 July 2010

As dull but worthy stories go it is hard to top a tale about the merger of two non-departmental public bodies.

But trust me, Monday's announcement that Sport England and UK Sport are to become a single agency (they hate the word quango) is less boring and more important than it sounds.

Before I explain why, however, I should probably tell you what they do.

Sport England funds grassroots projects and is responsible for boosting participation in sport and protecting the country's playing fields.

UK Sport bankrolls Team GB's Olympic and Paralympic preparations. It is all about elite activity and sits at the top of British sport's participation pyramid.

Clearly, there is some crossover in what they do but the two areas of expertise and responsibility are pretty separate.

Between them, they spend about £200m of public money a year at the moment, with much of this coming from the National Lottery.

Mo Farah and Chris ThompsonRecent evidence suggests the current funding model is producing golden results for British sport

The problem, of course, is that the country is skint. If we cannot afford to build hospitals and schools, Sport England and UK Sport will just have to get used to the idea of hot-desks and sharing the photocopiers.

The Coalition Government argues it has a cast-iron commitment to funding elite athletes and believes this new merged body could actually lead to more investment in sport with increased contributions from the lottery and the private sector.

There is a certain logic to Sports Minister Hugh Robertson's assertion that it cannot be the most effective use of public money to have two separate bodies in separate London offices but I still question the timing and reasoning behind this decision.

Let me explain why:

First, we have spent decades bumbling along at the elite level, achieving the occasional success despite the "system", only to get our acts together in the last decade and properly invest time and money in our best sportsmen and women.

The results have been incredible, with Team GB moving from 36th in the Olympic medal table in Atlanta in 1996, to 10th in Sydney and Athens, to fourth in Beijiing.

UK Sport is held up around the globe as an example of how you run elite sport. Having borrowed ideas and people from abroad, the world is now copying us.

Second, Sport England has been constantly interfered with over the last decade as ministers have changed strategies and targets. The last couple of years, however, have seen the latest "trust the sports" approach start to work.

Duplication of effort has been trimmed and participation levels are rising, albeit slowly.

Three, as you may have noticed, the Olympics are now just two years away. This is both the biggest piece of work and greatest opportunity British sport will get in most of our lifetimes.

Is this really the best time for the government to be asking the two most important agencies in this area to be worrying about a merger?

Four, grassroots sport in the UK is a devolved issue. Sport England has counterparts in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. UK Sport, however, works across the nations.

Jeremy HuntCulture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has to make cuts to his department's budget

Any marriage of convenience will have to accommodate this complexity. Will a merged English one-stop shop work any better with the Celtic fringe than the current grassroots/elite split?

Yes, I know we have spent the last month bleating about the World Cup, Wimbledon and any other sporting event we shamefully failed to win, but we consistently fail to see sport as a solution to some of our most glaring problems: childhood obesity, diabetes, social exclusion, teenage crime and so on.

These are serious issues and they require serious, joined-up solutions.

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  • Comment number 1.

    You'd like to think one 'umbrella' organisation would be more able to carry out the roles performed by the merged bodies with greater efficiency but it makes you wonder why we had seperate organisations set up in the first place?

    The abolition of the free swimming for under-16s and over-60s is totally nonsensical and the government should be looking at widening the scheme into other sports not shutting it down. Encouraging as much participation in sport as possible improves the health and all around performance of the entire country and if the former relatively poor 'Soviet' countries reaped benefits from it why can't we?

    Morning exercises 'Japanese Style' before work/school anyone?

  • Comment number 2.

    Great blog, as usual, Matt. I've never commented on any blog before but your article has stirred me to do so. As you say, small but important announcement for those of us who care about British (not just English) sport and it does not seem to be the right time to tinker with a system that seems to be delivering results.

    The cynic in me thinks something of this nature was inevitable with the change in government but I wish there was less inclination to change for the sake of change. In this instance, it looks like we might have thrown the baby out with the bath water. Didn't Kate Hoey and Colin Moynihan produce a report shortly before the Olympic bid decision in 2005 that recommended something like this, a streamlining of quangos?

    Let's just hope that this doesn't have a significant impact on either performance or inspration come 2012 because it won't have had enough time to do so. That's the real legacy for sport opportunity when everyone will want on this bandwagon.

  • Comment number 3.

    Originally The Sports Council, separated into UK Sport and Sport England in mid 90's. Not specifically set up as two organisations, came out of split between UK funded sport and England sport.

  • Comment number 4.

    Elite sport IS different from mainstream sport, it requires a completely different mindset and needs to be run by people who understand this.

    Cycling and swimming, which were the headline grabbers in Beijing, have all the hallmarks of being run by a small, totally dedicated and passionate team. That is what it takes to succeed at this level.

    Grassroots sport requires a completely different ethos - participation is key, the more the merrier. This is fundamentally different from elite sport.

    The two are incompatible and amalgamation will need some very careful thought and planning.

    Having said that, there is tremendous waste in the current set-up so it's no wonder the government have gone gunning for the inefficiency - they're doing it on our behalf!

    What we may find ourselves asking is, in this financial climate, is £1m per medal money well spent, because those are the figures we are looking at. Does the taxpayer really want British success at that price? Public services are being cut back - yes even over 60's swimming - and we have to ask ourselves whether seeing our grannies go swimming twice a week and keeping active is trumped by a few headlines about successful British sportsmen/sportswomen? Personally I would prefer to see the grannies swimming - it gives me a greater sense of societal/civic pride than 'one-day' headlines about a gold medal in a sport I probably don't even understand and will never participate in.

    There is however one thing I would like to take you to task on Matt, the evidence that the hosting of an Olympic Games significantly increases participation in sport is extremely sketchy. In fact it is virtually non-existent. Yes of course we will have a lot of headline events over the next two years where hordes of schoolchildren will hurl javelins en masse and jump up and down on trampolines but the much vaunted 'legacy' is a myth. The politicians can bleat about it as much as they like but it will not sustain beyond the games if it even ever amounts to anything meaningful in the lead up to them.

    For the past 20 years or so I have worked in sport both here and in Australia and I can tell you this 'legacy' of a rejuvenated population participating in sport in numbers hitherto unimagined, inspired by the Olympic Games does not (in the case of Sydney 2000) and will not (London 2012) happen.

  • Comment number 5.

    I guess the question ultimately is whether the qualities required to succeed in the two arenas can be integrated successfully into a partnership?

    1. Go-getting, target-setting, goal-oriented, accountable for performance in global competition. Sounds like the traditional bread winner.
    2. Nurturing, supporting, training, empowering, encouraging, exhorting, negotiating and standing up to psychotic elitists who project their personal domain onto the entire country. Sounds like the traditional home builder.

    Of course, Britain's ability to nurture successful partnerships of this kind is a byword for uselessness, bickering, fights, splits and rows about who pays what for what credit where the young talent is concerned.

    Send in the the experts at marriage guidance, relationship building and partnership formation and there won't be a problem.

    Of course, if the leadership of both organisations is appropriate, they won't need any of that.

    Do the leaderships think they ARE appropriate, or are any of them in need of a 'new challenge'????

  • Comment number 6.

    Am I alone in hoping that we can use the upcoming Olympics to demonstrate how magnanimous this nation, England, can be in defeat? I know that Wales Scotland and N Ireland, for example, find it a bit harder to swallow their pride when things go badly, despite plenty of practice at it. But the English and in particular Londoners, are no better at honestly facing up to their failings, and we are sure to have plenty by July 2012 up to which we shall have to face.

    UK Sport and Sport England together will probably make a pig's ear out of this complete waste of sporting money. No doubt we shall fail to live up to expectations on the medal front, just as surely as we failed in the World Cup football competition. Magnanimity in defeat wasn't in evidence much then, but let us hope we can find some magnanimity in 2012.

    We could certainly do better than most other countries in this respect. The French are useless at it, the Americans don't know the meaning of the word, the Germans never need to be, it's against the law in Italy, and in Spain it's unheard of.

    I'd like to hear what plans are in place to develop some sort of strategy, some sort of preparation for defeat. Poor planning will only end in the farcical situation where defeated athlete after defeated athlete will stand in front of the cameras and complain about a heavy cold they once had, or a disruption in training 6 months before the event.

    Let's hear more talk of possible failures and less hype about how well we are going to do. I'm already sick of the 2012 Olympic positive spin.

  • Comment number 7.

    Two interesting views..

    Matt's original article really related to a change in structure of the organisations responsible for delivering sport in England/UK and the effect this may have on both elite and recreational programmes - maybe we are getting away from that a little - mea culpa.

    The truth is we don't really know I guess? If the staff within both organisations are passionate enough about their particular areas of sport then it's got to be possible to make a success of the merger. Sport, almost uniquely, has the power to liberate passion within individuals even in management/coaching positions - normal rules of business can sometimes be put aside. Where problems will come is if the budgets of guys like Dave Brailsford and Jurgen Grobler are interfered with by people who are not wholly 'on board' with their elite sport thinking. Guys like that are not used to being questioned too much and may take their coat and walk.

  • Comment number 8.

    UK Sport has done a good job, Sport England I remain to be convinced! UK Sport has at least evened out the 'playing field between the UK Athletes and the rest of the world in terms of funding and backup. Sport England however seems to fall between stools. Is it grass root or elite development? And is it independent or just the mouthpiece of the sport NGB's. Just try questioning what an NGB is doing to Sport England! Their check seem's to consist of asking the NGB if they are doing a good job!
    We need to have the facilities and funding to allow the elite to reach their potential, BUT, we also need the facilities available to allow for mass participation not something that all NGB's are interested in and Sport England follows their lead.With 2 years to the kick-off of 2012, I looked at the fact that I am still not teaching my sport locally as the sports provider in the area can't be bothered to organise it. Sport for All?


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