Winters and losers: skiers and skaters face funding freeze
Last week's UK Sport funding announcement brought good news to a large number of Olympic sports and a lot of athletes. The broad message? Here's more money; go out and win more medals.
But while one hand gave to hockey, gymnastics, skeleton and curling, the other took from skiing, snowboarding and figure skating. As things stand, those three sports will now receive no cash at all from the UK's central funding body for sport.
That news has taken a psychological toll on the individuals battling for results in those sports. Britain's top alpine skier, Chemmy Alcott, broke down in tears reflecting on a week where she broke her leg and lost more than £60,000-a-year in funding. Top snowboarder Zoe Gillings only discovered she had lost her financial support when a friend read it on the BBC website.
UK Sport may argue that if skiing's governing body cannot tell its athletes when they have just had all their funding axed, then it does not deserve the money in the first place.
However, life in these sports is not as simple as being funded or unfunded, and it is not the vanishing cash that most incenses Alcott and Gillings.
Tears and fears for Chemmy Alcott (UK users only)
To place the withdrawal of UK Sport's support into context, the last funding announcement - in 2006, for the build-up to Vancouver 2010 - gave skiing and snowboarding roughly £600,000. Cash was specifically awarded to Alcott and Gillings, who both received in the region of £60,000 each year towards the costs of training, competing, travelling and support staff. But, in the world of competitive snowsport, that sum barely touches the sides.
"The money I was getting before paid for maybe one fifth of my programme," explained 28-year-old Alcott, resting her broken leg on the sofa, when I visited her London home. "With the help of private sponsors I had to put in more than £150,000 of my own money. UK Sport withdrawing their funding won't make a huge amount of financial difference.
"It's more the insult. It's about being told that people out there do not believe in you. To have your own national funding body not believe in you hurts."
Gillings, speaking on the phone from France as she continues her recovery from a knee injury, added: "To get all the services I really need, and that my American and Canadian rivals have, I'd need £90,000 a year." (She's posted a detailed explanation of how she spends her money in her Daily Mail column.)
How Chemmy Alcott reacted to the funding cut on her Facebook page.
The central tenet of UK Sport's funding strategy is its "no compromise" approach: the organisation will only fund sports which it believes demonstrate Olympic medal-winning potential. That rule has been applied to summer sports for a while, but last week UK Sport extended it to winter sports for the first time.
Skeleton, curling, women's bobsleigh and short-track speed skating benefited handsomely, alongside six summer sports. But skiing, snowboarding and figure skating were told they did not have that same potential, and did not deserve any cash.
The main gripes from sports which missed out can be summarised as follows:
"I understand that it's difficult and that there will always be some sport complaining," said Alcott. "But whether skeleton needs that amount of money [now £3.4m, up £1.3m] and what programme changes they make, I'll be interested to see. And how does cycling need more than £20m? [Cycling is receiving in excess of £26m to prepare for London 2012.] I'm not saying take their funding away, but give us £1m of that! One twenty-sixth.
"When UK Sport evaluate athletes they look at your age and how long you've been around, but they don't look at your journey. They don't look at the fact that my mum passed away after Torino 2006 and I spent time in a wheelchair with a broken ankle. And they won't look at this, either," she added, gesturing towards the enormous, jagged scar on her broken leg.
"It's hard not to take it personally. I'm quite emotional at the moment with the crash and then to have this, within a week of that horrible experience, is far from ideal.
"I'm trying to be the best in the world. I was ranked eighth at the start of the season and obviously that'll change with this injury but the support wasn't there. I know they feel like they were supporting me but, compared to the support the Austrians and Germans get, it's nothing.
"I was racing for Britain but skiing with the Canadian team and that was a great set-up, it's different having team-mates to fight against day in, day out. Without UK Sport I don't know how we'll do it next year."
Got a business head on your shoulders? Zoe Gillings wants to hear from you. Photo: AFP
UK Sport may have shut the door on these sports, but it hasn't locked it. "As with any non-funded Olympic sport, their ongoing performance will be assessed annually and they are able to be funded in the future if they meet the criteria set out in UK Sport's investment strategy," said the funding body in a statement.
For now, athletes face a battle to find funding elsewhere - as they have done throughout their careers. If both Alcott and Gillings, prior recipients of UK Sport cash, had to top it up substantially, imagine the hardships faced by the legion of athletes who never enjoyed that support.
"We didn't really think there was any money coming. It was more the hope," explained David King, who forms Britain's foremost pairs figure skating duo with Stacey Kemp. The two live and train in Poland but, in the wake of the announcement, are now moving back to Britain in an attempt to earn cash by coaching youngsters.
"If we wanted to contend at the next Olympics, UK Sport had to come through for us. We were the first British pairs skating team at an Olympics for 16 years and that was without any money. We were the only pairs team in Vancouver without a wage, let alone travel and coaching costs paid. Now we're told that to get funding, we've got to try to get a medal with no money."
The duo, plus Alcott, Gillings and the rest, are now drumming up what support they can elsewhere. Levels of enthusiasm and optimism vary.
"With the downturn that's happened, there are no companies out there that want to sponsor us, because they need to be making money first," is 26-year-old King's view. "As it stands, if we can't find sponsors there's no way we're making Sochi. If you're an athlete you're classed as a second-rate citizen at the moment."
Gillings has decided that if no companies are going to back her, she may as well set one up herself. She has already sent hopeful tweets in the direction of Dragons' Den star Peter Jones, despite admitting she hasn't the slightest business experience.
"My plan now is to turn entrepreneur," she told me. "I'm going to start up a business at the same time as training and competing. I don't know if anyone reading this has any ideas but I'm searching for a mentor in the business world to help me out, I've got a few ideas for different businesses to start up in the winter sports market.
"If I can get that going it'll be a steady stream of money. I don't really have much choice. I've had a couple of tears, by myself in my bedroom."
Alcott has plenty of time to chew over her options, with the injury expected to keep her out of action for at least a year.
"I've got 12 months out so there's an opportunity to get some jobs," she said. "We've got an idea to take a ski machine in the back of the car and let people have a go at skiing. I've been so lucky to be in this sport my whole life, but there are some people who've never had the chance to try it.
"But if I make this physical and emotional comeback, I want there to be the support there for me to be able to ski. It's really sad. This is my future and I worked really hard for it - it'll be traumatic if I fight to get back from this and there's no programme.
"Then what's the point?"