GB’s Olympic formula: is medal success the ‘right’ goal for UK Sport investment?

Rio 2016 has seen Britain’s best medal haul in over a century: second in the world with 67 medals. Whilst the more cynical might attribute some of its success to the decline of other nations, it is generally acknowledged that UK Sport’s system of investment lies behind GB’s success. But is the magnificent medal haul the intended aim of these public funds? Currently sports such as basketball (one of the most popular sports amongst young people in the UK) receive no funding, whilst high-performing sports continue on a self-perpetuating virtuous cycle of more funding and even better performance.

So what’s GB’s winning formula? A key strength has been to create a contagious culture of excellence. Athletic ability has been backed up by world-class training provision and support, with sports technicians optimising athletes’ sleep and shaving habits, and regularly putting athletes into pressured fatigued states to hone their competition decision-making. A system has also been created for constant regeneration, where the next generation of GB talent is snapping at the heels of the current gold-medallists, pushing both to achieve new heights and ensuring success at the next Games, as evidenced by Team GB having won more fourth places than any other nation. Of course, none of this would have been possible without substantial funding.

Who funds sport, and who gets the funding? Just 20 years ago, after the humiliation of only one gold in Atlanta, John Major decided to divert National Lottery funding into elite sport. Now an estimated fifth of National Lottery money goes to sport, almost £350m across 2013-17. ‘UK Sport’ is the body with the specific remit in investing these funds at the “top end” of Britain’s high performance sporting pathway. Overall Team GB has hugely benefitted from this influx of funding, with medal success heavily influenced by where UK Sport have placed investment, as shown by the trend in the chart below. Funding has not flowed to all British sports equally, but UK Sport has targeted their investment using the simple formula of those athletes most likely to deliver medals at the next two Olympics and Paralympics. However, medal prediction is not an exact science – some sports (e.g. cycling) showing a greater “returns” than others, and conversely some areas over-performing (e.g. hockey). Progression between the Games is also evident in the below: in addition to the well-publicised increase in both funding and medal count from Beijing to Rio, you can also see a change in the spread and focus in different areas of the sporting arena:


Funding & medals per sport at each of the 2008, 2012, 2016 Olympic Games (UK Sport)

Is GB’s medal tally the ‘right’ investment goal? In January 2015, UK Sport published the results of their research survey (, in which sector stakeholders and the public were asked if their sport investment formula should be more complex in future. Whilst the majority (72%) of sector stakeholders felt that the current focus on medals should continue, given its measurability and likely impact on wider sport; others felt it should be interpreted differently or balanced by other factors. Several respondents made the point that there is more to sport than medals – the broader impact on the community, health and other social benefits, through increased participation and inclusion. UK Sport’s current approach is felt to favour “niche” sports where the global standard of competition is lower, and disadvantage sports such as table tennis and basketball where it is very hard to win a medal miss out at the expense of those where heavy investment in technology and talent can yield success. Whilst substantially changing the system was felt to be an unnecessary risk, given Rio’s medal success, it was the definition of success that was called into question – is a brilliant medal haul the true goal of investment in sport?

What other factors could be in the funding formula? A wide range of different measures were put forward, but the following consistently featured. Popularity / participation: many respondents, especially public respondents, felt that focusing on medals alone does not necessarily encourage grass-root sport participation (the first steps in the performance pathway), so a sport’s national popularity should be an indication of a sport’s success: “Investments should be targeted at sports that are relevant to the largest numbers of people in the UK, and not to sports that are rarely played due to weather conditions or cost”; “UK Sport should consider the availability of facilities in the UK for both elite athletes to train at and future medal winners to get a taste for the sport.”

Social impact / demographic spread: the ability of the sport to engage and inspire a broad demographic was deemed important, since “it is not clear that our final position in the table is inspirational to all sections of society”. “[Invest] if [a sport] reaches out to all demographics, all ages and all abilities, provides real reachable roles models that can inspire and engage our young people”. Many respondents argued that success in some sports has or would have a greater impact on society: “all sports are not equal in the way they engage young people within different sections of our society.” Several thought that, given the lower levels of commercial funding in women’s sport, UK Sport should “support sports that encourage women to participate.” And finally, in terms of wealth distribution: “Without funding of elite junior sport, only rich kids with wealthy parents can access high level training and events and effectively buy their way on to teams”.

Tailored progress thresholds: an argument was made that progress (e.g. from 10th to 7th in the world) in a highly competitive sport, or one where fewer medals are available, could be equivalent to podium success in a less competitive sport. “It is much easier to win medals in certain sports, and in others the dominance of certain nations makes it impossible to win soon. Without recognising significant progress certain sports can never develop into disciplines that we could win medals in.” “The path of progression towards world class level will be different for different sports…with minimum standards and improvement rates to be demonstrated, not necessarily linear”.

Special treatment for team sports: it was felt that currently “the system and measures severely disadvantages team sports…”; “Team sports appear expensive for UK Sport to fund, because they are deemed to offer a return on investment of just one medal per team…but team sports are responsible for a very high percentage of sports participation among school-age children…and are strong vehicles for women’s and girls’ participation…higher impact in terms of social benefits.” Some suggested separate pools of funding should be made available to team sports and individual sports, since comparing success between the two is too difficult, and given that team sports have unique ever-changing dynamics, requiring longer-term funding: “Team sport requires not only the simultaneous development of numbers of high-quality performers, but also the blending of those performers into an efficient and effective unit…should be three cycles not two”.

Diminishing returns: Some respondents argued that first or early medals in a sport carried more significance than the “diminishing returns” of additional medals in already successful sports. A solution was proposed to give more weight to how many other medals a sport has won previously or is set to win. “There is a point at which the programmes reach ‘critical mass’ as with business organisations. Continuing to reward success, without recognising the law of diminishing returns, is not an effective allocation of resources.” It was argued that some of the larger established sports were being “over-funded”, i.e. could deliver the same number of medals on a smaller budget, and that the system did not pick this up. UK Sport promised to investigate these points.

Sustainability versus breadth: success in sports where Britain has little pedigree, such as trampolining and diving, suggest that attempts to increase the breadth of potential medal-winning sports is working. However, some argue that sustainability is more important than breadth: “There are virtuous circles and vicious circles, and I think sometimes stopping a [growing] sport from slipping into a vicious circle… is more important than just giving more and more money to the same sports that always do well.” Some argued that short-term medal success was not an optimal use of funds, but commitment to sustainable success should guide funding: “Each funded sport should demonstrate a clear sustainable talent pathway that will lead to continued medal success…improved conversion of numbers of athletes from each layer of the performance system to the next.”

Longer-term funding / funding gaps: whilst it was acknowledged that additional funding would be required for longer-term investment, respondents were asked whether UK Sport should consider investing in those who are more than eight years away from winning a medal. 8 years has so far been deemed appropriate to avoid “dilution” of funds if the timeframe were longer, and given the difficulties in identifying the true potential of future medallists more than eight years in advance. However, it was argued that some sports & athletes take longer to develop; promising adult athletes can still be over eight years away from medal success: “[We believe] there is a case for [longer-term funding] in late maturation sports where the average age of Olympic medallists is 25+/ 30+ (e.g. equestrian)”. As above, team sports were thought to need longer-term funding, but also more generally it was felt that there is a “gap” in the current system between the early stages of the pathway and the 8-year Olympic run-up: “Currently… [sports] often lose young talent when athletes reach 18-19 years of age and fall into a funding gap between Home Nation Sport Councils and UK Sport…with a two-pronged yet more aligned approach between [Sport England and UK Sport], the investment framework would be more effective in supporting and sustaining a sport’s pathway as a whole (thus developing athletes who are more than 8 years away from medal success).”

Finally, should non-Olympic / non-high-performance but “culturally important” sports get a share of the funding? For example, basketball is one of the biggest sports amongst teenagers, yet the national team are not currently performing so no funding is provided by UK Sport. UK Sport argue that it is difficult to benchmark non-Olympic sports (e.g. squash) to the calibre of the Olympic competition; and that funding for such sports is typically at a country level so should be addressed by Home Nations Sports Councils. The majority of sector stakeholders (68%) and public respondents (65%) that the current sport mix was broadly right; however, others proposed a baseline level of funding for all sports: “other less well-known or non-Olympic/Paralympic sports can also be considered and supported at a much lower baseline cost…with minimal effect on the major funded sports.” These expansions to eligibility are being assessed by UK Sport.

How to measure & use these factors? Given the current stance that non-medal indicators are hard to measure objectively, participants were asked to clarify how additional measures of success could be monitored. Some argued that complex factors like social impact could be measured through proxy indicators (e.g. for social impact, a measure of the demographic spread of participants), and argued that UK Sport should invest more resource in developing an evidence base and a robust system of collecting and tracking data over time, to better assess impact and prioritise. Many proposed “a balanced scorecard approach adopted by the majority of businesses in measuring financial & non-financial success”. This could be a weighted ranking of sorts, with the various factors being assigned an “importance” weighting and receiving a score in each category depending on how well it met each objective.

Overall I was glad to see that many of the points that crossed my mind during the Olympic season have already had the opportunity to be voiced, that UK Sport is open to public feedback and their committees are considering these ideas in their strategy – however, it remains to be seen how the funding allocation to sports will develop in reality.

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