The Sochi Olympics are over, and there is a great big hole in the BBC2
schedule where snow-filled thrills and spills used to be. In my case, the
ironing pile has grown into an unmanageable tower once more, since I can no
longer watch the curling and iron at the same time: the slow unfolding of
both activities, the combination of iron and broom, of ice and heat, became
briefly the perfect way of passing an afternoon.
But much as I enjoyed the games, one thing kept bothering me. Every time there
was a break, or the BBC got bored with showing us the heroics of the Dutch
speed skaters, or the Russian cross-country brigade, there was a lot of chat
The message of the coverage, underlined by the words of Team GB, was that
their success meant that there was now an opportunity for young curlers,
snowboarders, skiers and skeletoners of the future to sign up, join in, and
I can imagine that for many ambitious viewers, this is a genuine clarion call.
I watch the snowboarding and think of my knees, but if you are young and
athletic, the idea of hurling yourself off a mountain might be incredibly
exhilarating. Whether the same is true of curling I am less sure: I can see
it is a great community event but I can’t see it ever being a mass
Which brings me to basketball. At exactly the moment that our athletes were
celebrating their best Winter Olympics, UK Sport, the funding body that had
made those victories possible at an approximate investment of £3.4 million a
medal, announced that for the second successive year, it was axing
basketball’s Olympic programme after deciding it had not done enough to
prove it could win a medal at the 2016 or 2020 Games.
Last year’s decision to cut the sport’s £8.5 million funding was overturned
following intense lobbying, resulting in a seven-figure, one-year funding
award. The decision to take that money away again and redistribute it among
other sports caused predictable uproar, with one statement claiming: “The UK
Sport funding system can clearly deliver medals, but it appears to show bias
against team and emerging sports. Basketball falls into both categories.”
There is now a healthy Twitter campaign in progress, attempting to get the
decision reversed with the hashtag #nolegacy4bball. One particularly
eye-catching screengrab points out the relationship between UK Sport funding
and participation as follows: Winter sports, 107,100 participants, funding
£13,444,638; swimming, 2,935,200, £20.8 million; basketball 154,700, £none.
It is a stark statistic. At one level, UK Sport is doing nothing wrong. It is
acting in accordance with its mission statement ‘No Compromise’, a document
of almost Orwellian ferocity, which lays out plainly that money will be
spent only in areas where Team GB have a realistic chance of medals in Rio
and beyond. Its aim is to win more medals in those Olympics than in 2012.
Which is clear enough. But then you have to ask, why? What is the point of
winning medals if it is not to inspire young people with a sense of purpose
in their lives? Just a warm fuzzy feeling of success, plus victory for a
few, cannot possibly be an adequate reward for such major investment.
Liz Nicholl, the chief executive of UK Sport, pointed out last week that
basketball would continue to get funding – presumably as some kind of
community activity – from local sports bodies such as Sport England. But if
it is not worth investing in as an elite activity, then its participants
have a right to feel they are being treated as second-class citizens.
In this context, it is noticeable that basketball is a sport where 70 per cent
of the participants are under 25 and around 50 per cent of those who play
come from black and minority ethnic communities.
It is a sport played by the long, lanky and well-coordinated who do not
necessarily suit any other sports. Unlike triathlon, archery or canoeing, it
is a sport you can play in the place where you live. You need a basket and a
ball and a few mates. And if you are good enough, it is a sport you can play
all over the world, as it gains in popularity.
It will always be cooler and more appealing than curling to your average boy
and girl – and if we come fifth or even 20th in the world, rather than
first, surely that would be an achievement for all those people who discover
and enjoy it.
In any case, if we are going to decide that basketball is not worthy of
funding, then at least let us be honest about what we are doing. Let’s stop
using words such as inspiring. We are not using sporting success to build
any kind of legacy for the vast majority; we are just encouraging triumph
for the few.
That might make me feel good while I am working my way through the ironing
pile, but in the long term it is a crying shame.