Great Britain’s Olympic chiefs have launched an impassioned defence of their £28m winter sport funding and are undeterred in asking for more money for the four-year cycle to Beijing 2022.
Team GB landed at London Heathrow airport on Monday afternoon, most operating on very little sleep after attending a Pyeongchang karaoke party fuelled by drink and adrenaline to celebrate a record‑breaking Games.
Five medals, including skeleton gold for Lizzy Yarnold and Big Air bronze for Billy Morgan, surpassed the four in Sochi 2014 and the first Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924. But it has also ignited public debate about the merits of UK Sport’s “no compromise” funding model, including a comparison with the total funding cut applied to British Basketball at elite level. Questions have followed about whether, for example, skeleton should receive £6.5m over four years when it has fewer than 150 participants compared with the thousands of children who play basketball regularly, particularly in disadvantaged areas.
But the British Olympic Association chairman, Sir Hugh Robertson, was in combative mood when asked whether ruthless pursuit for medals had overtaken an ethos of sport for all.
Robertson, who was minister for sport at the time of London 2012, said: “I think the basketball argument started raging in about 2008, it came back again in the austerity period and there is a really good argument about basketball and its effect on participation, in particular on inner-city and lower-income groups. But that argument should be had in the context of what we spend on participation in this country, not in the context of the amount of money we devote to winter sport as part of a package that is there to help Britain win medals.
“I think it would be a very sad day if we gave up on wanting to succeed at the Olympic Games. It would be very sad if we gave up the opportunity of winning a winter medal to put in a basketball team that at the moment is going to, I’m afraid, get eliminated pretty early.”
UK Sport will undertake a review of winter sport funding next month, which could result in huge cuts. But the BOA chief executive, Bill Sweeney, said they will need even more money if they are to achieve the stated aim of becoming a top-15 winter sport nation.
“If we want to progress and become a top 15 you need more investment,” he said. “I think we’re where we were with summer sport in 2000.
“The investment is coming in and there’s no reason we shouldn’t be a top‑15 nation. If you look at the Netherlands’ medal haul, they got 14 in long track speed skating and four in short track so they’re extremely narrow in their focus. Whereas we’ve got a wonderful record in skeleton, we could certainly do better in bobsleigh. If you look at slopestyle and freestyle skiing we’ve got some really good talent in the pipeline.”
There is limited evidence of the immediate effect the skeleton medals won by Yarnold, Laura Deas and Dom Parsons have had on inspiring the next generation given we do not have a full track in this country. But our artificial snow slopes have seen a boost in visitors over the last fortnight. Morgan, the charismatic 28-year-old who flipped his way to an unexpected place on the podium, has certainly played his part in that.
He has also cast aside any illusions that winter sports are solely the preserve of the stuffy and privileged. Morgan, who famously ended up with a toilet seat around his neck at the Sochi Olympics, was keen to celebrate his success in South Korea, departing the Team GB party in unconventional style.
“I think we partied a little too hard,” he said. “The physios put me in a shopping trolley. They were just saving my legs for the closing ceremony. It was tactical. Nothing to do with me being drunk.”
Morgan hopes to compete at the Beijing Games in 2022 and believes there is a genuine legacy of participation for freestyle snowboarding.
“People assume because we don’t have any snow you can’t go boarding,” he said. “But you can. Hopefully more things will pop up. The UK doesn’t have a big indoor trampoline skatepark facility, so that would be amazing, we should build one.”