Team GB is not representative of the diversity of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with too many sports still dominated by white, suburban sportspeople and too few encouraging athletes from urban areas, according to a Sport England board member.
While the BMX riders Kye Whyte and Bethany Shriever have been standout stories of the Tokyo Olympics, the latter had to crowdfund and work as a teaching assistant to travel to competitions before British Cycling funded her in 2019. Another inspirational competitor, Emily Campbell, who became the first British woman to win a weightlifting medal when she took silver in the over-87kg category, also funded herself to glory.
“There is a massive underrepresentation in elite sports from towns and cities,” said Chris Grant, one of British sport’s most senior black administrators. “Team GB, Paralympics GB and their support teams do not look and sound like the whole population – that is absurd, but I think the challenge is that people don’t think it’s absurd.”
According to a presentation Grant gave to Sport England’s talent inclusion advisory group, more than a third of the sports funded through the talented athlete scholarship scheme (TASS) had zero athletes who were not white and he estimates between a third and half of all Olympic and Paralympic sports have never had an athlete from a minority ethnic background.
The same presentation quoted research revealing that in the last decade about half of Team GB medallists attended a private school, while 6% of serial medallists attended school in a city, compared with 39% of the UK population.
Grant is calling for a revolution in the way elite athletes are discovered and nurtured – including a more transparent use of data – to make elite sport more representative, a transformation he likens to Team GB’s journey from plucky near-amateurs to lottery-funded Olympics powerhouse. His “Mission 2032” aims to create opportunities for athletes from all backgrounds, in all sports.
He cites Khadijah Mellah and the Ebony Horse Club in Brixton, the rowing programme at Mossbourne academy in Hackney and the sailing programme at the Greig City academy in Haringey, all in London, as examples that any young person can fall in love with any sport, and may discover they have talent, given the right opportunity. “Tokyo has demonstrated yet again that we have amazing talent development pathways, but that the gateways to elite sport are not fairly distributed. We need investment to change that, but more than anything we need vision, ambition and will,” said Grant.
The Tokyo Olympics – and Team GB’s lack of dominance in some of its traditionally preferred sports – has raised questions about a funding model that has been described as “brutal but effective”. For example, Team GB rowing – which currently has only two non-white athletes – received £24,655,408 in the last Olympic cycle from UK Sport, yet produced only two medals – one silver and one bronze.
Sally Munday, the chief executive of UK Sport, said Tokyo had already produced incredible role models for diversity – with the Games hailed as the rainbow Olympics, while Team GB took more women than men for the first time and Alice Dearing made history by becoming the first black woman to swim for Great Britain.
But the body recognises much more has to be done, and has put the aim to make Team GB reflect British society at the heart of its diversity strategy, she said.
Overall 86% of Team GB athletes in Tokyo are white (reflective of the 2011 census figure for the British population) but Munday acknowledged some sports had more work to do than others to reflect modern Britain.
“There are sports where there is already a really good reflection of British society, and sports that know they’ve got more work to do. And I think [they] recognise that,” she said.
UK Sport has already cut funding from “posh” sports – including equestrianism, sailing and rowing – for the next Olympic cycle as part of its plans to help a more diverse range of sports.
“This is an absolute priority for us and our sports know we will be taking it into consideration when we make decisions about funding,” Munday said. “You’ll see it black and white in the strategy because we mean it, we’re prepared to be measured on it and held to account for it. It’s where we want to go and the sports are all coming to the party to work with us on it.”
But progress was “painfully slow and difficult”, said Grant. “Part of the reason it hasn’t happened is that some of the people who are in positions of power don’t really believe it can happen. And part of that, frankly, is unconscious bias,” he said.
Grant has spoken previously about structural racism in British sport that is so deep and pervasive it amounts to a kind of apartheid.
“There is overt racism through sport and activity at every level – of course there is. Sport has a massive heritage of exclusion,” he said, adding that until 1948 a British boxing champion had to prove they had two white parents.
Transforming the composition of the UK’s Olympic and Paralympic teams to reflect the population is not only good for sport, he said. “If we can fix some of these problems in sport, then that genuinely provides a model for how they can be fixed in other areas of society.”