‘There are a lot of challenges facing British Sport right now’

Dame Katherine Grainger, the incoming chair of UK Sport, says she has “huge concerns about athlete welfare”.

With a host of governing bodies embroiled in bullying allegations, Grainger told BBC Sport that things “need to improve”.

In her first interview since being appointed to one of the most powerful roles in British sport, the former Olympic rower also warned the “risk” of a tougher financial future was another major challenge.

However, the 41 year-old defended UK Sport’s ‘no-compromise’ funding strategy, which allocates money according to medal potential, and has helped transform the country’s Olympic and Paralympic fortunes.

“Unfortunately, somehow the message has got out that ‘no compromise’ could mean ‘winning at any costs’ and that’s not the case,” said Grainger, who starts her role on 1 July.

“It’s not what anybody who believes in the positive force of sport would want to see.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Britain’s most decorated female Olympian, who has a PhD in law, said her new role was “a huge privilege and responsibility”.

With little experience in sports administration, Grainger was a surprise appointment at such a critical time for UK Sport, but she said: “I was very serious about this job and would not have applied for it if I didn’t think I could do it in a very credible way.

“I was honest in the interview and said ‘I haven’t been a chair of anything like this before’. But I’m very keen to learn, and I’ve got a lot of incredible support around me.”

Financial risk

UK Sport has distributed £345m to 31 Olympic and Paralympic sports in the pursuit of medals at Tokyo 2020.

Lottery funding has revolutionised elite performances over the last 20 years. But with ticket sales declining and the government unlikely to extend Exchequer support after the next summer Games, Grainger warned sports bodies would have to become “much more creative”.

“There are a lot of challenges facing British sport right now,” she said. “I think everyone is acutely aware of it, nobody is hiding. One of the biggest challenges is financial, and it always will be.

“I think UK Sport has been very well supported by the government and National Lottery for a long time, that’s why we’ve seen such success. But we can’t continue to rely on those sources to the extent we have done up until now.

“I think everyone is aware of the risk going forward, and about the fall in lottery ticket sales.

“So all different aspects of the sporting landscape must come together and appreciate the challenge we’re all facing.”

Victoria Thornley and Katherine Grainger
Grainger (r) is Britain’s most decorated female Olympian with five medals, including silver in Rio 2016 with Victoria Thornley

‘Awful stories’

After months of negative headlines, it has emerged that a third of UK Sport-funded governing bodies have had to confront athlete welfare issues or complaints, raising fears that medal success has come at the expense of duty of care.

“I don’t think anyone in sport doesn’t want to see a healthy environment for athletes and all staff,” said Grainger.

“From what we’ve seen it will always need to improve… we are dealing with human beings, and unfortunately in recent months we’ve seen some awful stories coming to light and nobody wants to see that going on – and I think it is being addressed now.

“I’d like as much out there as possible – I don’t want to hear any more negative stories about the culture within sport, but if they exist I want them out on the table because they need to be addressed.”

UK Sport has promised a “root and branch review” of culture in high-performance programmes, and appointed a new head of integrity.

When asked if the current controversies amounted to a crisis, Grainger said: “There’s huge concerns about athlete welfare without a doubt, and I don’t think anyone’s pretending it’s not, we have to address it.

“For me, it’s not about coming and blaming sports, because if there’s flaws in the system we have to know how they got there, how do they become avoidable, and it’s about learning from any mistakes that have been made,” said Grainger.

“Whatever the reasons behind it, these pressures and behaviours now exist and yes, of course we want to stamp them out – but in a way that they won’t rise again.

“So if it’s a slight shift in education, or understanding what’s being asked of people, or the fact that it’s not ‘win at all costs’, then that messaging needs to go out.

“I really want to spend some time with all the sports finding out what challenges they face. And it is a different world we live in now – there are certainly financial pressures on everyone, and has that brought in extra stresses that we may not have predicted 10 years ago?”

Cycling woes

A recent report into claims of bullying at British Cycling, one of the country’s most successful and best-funded governing bodies, found a lack of good governance, heard there was “a culture of fear” and criticised UK Sport for missing crucial warning signs.

Grainger said she was “massively disappointed” by the report.

“It’s awful to see what some of the athletes and staff have had to go through. None of us would want to see anything like that again. Unfortunately it’s happened.

“The scale of it took everyone by surprise. UK Sport has admitted there’s things that could have been done differently.”

The report was commissioned last year after allegations made by ex-Great Britain cyclist Jess Varnish and Grainger says she would be happy to meet the former sprinter.

“I think everybody would have sympathy with her own situation. You would not want any athlete to go through what she’s been through, but I think there has been a lot of change, and as uncomfortable it has been for a lot of people around the sport, it probably has brought change in for the better.”

Fantastic ideas

Recommendations aimed at improving athlete welfare have been published by 11-time Paralympic gold medallist Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, including a Sports Ombudsman, and a beefed-up British Athletes Commission.

“She has some fantastic ideas,” said Grainger.

“At the moment most athletes, if they were in really dire straights, wouldn’t always know where to go. That’s what I do think we are missing.”

When asked if athletes need more employee rights and protection included in their contracts with governing bodies, Grainger said: “You want athletes to feel very protected – but also you want a healthy environment.

“What I don’t want is for battle lines to be drawn between sports and their athletes. If things need to change they absolutely should change for the better.”

Full Interview here


We’ve been thrown under a bus – Badminton England chief exec

Eleven sport governing bodies are demanding an overhaul of the way Britain invests in the pursuit of Olympic and Paralympic medals.

In an unprecedented challenge to elite performance funding agency UK Sport, the group have joined forces to call for an urgent review of what they call “a two-class system that runs counter to Olympic ideals”.

National Lottery money is currently allocated on the basis of medal potential, helping to transform the country’s sporting fortunes.

But amid an athlete welfare crisis and various governance problems, UK Sport has faced mounting criticism over its approach.

The 11 sports were all left without funding when UK Sport announced its £345m plan last December. This was despite one of them – badminton – meeting its medal target at Rio 2016 and sports such as table tennis and weightlifting showing signs of progress.

Instead of UK Sport’s “no compromise” approach to picking winners, the unfunded sports want a “tiered support structure” that would guarantee every Olympic and Paralympic sport a base level of funding.

Incoming UK Sport chair Dame Katherine Grainger told BBC Sport she understood why the sports had taken a stand, but said: “It’s not fair to say we’re narrowly focusing on a few sports.”

The unfunded sports believe they can all be backed if UK Sport cuts the amount it spends on bringing major events to this country, its budget for getting British administrators into international federations and the £67.4m it gives to the English Institute of Sport (EIS), the organisation that provides sports-science services to most Olympic and Paralympic sports.

The EIS’s headcount has been growing and will top 300 next year, but it has taken on more responsibilities, works with the vast majority of British athletes and is considered to be a world-leading service.

What do the sports say?

Eleven sports revolting over UK Sport funding
These eleven sports believe UK Sport should adopt a revised investment model that embraces every Olympic and Paralympic sport.

In a joint manifesto calling for “a new approach” to investment, the 11 sports – which include Archery GB, British Basketball, British Weightlifting, GB Badminton, GB Wheelchair Rugby and Table Tennis England – all of which have suffered funding cuts – said the existing approach to National Lottery investment “has been conspicuously successful in winning medals, but has disenfranchised many of the country’s elite sportsmen and women, creating a two-class system that runs counter to Olympic ideals.

“Providing opportunities for elite British athletes in all relevant sports to compete in the Olympics and Paralympics need not run counter to the pursuit of medals, and will make the nation even prouder of TeamGB’s and ParaGB’s triumphs.

“We call on Dame Katherine Grainger to recognise the dangers inherent in the current direction of travel. We urge UK Sport to recognise that medal targets alone should not be the sole criteria for its funding.

“We believe UK Sport should adopt a revised investment model that embraces every Olympic and Paralympic sport, with a tiered support structure”.

The sports say their new approach is “readily affordable from economies within UK Sport’s support costs, and from within the English Institute of Sport. Time is pressing and debate must begin now”.

Dame Katherine Grainger ‘not surprised’ by 11 sports opposing UK Sport funding

How have funding cuts affected sports?

Adrian Christy, the chief executive of Badminton England – which lost all of its £5.74m funding from UK Sport this year in the wake of Rio 2016 – told BBC Sport: “We have a very clear view that every sport in this country matters.

“We’ve seen lots of sports that have lost their funding, we’re one of those. And as a consequence of that it’s really difficult to see how your long-term development of athletes can continue to inspire a nation. We’ve made a third of our staff redundant in the last several months, we’ve cut our performance programme in half.

“This is a demand for UK Sport to take a long hard look and say ‘are medals and medallists the only metric which investments into sports can be made?’ We don’t believe it is.”

Can UK Sport afford to change?

With Team GB winning 67 medals in Rio, and Para GB then claiming 147 medals, many are reluctant to change a system that has transformed British success since 1996 when the country finished 36th in the medal table.

But Christy disagrees.

“We are not for one second asking to take money away from sports,” he said. “The target around medals would still be the same. We believe there are opportunities for UK Sport to look within their own budgets and save money elsewhere. We’ve been thrown under a bus.

“We don’t believe the cost of funding the sports is more than 4% of the overall total pots of money of UK sport. 4% to say another 11 sports, the maths of that is about another 100 athletes in a position to represent Great Britain – and who knows, add to the medal table that we won in Rio.”

What do funding chiefs say?

GB's Katherine Grainger
Katherine Grainger is the new chair of UK Sport

Former rower Dame Katherine Grainger, who takes up her new role as chair of UK Sport on Saturday, said: “If I were in their shoes I’d be doing the same. In any organisation, you do everything you can to protect the athletes. So when that funding is cut you’d do anything to get that back.

“So calling for a review is a very realistic and credible thing to do and I’m not surprised they’ve done it now.

“There will be a review, there is every four years. Obviously, things change, the climate changes, sports change, pressure of resources changes, so that’s why it’s always worth looking at again and I’m very confident to see that it will be reviewed again, it just won’t happen instantly.”

However, Britain’s most decorated female Olympian added: “If you look at the success of Rio, then we got more medals across more sports than we’ve done before. Our actual breadth of success is growing all the time, so it’s not fair to say that we’re narrowly focusing on a few sports.

“What is fair to say is that our money is finite and it’s not stretching. As more sports are more successful, the irony is that the money can’t go as far.

“If there is anything that can be cut, but not at the expense of success, then it will be. But right now that’s the situation we’re in.

“People I’ve met in my short time here so far are really passionate about improving things, so actually if 11 sports do come and say ‘we want things done differently, is there a better way to do this?’ then actually let’s look at it.”

Ed Warner, who recently stepped down after a decade as chair of UK Athletics, said: “Winning medals is important, but more important still is winning them in the right way.

“Katherine Grainger’s arrival at UK Sport is a wonderful opportunity for her to challenge the groupthink that constrains the current system and to put in place a new funding structure that embraces all Olympic and Paralympic sports, because every one of them matters.”

But Grainger also added a cautionary tale from her own experience.

“I started rowing at a time when we kept our boats on scaffolding poles under a bridge – we didn’t have the set-up we have now. The facilities have been transformed,” she said.

“So you look not just at the medal success but at the level of support we have, the coaches, the training camps. I don’t think many athletes would like that to slip back to a stage where we just wouldn’t be competitive internationally.”