Great Sporting Performances are what get us out of bed in the morning

Britain’s most decorated female Olympic athlete and the chair of UK Sport talks about the new Code for Sports Governance, supporting athletes, and protecting the most vulnerable

The major piece of work from UK Sport recently has been the new Code for Sports Governance. What are your thoughts on it?

When I started as chair last July, work on the code was up and running, and we were moving through the last few months before the 30 October deadline for compliance. That was a huge milestone.

It is a big and ambitious piece of work. It recognises that every sport is different – a different size and a different number of people that work within it, with different expertise – but they were all trying very hard to comply with the code and the standards it demanded.

The biggest challenge was the timeframe it had to be completed in.

That was definitely tough, and I can be honest about that, but the great thing for me was all the sports that I met, even the ones that were finding it difficult to meet the deadlines, were all positive about the reason why it was coming into play. They could see that it would make sport better.

I have loved every moment since I started, I have learned a huge amount and I will keep learning. We have an amazing team at UK Sport within a great environment.

What is next for the code? Are you looking at reviewing any areas?

That was the big message to all the sports: yes, we are asking a lot, but it is just the first step. This is not something that goes on to the backburner while we move onto other priorities. It is a living, breathing thing that exists and will be constantly worked on and regularly reviewed.

There is an ongoing relationship between all the sports and UK Sport. There will be regular reviews of how the code is being implemented to ensure continuing compliance

Alongside any code, you need to have the people behind it who will make it come to life. A lot of this involves education and making sure the best people are in place to lead it. The leadership element is crucial, as we need people with the knowledge and vision to make the code come to life.

When you are involved with as many sports as we support and invest in, to get them all to meet the same standard and the same code is a huge challenge.

“We have always worked with athletes to review their experience of sport, but it now goes deeper”

It was a lot of hard work for all our staff and it brought together a range of partnerships, including between UK Sport and Sport England [responsible for grassroots sport], as well as with the different sports. To see everyone working together was fantastic.

A lot of the work we do here has to be quite individualised because all the sports have different make-ups, different traditions, are different sizes and have different levels of professional or voluntary people. They are all unique so that is why the partnerships were so crucial.

Everyone working within sport had to understand and respect the differences that exist and make sure that it will work for everyone. You do not want a one-size-fits-all approach. The stamp of approval is that you want it to be a code that is completely relevant to every individual sport.

The code started off by focusing on gender diversity. Are you looking to address other forms of diversIty?

Yes. Even within the code, there is an expectation that funded organisations should seek to address wider diversity as time goes on. This is another critical piece of work we will focus on in the coming months.

Much of the sector is dependent on volunteers. How do you balance increasing governance obligations against the gift of time?

I have benefited personally from amazing volunteers throughout my sporting career. You will always want to have the voluntary input in sports.

Like a lot of charities, much of sport lives off volunteers and you want to keep them engaged and not put anything too onerous on them.

However, again like the voluntary sector – who have had similar governance issues that we have learnt from – we need standards that will improve the sector. Even volunteers will benefit from this.

What are UK Sport’s primary goals for 2018?

It is an important year. We have recently had the official medal target launch for the Winter Olympics [as we went to press, Team GB had just achieved its record medal tally] and Winter Paralympics.

There are some big events coming for the sports we have invested in and that our athletes will be competing in. Pyeongchang is the main focus for February and March, and then we have the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games in April.

One of UK Sport’s big areas of responsibility is major events and at the end of the Commonwealth Games the flag will be handed over to Birmingham, which is hosting the 2022 games. Then we have the Hockey World Cup later in the year and the European Championships in Glasgow.

“Great sporting performances are what get us out of the bed in the morning”

There are a lot of important events that we invest in and we support the event as well as the athletes, so 2018 will be important for seeing how that investment is doing and to hopefully watch that celebration of the nation through more great sporting performances. That is what gets us out of the bed in the morning.

At the same time, there is the ongoing business at the office. At board level, we are going to be looking into future funding strategies, going forward to the next Olympic cycle after Tokyo.

There is also our continuing work around the values, culture, welfare and duty of care for athletes. There are so many things that will make 2018 great.

You mentioned funding strategy there, and this has been raised as a challenge going forward, particular with Lottery funding potentially decreasing. How are you looking to address this?

We have a great relationship with the National Lottery and Camelot, alongside the government and the investment that comes from them. There is a review of lottery revenues going on, which we welcome and support.

It is hard to predict what money will come in but we are not sitting back and simply waiting to hear the numbers and being passive about what happens next.

At board level there is constant discussion about what other sources of income we can find and what we can do with the rights we own. We are assessing this in partnership with the British Olympic Association, the British Paralympic Association and all the sports themselves.

It has been a challenging time for the sector, with some allegations and scandals coming out around bullying and discrimination. How are you responding to this as an organisation?

One of the things I am proud of with UK Sport is its speed and scale of response. 2017 was a tough year for sport and there were a lot of huge challenges to face that we have not seen on this scale before.

As an athlete, you would never wish these problems to exist in the first place. But, although these problems are not unique to our sports, there is a complete understanding that a full and appropriate response is needed.

From UK Sport’s side, we have implemented a lot of different things to help. We have got our Culture Health Check, which is run by an independent body and which all sports now do.

We have always worked with athletes to review their experience of being in the sport and how they feel, but this now goes much deeper and we ask direct questions – have they ever experienced, witnessed or seen any bullying behaviour, for example.

All sports have to come up with a plan to deal with these issues and it is a continuing project.

We have got the new Sport Integrity function, which works very directly with individual sports to advise on best practice and to make sure that any complaints are dealt with appropriately and independently.

“No-one thinks it will be a perfect world and that we will not have issues with protecting the vulnerable again”

We have increased investment in the British Athletes Commission, which although is funded by us, operates independently. It has also had a big change in leadership.

Alongside this, our chief executive Liz Nicholl and I have lots of conversations with the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, and also [Paralympian and peer] Tanni Grey-Thompson about her Duty of Care in Sport report.

The governance code is another aspect that has come in and making sure all these different projects fit together to help deal with the issues will be central.

No-one thinks it will be a perfect world and that we will not have issues again, but there are important steps in place to protect public funding and help anyone who might be vulnerable in the system. Steps in place so that they have somewhere to go that is safe, that is confidential, and where they can be honest about issues.

Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins winning gold in the women’s double sculls at the London 2012 Olympics

You mentioned Baroness Grey-Thompson’s Duty of Care in Sport review. What are your thoughts on that?

It was a vital piece of work that the system was in need of and that had to be heard. Tanni looked across the breadth of sport to see what is needed and proposed her recommendations.

Some are now already being covered, such as through our Culture Health Check, the governance code and the British Athletes Commission. We will also officially introduce induction and exit strategies.

Although a lot of Tanni’s recommendations are already under review, it is a constant check to see if there are any gaps in the system, if different things are needed on top of the existing arrangements and if they are all working in harmony.

The individual issues are sometimes awful, but they will make the system better through our response to them.

Former Olympic badminton player Gail Emms discussed how ‘ruthlessness produces medals’, but added ‘the pursuit of gold and win-at-all-costs mentality can be detrimental’ to players. If ruthlessness is intrinsic to success, how do you balance that against the duty of care to athletes? Are they not two contrasting approaches?

I do not think they are contrasting. Better culture can lead to more success, not less. I know Gail well and we regularly catch up. All athletes who have been at that high-performance level, we will be honest: we operate ruthlessly.

It is part of what you do as an athlete. It is a tough world and one that a lot of people absolutely thrive in – but it is not an easy world.

I started as an athlete when funding first started and it was like a gift. I was in a rowing team where our boats were on a rack made of scaffolding poles and we were all still wearing kit that was left over from university. That was how the Olympic team operated. We did not think anything of it.

The investment came in and everything was given to you to try and raise us to the level that British sport could be. Money for coaching, for equipment, for boat huts, for all these great things and it gave you the realistic ambition to win. We have seen this amazing success from 2000 onwards at Olympic level.

All athletes would say the same: it has been a fantastic change for the better.

But with that comes the argument: does that ambition bring in more pressure, does it bring in higher expectations and does it mean a tougher environment?

The athletes I know and love, that I worked with right up to last year, were no different than the athletes that existed before funding. The passion was there. The expectation and pressure was just as high because it is what we put on ourselves. That is what you do as an athlete.

Instead, rather than change that drive, what we need to do – especially given some of the problems we have seen last year – is make sure that we do not underestimate just how tough this world is and that we manage that better.

With this, and alongside the challenge of starting a new career after sport, what can be done to support athletes?

Alongside investment to allow more athletes to stay longer in sport, you need help and support from an emotional, mental and psychological point of view.

There is the same issue when you are leaving sport: a need for help and support. There have always been support mechanisms to some extent, but recently it has changed. When I started it was Athlete Career and Education (ACE), now it is Performance Lifestyle.

Initially, it was so you could do something alongside your sport, such as education, part-time work or work experience. But whatever option you chose, there was always the central idea that you could build your experience outside your discipline, as you would not always be an athlete.

Of course, your main focus will be on being an athlete and you are funded for that purpose, but you are also more than that and experience is vital so you can be seen as rounded person.

That has become more and more apparent as we look at the problems athletes have had when leaving sport. The transition if you have only seen yourself as an athlete for 20 years is difficult and when that door shuts, it can be incredibly isolating and disconcerting.

“Being an athlete was tough and challenging, but it was the best job I could imagine doing”

I loved being an athlete. It was tough and it was challenging constantly, but it was the best job I could imagine doing.

Finishing was like leaving school but you are much older, you have certain expectations for yourself and you are used to performing at a certain level. You need to start again but you do not know where to begin or what your next passion will be.

I was lucky. I was motivated and encouraged to do something alongside rowing, so when I left, although it was heart-breaking to say goodbye to being an athlete, it was also exciting.

There is a responsibility for athletes as well. You will have a very, very long career after your life in sport and you need to develop some idea of how you are going to shape that future.

It is difficult when you are an athlete to think beyond the present, and the competitions you are preparing for, but there are people to talk to – such as Performance Lifestyle advisors and our new Athlete Futures Network we support at UK Sport. There are mentoring opportunities and advisors who can help.

That is why ongoing conversations with people like Gail and others are so crucial. We need to ask, what was so hard, where were the struggles, how can we learn from everyone and put back into the system.

We will then use that experience to improve things. That will also help, while they are still athletes, to make sure the performance is there. Athletes, first and foremost, want to win. Do not ever underestimate that. Everything else is just designed to help and support them.

Interview by Henry Ker, editor of Governance and Compliance, ICSA