Success is about more than counting medals

The last two years have already been a time of upheaval to UK Sport – driven by ‘the allegations’ over mental health and support issues.

Katherine Grainger says: “There are no easy answers.” As chair of UK Sport, her role is to keep the best of the organisation – the remarkable haul of Olympic medals – while shaking off the worst: the evidence of athletes from a wide array of sports being treated appallingly, and how UK Sport’s ruthless funding structure has left many national teams imperilled due to a lack of funding. “I think the whole system operates very like individual athletes in sport in that the whole system is constantly going: ‘What can we do better, where can we evolve, where can we develop’,” Grainger reflects. But what is new is the urgency of the task. This summer, 5,000 people responded to UK Sport’s public consultation on its future investment. The responses – a five-fold increase on 2014 – proved two things. The public do really care about UK Sport, and how it conducts itself. They also sense that not all has been right.

Dame Katherine Grainger attends a press conference at ahead of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on 9 February 2018 (Getty Images)

Dame Katherine Grainger attends a press conference ahead of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on 9 February 2018 (Getty Images)

“There’s an interest from the public which is brilliant,” Grainger says. “So the question that goes out to public consultation – because it’s public money – are what are people’s opinions on how it’s doing? Could it be different? Could it be better? Should there be other priorities? How do you compare competing priorities with a limited amount of money?” Essentially, the question confronting UK Sport is whether the funding model which has contributed to such astounding Olympic success is still fit for purpose, or whether to consider broader criteria – a sport’s social value, or the conduct of those running it – when awarding cash. “It’s a great time to ask that question because we’re almost getting those answers now about what could be different or what needs to be different.”

Public consultation

While UK Sport’s funding strategy up until Tokyo 2020 has already been confirmed, the results of the full public consultation – expected in February – will help determine whether the government chooses to change UK Sport’s remit for the 2020-24 Olympic and Paralympic cycle. The government’s recent announcement of a new aspiration fund for sports not receiving any cash from UK Sport hints at a philosophical shift. The last two years have already been a time of significant change to UK Sport – driven by “the allegations over the last two years,” Grainger admits.

International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge pulls out the name of the city of Tokyo elected to host the 2020 Summer Olympics on 7 September 2013 (Getty Images)

Her appointment, from July 2017 – partly based on her experience of winning five Olympic medals as a rower – followed shortly after the creation of a new role of head of sports integrity. A new mental health strategy was launched a fortnight ago and UK Sport’s first head of mental health is expected to be appointed by the end of the year. The emphasis on athletes’ mental health invites an uncomfortable question. Given the extraordinary demands on elite athletes, and the phenomenal, unrelenting drive of those who win medals, is a strain on athletes’ mental health an almost unavoidable consequence of the pursuit of greatness? “All these great things we’ve brought in in the last six to 12 months, I’d love to think it’s going to fix absolutely everything. But we work in a very high pressured environment with a lot of people who are very driven, very competitive. You will always need to be sure that there’s enough support in the system that those environments can stay healthy and not have the dangerous behaviours happening underneath.”

Grainger rejects as false the notion there is a trade-off between medals and safeguarding athletes. “To enable more success in high performance means you have to make sure the welfare thing is as important as anything else in the system because you will have athletes and coaches and leaders staying in the system for longer,” she says. “So it’s not the case that you either have very high success or a very healthy environment – actually you need both to enable both.” Earlier support For all the welcome signs that athletes are increasingly comfortable speaking out about mental health, most of those who have done so have been towards the end of their careers.

Grainger aims to create a culture in which athletes seek support at the start of their careers. “As athletes there’s often a feeling of ‘how much do you really want to show vulnerability?’ Because part of the role of being an athlete is you try and be the best in the world at something. You’re not actually comfortable admitting to any vulnerabilities you might have – whether it’s physical or mental – so a lot of strategies are looking into making sure that there are easier ways for people to talk about any vulnerabilities or challenges they have, and where they can go to get help.” Part of this strategy will involve a greater focus on pre-empting mental health difficulties. “I got screened every year to see if I might have some risks on the physical side of things,” says Grainger. “The same can be done on the mental side of things.”

For too long, UK Sport was guilty of measuring only what it was easy to count – shiny gold medals. Now, it is possible to glimpse the contours of a more holistic definition of success. “If you’re talking about inspiring the nation, people care about how those results are won,” Grainger reflects. “It’s never just about results – it’s about how people have achieved those.”

Article courtesy of Tim Wigmore – I News