Why UK Sport needs role models more than medals

As Britain’s heroic Winter Olympians clink champagne glasses with the Prime Minister inside number 10, I wonder if you can tell me how many medals Team GB won during the magnificent London summer of 2012?

No? Well, without a quick internet search, I can’t be sure either.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Team GB medalists Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Seb Coe was dead right when he said it’s the great British moments that are burnt into the memory not the final medals table. For example, who can forget Super Saturday with Ennis, Farah and Rutherford all grabbing Gold in the space of a couple of hours?

So medals don’t count then? Well actually they do if you’re UK Sport, the body backed by National Lottery cash which decides which elite athletes in which sports get hand outs. If you don’t stand a chance of an Olympic or Paralympic gong, then you can forget it.

That’s why the 6 snow sports we sent to Sochi received 13 and a half million pounds and basketball gets nothing, despite being enjoyed by 50 thousand more each week than those winter sports combined.

UK Sport’s clear brief is about success. It’s strictly concerned with medals – great British moments are just a by-product.

What UK Sport isn’t tasked to care about is how many people take part in a particular sport, that’s the role carried out by Sport England which rewards increasing participation numbers and penalises sports if those numbers fall.

Davis Cameron admires Claire Hamilton's medal Credit: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

So is the funding system right?

Some of you will have smiled along with Jenny Jones when she won bronze, many of you will have cheered Lizzie Yarnold to gold and you might well have been transfixed every time Britain’s men or women’s curling teams launched a stone along the ice.

All of the above have proved great, medal winning competitors and potentially fantastic flag bearers for their sports.

But how many of you or your kids for that matter will get on a snow board or a skeleton as a result? Or seek out the nearest curling rink even? And if that number is very low – does that really matter?

Team GB plays curling Credit: REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

The answer to that boils down to what you believe is more important.

Should we be promoting mass participation sports at all costs and spend whatever it takes to bring those national teams up to elite level or should we concentrate on niche sports, which will never have the same following but, because they are niche, it is easier to get on the podium and we all get a flurry of excitement every 4 years?

It is a quadrennial national feel-good factor versus support for a more widely loved sport, like basketball.

Let’s be blunt, however brilliantly curling or skeleton market themselves before the glow from Sochi dissipates, it is very unlikely that participation numbers in those sports will move much.

I could be proved wrong but I very much doubt it. It didn’t happen among youngsters post the London Games, and as these winter sports are by their nature far less accessible, it will not happen as a result of Sochi.

Basketball sits second in the participation table of team sports, behind football. More people play it once a week than take part in cricket or rugby union. It is also a sport not confined to the green fields of middle class England but one that is played mainly in our inner cities.

Sport England gives basketball more than 10 million pounds a year to help run its grassroots but it has just lost all its elite funding.

The problem with growing the participation numbers is not facilities, there are countless basketball courts for every curling rink, but it is partly the lack of home grown, household name role models involved in the sport.

Luol Deng is British, is one of the best there is but plays in America’s NBA which is why you might not of heard of him. If he led a world beating GB team, you most certainly would have done. I use basketball as an example but I’m sure there are others.

Luol Deng plays NBA Credit: Bridges George/ABACA/Press Association Images

To be a role model, you first need to have a high profile - people need to know who you are before they can be inspired by your achievements. How many of you had heard of Jenny Jones three weeks ago?

Of course, profiles are built by media coverage which itself is triggered by success. Newspapers and television are not interested in sportsmen and women who are struggling to make an impact below the elite level.

Aspiration is more easily driven when the benefits of sporting success is illustrated by someone you can relate to. By someone who is - or was - a little bit like you.

I have enjoyed the Winter Games as much as the next person, especially those great British moments. And I have nothing but genuine admiration for Team GB and their athletes.

The skill and dedication required to make it at that level is beyond almost all of us.

But you can dress it up anyway you want, snow sports are not that inclusive and are incredibly expensive to get involved in, so I’m yet to be convinced that other more mainstream sports, should suffer as a result of the favouritism we show them - 4 yearly feel-good factor or not.