Three-quarters of UK would rather money spent on grassroots sport than Olympic medals

To the lucky few Liz Nicholl is a star maker; to many others she heads up a ruthless system that can crush dreams in an instant.

That’s because as Chief Executive at UK Sport, Nicholl has the final say on which sports get how much cash during every Olympic cycle.

This week she threw out seven appeals from sports whose funding had been withdrawn by her.

Badminton for example had its budget cut from nearly £6m to nothing, despite achieving its targets at the Rio Games.

In response to subsequent criticism, Nicholl said her job was to focus on delivering more medals “to make the nation proud,” and that she couldn’t be deviated by any public view that her hand-outs should be for “more sports, more athletes, more thinly.”

  • Grassroots funding versus Olympic success

Liz Nicholl, UK Sport's Chief Executive Credit: PA

A survey, commissioned by Pro Bono Economics and published on Friday, seems to contradict Nicholl’s assumption that Olympic success is very important to the majority of us.

In fact, 30% of those asked actually said they had no interest in the Olympics at all and only 7% surveyed said they’d been inspired to take up sport because of Britain’s success.

Most astonishing, perhaps, is the finding that nearly 75% of Brits would actually prioritise grassroots funding over medals at Tokyo in 2020.

Three quarters of the population is a very significant figure, which sits awkwardly with UK Sport’s philosophy and the government’s current funding model.

Badminton has had its funding slashed by UK Sport Credit: PA

In addition to that, the survey shows the main barriers to people taking up or participating in sport are that it is too expensive; there are no local facilities or, where there are, they are of poor quality.

Commenting on the findings, gold medal Paralympian Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson said: “We know there is a disconnect between elite sport and participation.

"Unless we look more creatively about how we engage everyone in physical activity, we may win medals but we will be bottom of the league table on health and wellbeing.”

The report co-author Simon Kuper believes the UK has got sport “upside down.”

He says the whole set up needs an overhaul.

“Why spend billions on an Olympics when few kids in the country have the facilities to play judo, fencing or equestrianism anywhere near their homes? In many neighbourhoods it's hard even to find a decent football field.”

  • Explosive revelations due in cycling review

An investigation into bullying within British cycling is underway Credit: PA

The survey is timely as it feeds into a conversation which is getting louder and more widespread by the week.

It’s based around our priorities and whether maintaining Team GB’s relatively new status as an Olympic superpower is worth it, whatever the cost.

And of course that cost is not purely financial.

Britain’s most successful Olympic sport, cycling, for example has been investigated over a culture of bullying.

The findings of that review, I understand, make uncomfortable reading at best and will reveal how, at times, the treatment of athletes has been a secondary consideration to success.

When it’s made public in the next few weeks, it will inevitably invite us to judge what is and what isn’t acceptable in an unforgiving, elite sporting environment.

It is a question that has no right answer but there are boundaries which, recent evidence suggests, have become blurred and probably need pulling into focus again. And soon.