At the Seoul Olympics in 1988, East Germany, with a population of only 17 million, came second in the medal table with 37 gold medals. Olympic victory was seen as validation of the state’s Communist system.

The fall of the Berlin Wall has since laid bare the real secrets of East Germany’s success. The highest-profile reason was a state-sponsored doping programme. But added to this was a highly-funded athlete selection and development programme to match talented children to sports where they could have the most impact. The success of the state was defined by the number of Olympic medals it could win. National identity was wrapped in Olympic success.

In 1988 Great Britain won five gold medals.
Twenty-eight years later at the Rio Olympics, Team GB finished second in the
medals table with 27 gold medals.

This GB medal transformation has been achieved by UK Sport investing around £265 million ($345 million) in summer Olympic sports (excluding para sport) over the last three Olympic cycles (London, Rio and Tokyo), slightly up on Beijing when funding was lifted from £70 million to £235 million.

Triathlete Alistair Brownlee leading Team GB’s Rio Olympic celebrations

This funding has been targeted at Olympic
sports offering the best chance of a medal, with continuing funding dependent
upon the success of that sport. Each sport therefore funds athletes based on
their chances of winning a medal. If the athlete does not produce, the funding
is withdrawn from him or her. This total pursuit of medals can appear
cut-throat, for example when sports such as badminton (for Tokyo) and
basketball (for Rio) have had their funding cut entirely, despite achieving
what most observers would regard as Olympic success.

UK Sport’s strategy has exceeded expectations. For a country the size of the UK to finish second in the Olympic medal table is phenomenal, and has been a great source of national sporting pride. The two-week London and Rio Olympic Games turned into endless medal-fests. 

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But by continuing to focus funding of elite sport on Olympic success, have medals become the end itself, rather than a means to an end? The £9 billion that the UK spent on hosting the London Olympics was justified by the aim of boosting participation in sport, a worthy goal given the more sedentary lifestyles we are all increasingly leading, and the health implications of inactivity. To achieve that participation boost it was important that Team GB was successful, and provided role models to enhance grassroots participation in sport.

However, participation numbers have
disappointed, and indeed are down since London 2012 (although up since 2005
when the games were awarded to London). Yet the level of massive elite funding
has remained.

Has the only purpose of the system become to keep the system going? To invest in success, UK Sport targets sports in which Team GB has a competitive advantage, with track cycling, rowing, sailing and canoeing being obvious examples. Out of the Tokyo 2020 cycle spend of £265 million, around £100 million has been invested in these four sports alone – those in which spending money reaps medal rewards. As a result, Team GB beat China in the medals table in Rio, but realistically how many children are going to take up these expensive sports who would not have done so anyway?

Shouldn’t elite funding be targeted at creating role models in sports that people might actually be inspired to take up?  

Shouldn’t elite funding be targeted at creating role models in sports that people might actually be inspired to take up? In the UK, badminton, which had its funding totally cut in this cycle, has a higher participation rate than those of field hockey, gymnastics, sailing, canoeing, taekwondo, shooting, rowing and judo combined. These sports are receiving £146 million of elite funding between them. 

In the last 10 years, there have been major
participation successes in athletics and cycling. But how much of cycling’s
success is down to Team Sky’s victories in the Tour De France (albeit built on
the foundations of track cycling success), coupled with the promotion of
cycling as environmentally-friendly transportation? And how much of the
increase in athletics participation has been driven by the growth of mass
participation runs? The Great North Run passed its 1 millionth finisher in

Meanwhile, parkrun, a community-based,
free-of-charge series of Saturday morning runs, has grown exponentially since
its inception in 2004, with over 600,000 unique participants in 2016 in the UK,
and over 1 million around the world. It could be argued that parkrun has had a
far greater impact on participation than all of Team GB’s Olympic medals

Is making success the main criteria for funding healthy, or does it in reality create an incentive for sports to bend or even ignore the rules?

What is more, is making success the main
criteria for funding healthy, or does it in reality create an incentive for
sports to bend or even ignore the rules? Not hitting medal targets can mean
financial devastation for sporting bodies.

In the last year or so there have been
accusations of bullying in several sports in the UK, along with serious
questions over how far the doping system rules, including therapeutic use
exemptions, can be pushed, as well as an impression that whistleblowers are
punished rather than rewarded. It could be argued there is a culture in many
sports where success is more important than athlete wellbeing.

The hope is that a lot of these issues can
be dealt with more effectively by the introduction of standardised governance
systems for sports, with continued funding linked to the adoption of new rules.
The introduction of more independent non-executives should enhance transparency
and accountability, and is without doubt a step in the right direction.

But the fundamental concern remains: how
vigorously would a federation investigate an allegation about an athlete if its
entire funding is dependent on that athlete’s success? As we have seen time and
time again in international sport, governing bodies do not tend to sacrifice
themselves for the good of the sport.

More issues are coming to light all the
time through dogged journalism and inconvenient leaks from hackers. The UK
should be applauded for trying to address these concerns far more quickly than
many international sports federations, and there is no suggestion of the level
of endemic corruption or state-sponsored doping we have seen elsewhere.

But does governance change still only
address the symptoms rather than the cause? What is the purpose of winning more
and more Olympic medals in a post-London Olympic era? Is the answer really to
keep pushing for that quadrennial glow of success at any price?