“It was a full on few weeks,” says Simon Morton, director of Major Events and International Relations at UK Sport, when I ask him how the London 2012 Games were for him.
“They were incredible, weren’t they? I have no doubt that internationally, the 2012 Games will be viewed as one of the most successful Games in history.”
For Morton and his team, the Olympic and Paralympic Games were part of a bigger picture. UK Sport – led by its Major Events team – is responsible for co-ordinating the bidding and staging of major international sporting events across the UK. So while Morton appreciated the Games for their own sake, he was also thinking about how they would help in his team’s bid to attract more major events to the UK and how those future events could benefit from the lessons learned in staging the Olympics.
“I spent the Games rushing around the Olympic Park, trying to get around as many of the events as I could,” he says. “For a long time we have believed that the way the Games were delivered in each sport would become the blueprint for the delivery of a World Championships or a European Championships when we put those on in this country. To see how the Olympic events were being delivered will be incredibly useful when we come to guide national governing bodies in the delivery of big sporting events moving forward.”
UK Sport is the UK’s high-performance sports agency, responsible for investing around £100m of public funds in elite sport. It is accountable to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), and works to support the UK’s top athletes in maximising their chance of success internationally. The role of Morton and his team is both to help in the bidding and staging of major sporting events in the UK and to work on developing the UK’s international sporting relationships.
A CAREER IN SPORT
Morton has worked for UK Sport for seven years. Before that he spent six years with the International Badminton Federation (now the Badminton World Federation) in a number of roles, finishing as head of marketing.
Despite having spent his entire career working in sports, Morton says he never set out to do so.
“I did a degree in Political and Ancient History at Keele University and then a Masters in International Relations at Warwick University, and really I just wanted an international-style job,” he says. “I applied for internships at several organisations including the United Nations, then a friend, who was a director at the IBF, asked if I’d ever thought about working in international development through sport.”
Morton joined UK Sport as a major events consultant, advising governing bodies about issues surrounding the staging of major events. In June 2011 he was promoted to director of Major Events and International Relations. “Ever since I worked for the IBF, I’ve always had a passion for international sports politics,” says Morton. “To be formally looking after the UK’s strategy to build international sporting relations is pretty special, and a good challenge.”
THE GOLD EVENT SERIES
The latest challenge for Morton and his team comes in the shape of the Gold Event Series, a campaign unveiled in November 2012 by UK Sport and the DCMS. The Gold Event Series will see £27m of National Lottery money invested in bringing more than 70 international sporting events to the UK by 2018.
“For a long time, people have talked about the golden decade of sport in the UK, with the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and all the other amazing events taking place across the UK,” says Morton.
“We wanted to formalise this, and start to promote this incredible package of events. We now have these amazing assets – these iconic new venues – and we want to use and exploit them. We have a stable of world-class events taking place in the UK, and a public that wants to see more amazing sport after the Olympics. The Gold Event Series is acting as a vehicle to package these events, as well as a support programme for the national governing bodies bidding for and hosting them.”
Although the campaign has only recently been announced, UK Sport has been working on it for a long time, explains Morton. “Around three years ago, we sat down with various national governing bodies and asked them which events they’d like to host. They gave us more than 200 nominations – we prioritised those, and developed a target list of 70 events.”
Sixteen of these events have already been won, including the flagship 2017 World Athletics Championships – “the biggest event the UK has never hosted,” as Morton puts it – which will take place in the Olympic Stadium. Morton describes winning this event as one of the highlights of his career with UK Sport. Other flagship events secured since the start of the process include the 2015 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, the 2015 World Canoe Slalom Championships and the World Triathlon Championships Series Final 2013. “We have also launched bids for the 2016 European Swimming Championships and the 2016 Track Cycling World Championships,” adds Morton.
Although the campaign has now had major successes, things didn’t look quite so rosy a year or two ago.
“At the start of our new bid cycle, around 12 to 18 months ago, we bid for a Hockey World Cup to be hosted in London in 2014, and for a World Netball Championships to take place in Manchester in 2015,” says Morton. “Those were the first big world events that we bid for under the new programme, and we lost both of the bids.”
If securing the 2017 World Athletics Championships was a highlight for Morton, this period was a bit of a low point.
“That was a challenging time, because the pressure starts to grow when you lose a few bids,” he says. “People start to question whether you’ve got the right approach, whether the UK will be a strong hosting nation post-Games. Happily, since then we’ve only lost one big event, which was the World Rowing Championships 2015.”
The hosting of major sporting events is part of the government’s long-term sporting strategy, which aims to use the success of London 2012 to attract events that will bring both economic and sporting benefits to the UK.
But while the economic benefits of hosting prestigious sporting events are important, Morton is also keen to stress the intangible benefits.
“As well as the tangible benefits, around things like economic impacts and a boost to visitor numbers and the promotion of the country, there are the inspirational benefits of these events, pumping interested and driven people towards some of the other structures which organisations like the governing bodies and Sport England offer,” he says. “We saw in 2012 how sporting events can create these really unique moments of communal celebration. They bring people together, both within local communities and as a nation, in a way that not many other things can.
“It’s important that we invest into the country’s soul as well as its body.”
The success of the Olympic and Paralympic Games has shifted perceptions of the UK hugely, says Morton, with international federations of sport very keen to return. Of course, it hasn’t always been this way.
“If you think about where we were in performance terms after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta with just one gold medal, where we were in major events terms with issues like Pickett’s Lock [when London had to hand back the 2005 World Athletics Championships after government funding for the Pickett’s Lock stadium was pulled] – internationally our stock was falling. That has picked up since the early 2000s. We were making good ground, but the Olympics has given us a massive push. The UK’s global competitiveness is so high at the moment in terms of bidding for sporting events.”
Attracting major events to the UK is a complex business. As part of the Gold Event Series, UK Sport and DCMS have identified 14 key areas in which they can help governing bodies – seven relate to bidding for major sporting events, and seven are about help in staging the events themselves.
“We tried to think about everything the governing bodies could need, in terms of support from the government,” says Morton. “We support the feasibility studies of major sporting events, we do a lot of work around bid advice, either from within our team or by bringing in external consultants. We finance the bids and work closely with DCMS to ensure that there is good political support.
“In terms of support for the events themselves, the main one is that we will invest National Lottery funding into staging them. We have also just launched a centralised equipment programme, making generic pieces of big event staging equipment available to events being supported via UK sport.
“We also have programmes around knowledge transfer and we have a research programme to help research bodies to help measure the impact of events they put on. It’s a holistic set of programmes we are wrapping around governing bodies to ensure they are exceptionally well supported.”
“We’ll be working on the rollout of the Gold Event Series, getting the message out about this great package of events,” he says. “That’s a big task. We’re also working on a number of live bids and we’ll be doing some feasibility work on other world championships that might be launched this year.”
They will also be working systematically with national governing bodies to build their influence within international sport. “We’ll be working with them over the next six months on their four year strategies, which will set out how they want to present themselves internationally,” says Morton.
The government has announced plans to scrap the merger UK Sport and Sport England – although Morton will only say that the DCMS is currently considering the options, and UK Sport is awaiting DCMS’s conclusions. “It would be wrong for me to pre-empt that process,” he says. “We’re just focused on delivery.”
It’s clear that Morton genuinely believes in the power of sport. When I ask what drives him, he doesn’t hesitate. “There are very few things that bring nations together like big sporting events do,” he says. “It’s incredibly motivating and I’m very privileged.”