UK Sport tells the industry that we need more Olympic and Paralympic medals because this inspires the nation to take part in sport and exercise. The data on this is far from conclusive. The 2016 Sport England Active Lives Survey shows that rates of weekly sports participation in England have fallen since 2012. This is particularly true for ethnic minorities, disadvantaged socioeconomic groups and people with disabilities.
The question of how to inspire individuals to regularly take part in physical activity is too complex an issue to be solved simply by achieving 67 medals (GB’s Olympic medal tally 2016) rather than 65 (2012). Different people are inspired by different things. While medals may inspire some, others will instead be inspired by human stories of struggle and triumph.
Stuart Robinson was on patrol in Afghanistan when his vehicle hit a landmine and he was blown into the air, losing his legs and suffering other life-changing injuries. His journey took him from battlefield operating theatre to GB wheelchair rugby squad.
Chris Ryan, a top junior professional golfer, broke his neck in a car accident and instantly saw his golfing career disappear. A quadriplegic, he is now the captain of the GB wheelchair rugby team.
These stories are the torches that ignite our humanity, and are not constrained by wealth, race, colour, age, gender or sexual orientation, and yet UK Sport has declined to fund such sports on the basis they have less medal potential than other sports.
UK Sport CEO Liz Nicholl says “we know what it costs to win” – but cost is about more than just money and winning is about more than just medals. There is a human cost to disabled athletes who receive, on average, £400 per month in benefits to live, who find it near impossible to get a job and who, without support, struggle with day-to-day living, let alone with trying to be an elite athlete. For these people, simply being able to compete is a win, and this in itself is inspiring.
It’s natural that as a nation we should want to be successful. But the obsession with medal tally has, at best, become unhealthy and, at worst, ugly. In a time when we should be increasingly wary of widening the socio-economic divide, many of the sports that received the most funding for Tokyo – such as sailing (£26m), equestrian (£15.3m) and rowing (£32.1m) – are not sports that are accessible to the average British citizen.
We need to take a hard look at our priorities as a nation, and decide whether it’s the overall medal tally that inspires people, or the stories and personal triumphs that are showcased across a wide variety of sports.