Ed Warner hopes inspiring the next generation is as important as winning medals

Published: Thursday 30th March 2017 by The News Editor

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UK Athletics chairman Ed Warner believes British sport is at crossroads and it is time to stop chasing more “marginal medals” in sports such as track cycling.

National Lottery cash, allocated by elite funding agency UK Sport, has helped Great Britain climb the Olympic and Paralympic medal tables over the past 20 years, with minority sports such as rowing, sailing and track cycling leading the way.

UK Sport’s “no compromise” model of only backing medal potential has transformed GB’s fortunes on the biggest stage, with several countries now seeking to imitate it.

But having achieved unprecedented success at Rio 2016, UK Sport’s approach is under scrutiny at home after a series of bullying and discrimination accusations, primarily at British Cycling, and growing concerns that the medals are bringing diminishing returns in terms of inspiring people to play sport.

Speaking at the SportsPro Live conference in London, Warner said: “It feels to me there is a natural cycle in these things, like when Sir Alex Ferguson left Manchester United. Things comes to an end.

“It doesn’t mean Britain will never win medals at the Olympics or Paralympics again but we might have got to the point where the public is sated in its appetite for medals.

“Does it need many more or does it need something different from elite sport? It needs medals and something – and it is the ‘something’ that is missing at the moment.

“I would hate to get into a situation in which becoming an Olympian is no long celebrated in itself as an achievement (and) you have to be a gold medalist to be deemed to have value by somebody, whoever that somebody might be.

“I think the British public celebrates Olympism and Paralympism in itself. It’s possible there are too many people in the funding and governing body system who are now overlooking the value of making the team and being part of a collective success.”

Warner, who is stepping down later this year after a decade in charge at UKA, said UK Sport had a chance to review its strategy because its chairman Rod Carr is leaving next month and the situation at British Cycling has sparked a wider debate about athlete welfare and good governance.

There are also fears UK Sport is becoming a victim of its own success, with more sports winning more medals than ever before in Rio, and Team GB also becoming more competitive in winter sports.

This has placed enormous pressure on UK Sport’s budget and led to sports with medal potential, such as badminton and wheelchair rugby, losing their public funding for Tokyo 2020, a fate Warner described as “potentially catastrophic”.

He has championed both sports and hopes that whoever takes over at UK Sport will take “a more holistic view of what success looks like”, as well as closing the funding gap between Olympic and Paralympic sport.

“There is too much of a culture of medal winners and non-medal winners, which is unhealthy and doesn’t speak well for us as a sporting society,” he said.

“Post-London 2012, basketball was one of the big losers. This is a sport which is urban and played by many people who come from deprived backgrounds.

“We should do everything we can to get a British team back in the Olympics for the inspirational effect that simply appearing in the tournament would have for youngsters in that sport.

“We need a grown-up debate about the value of one extra marginal medal, out of the many Britain wins, versus the ability to fund an aspirant sport like basketball, which is hugely important internationally and could have enormous participation value.”

Warner’s critique of UK Sport went beyond its funding strategy, as he also criticised its failure to make sure British Cycling was using its lavish funding “in the right way and to the best ends of lottery players and the public”.

And just to make his views on British Cycling’s problems completely clear, he added he was “anxious” to make sure that not every governing body was “tarred with the same brush as cycling”.

Warner’s manifesto for change is not shared by everybody, however, as British Olympic Association chief executive Bill Sweeney believes “we have the best high-performance system in the world” and any debate about its future should be “balanced”.

Speaking at the same conference, Sweeney said: “I would hope this conversation goes along the lines of winning medals does make a difference – and being successful is worth fighting for – but if there are issues in the system, let’s resolve them.

“The last thing we want is you go through all the various governance issues, and tick all the boxes, and end up with such a squeaky clean system that people are afraid to challenge an athlete and we come away from Tokyo 9th in the medal table.

“I think the public reaction wouldn’t be great.”

Published: Thursday 30th March 2017 by The News Editor

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