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Andy Reed: The changing face of the Olympics

It’s time to let go of UK Sport’s ‘no compromise’ mantra, and risk sacrificing a few medals to ensure improved athlete welfare and funding for a wider variety of sports, says Andy Reed

by Andy Reed | Published in Sports Management 2019 issue 3
Traditional sports must fight to stay relevant as new disciplines are added to the Olympics / © shutterstock/StockphotoVideo
Traditional sports must fight to stay relevant as new disciplines are added to the Olympics/ © shutterstock/StockphotoVideo

The countdown is underway for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. It looks as though it will be a well organised and exciting Games, but there are challenges ahead for us in the UK and for the greater Olympic movement.

In the build up to the London Olympics, the government invested in UK Sport to ensure our success in the medals table.

The prospect of Team GB underperforming wasn’t an option and everything needed was put into the sports system to generate our impressive medal haul in 2012 and then again in Rio in 2016.

However, in the build up to 2012 we didn’t really prioritise issues like mental health, athlete welfare and career transition to the extent we should have. Lifestyle management was focused around how to squeeze the maximum performance out of athletes.

There has been a much more serious debate over the last few years about getting the balance right between the pursuit of medals and issues like athlete welfare and the funding of a wider range of sports. But this debate needs to go further and faster.

We proved we could run an amazing system that generates medals, but can we now be world leading in athlete welfare at the same time? That’s our challenge.

Time to compromise
As a consequence of our narrow focus on winning medals we saw headlines such as ‘Brutal but effective’ (The Guardian, 15 August 2016) to describe the system we’d created. I don’t think we’d accept these practices ahead of Tokyo 2020 and that’s to be celebrated.

The ‘no compromise’ mentality became too inflexible and focused. Loosening this mantra should allow us to think more broadly about what we want from our investment in elite sport.

Given that the government and the National Lottery fund UK Sport to deliver medals, where should the balance lie?

A recent independent analysis from Gracenote Sport suggested that based on current projections, the UK would come joint fifth with Australia in the medal table, behind the USA, China, Japan and Russia.

Would we really be disappointed with this if it meant we had healthy, happy athletes across a wider range of sports competing?

We need to make a clear decision on this before we get to Tokyo and Paris.

Remaining relevant
The challenge is, of course, for the Olympic movement as a whole to remain relevant as the profile of the audience changes. One CEO of a national governing body told me that the main pressure wasn’t to maintain its medal haul in the short term but for their sport to remain relevant enough to young people to even remain in future Olympics.

We have seen, with the introduction of skateboarding, climbing and 3x3 basketball, for example, that the authorities recognise the threat to its future comes from losing relevance. There may have been an outcry from traditional sports, but the Paris organising committee’s proposal to include breakdancing in the 2024 Games is a sure sign of the times. If we want to do well at these events we need to start investing now. Compromise will be needed.

Tokyo 2020 and Paris 2024 will be the Games that decide the future of the Olympic movement. I urge our industry to get the balance right for our athletes and sports. Even if these changes mean Team GB slipping down the medals table a little.

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