SPORTING ELITE CANNOT BE CLOSED SHOP

Great Britain v Czech RepublicIt is time for a re-think over UK Sport’s priorities. The disgrace of basketball’s banishment might just be the catalyst for change.

£25 million for sailing. £17 million towards dancing and jumping horses.

£7 million for something called modern pentathlon. The five parts involved? Go look it up. Because the odds are you don’t know anyone who’s ever tried it.

Or luge. Or bobsleigh. Or many others among the plethora of Olympic sports which have been adjudged worthy of receiving a chunk of your taxes to achieve on the international stage.

Of which, lest you’d not noticed, basketball is no longer included.

However the strategy which has delivered Olympic (and Paralympic) medals without any long-term vision or even a nod to the off-field impact is now under extreme scrutiny.

And questions, valid ones, are finally being asked of whether the return on the £340 million being invested into summer sports alone over the next three years should be weighed entirely in gold, silver and bronze.

There is, in the words of Bill Gates, a glaring system error.

Moreland: making case

Moreland: making case

“The biggest issue right now is that you have a sport which is played by so many young people, it’s the biggest Olympic team sport we participate in, it’s the biggest under-25 sport and it’s by far the biggest sport in black and minority participation,” states British Basketball chairman Roger Moreland.

“People in volleyball have told me losing their funding last year has set them back by ten years. We shouldn’t have that happening to any sport and it certainly shouldn’t have that in basketball which has such a huge reach and which has achieved so much.

“UK Sport has a strategy to win medals but there is a huge gap in serving sports which appeal to so many people. There’s just nowhere for them to go to.”

The participation numbers stack up. The algorithm that determines what is a success or failure does not. The financial barriers to sending a yacht, with a highly skilled crew, to Rio in 2016 render it an impossible ask for all but a few wealthy nations.

Anyone can find 12 good men (or women) and true, with a set of uniforms and a ball. One sport has a meritocracy. The other is solely for those with the cash to jump aboard.

To arrive in the top 35 in the FIBA world rankings is a significant achievement. To be in a similar position in a discipline where achievement is largely a function of dollars and no sense rings hollow. Yet there is no room in UK Sport’s equation for degree of difficulty.

Nor for what legacy the National Lottery’s cash can leave behind.

Politicians, however, are publically querying what has been billed as a no-compromise multiplier and asking why the formula cannot be changed.

“This approach,” argues Lord Harris of Haringey, the chairman of the Olympic and Paralympic Legacy Committee, “has an inherent bias against team sports, and fails to help emerging sports, some of which, such as handball and volleyball, generated real enthusiasm at London 2012.

“In recent weeks other sports, such as Olympic basketball and Paralympic five-a-side football, have suffered similar cuts. The Government’s response restates the case for a one-size-fits-all approach for all sports, and it is disappointing that they will not be doing more to help developing sports which have less prospect of short-term medal success.”

The need for radical reform is an argument which British Basketball will be making when they sit down with UK Sport next month to fight their corner, having decided to launch an informal appeal against their exclusion.

Despite backing from other governing bodies, and a petition to Number 10 which has attracted huge interest, their pleas will almost certainly fall on deaf ears.

UK Sport’s mission is absolute. As its chief executive Liz Nicholl declared: “To continue funding sports where the evidence is telling us they cannot win a medal by 2020 would be a high risk strategy that compromises opportunities elsewhere.” She is merely carrying out the objective set out by her political masters.

GB competes against the world's best

GB competes against the world’s best

Which is why they, and not the government quango, must be the target of a campaign for change.

That basketball reaches into deprived communities and ethnic minorities is not an argument in itself, positive though it may be. Sport is a social enterprise but so is an aerobics class for the over-60s. It is the creation of hoop dreams, and the desire and ability to turn those into sustainable elite performances that is the most tantalising prospect.

A meeting on Tuesday at Parliament brought together wise heads to brainstorm the issue at hand. Amid the frustration, there will be action.

“After last year’s battle to secure funding for elite level basketball, this latest announcement feels like déjà vu,” acknowledged Sharon Hodgson MP, who heads the parliamentary group on the sport.

“Following the constructive extraordinary meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Basketball called this week, MPs and peers will meet with UK Sport, and hopefully the Minister for Sport, to discuss a way forward for basketball.

“I hope that British Basketball and UK Sport can reach an agreement on the future direction for elite basketball that focuses not just on winning medals, but also on the importance of the national team in inspiring young people to participate and therefore the development of the sport’s potential in the long term to change lives.”

It is a reasonable clarion call, a case that arguably has already been made over and over. Without the ability to dream, there is no hope. Without hope, there is desolation. It would, sources claim, take little more than £5 million in the current cycle to give Great Britain’s national sides the preparation they require, a tiny slice of the pie.

“But we’re a round peg in a square hole,” said one senior BBL official this week.

Players being overseas, no regular control of the athletes, an international competition structure which must be squeezed in around domestic schedules. Basketball is being punished for its status as an anomaly, even though it is no different on these shores to high-achieving contemporaries such as France and Spain.

Yet in the eyes of UK Sport’s super-computer: Does. Not. Compute.

“On that basis,” Moreland adds, “in a sport like basketball, where Great Britain teams have done unprecedented things over the last seven years, and the aspiration is to continue to do that, it’s impossible to break that down on the basis of statistics.

“We started from nowhere. But that doesn’t count on this. That says to me that if Wigan Athletic wanted to win the FA Cup or Greece to win the European Championships in football, it could never happen. The man on the moon would probably never have happened.

“Because they’re either huge upsets or unprecedented things.”

Somewhere, in the architecture of every grand plan, bold imagination is required. Let there be some foresight shown, the courage to concede that success in the now, for the few, is not the only route to accomplishment.

Elite sport cannot be elitist. It is time, simply, for everyone to receive a sporting chance.

Pics: Mansoor Ahmed/BB

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