With the start of London 2012 still half a year away, many Olympic sports already enjoy the highest profile they ever have in the UK, and that will only get bigger as the year progresses.
When the Games were awarded seven years ago, sports like handball and taekwondo barely had a presence in this country. With funding, they developed high-performance programmes to enable them to be competitive at the highest level.
Sports like basketball and hockey, which had strong club structures but little recent international success, were given a heavy nudge towards altering their focus and aiming for gold medals.
And sports at which Great Britain had won Olympic medals in the recent past – the likes of rowing, swimming and track cycling – were given large sums to replicate that model on a far larger scale.
The £58.9m paid out by government funding body UK Sport in the run-up to the Sydney Olympics in 2000 grew to £256m for the four years leading up to London 2012, even after a tightening of belts because of the 2008 recession.
Most sports hope Olympic medals in 2012 will drive both future success at the same level and an increase in participation at all levels, including schools and clubs.
But tough financial times have alreadybrought cuts to government funding for grassroots sport, and stalwarts within some sports could argue the drive for Olympic success has been detrimental at club level, unpicking traditional structures to create a total focus on international success.
“The average standard of rowing at club level has not changed significantly [over the last 15 years]. What has changed is the standards required to win at the top level and beyond,” said Richard Phillips of London RC.
“To feed what is now one of the world’s most successful and best-funded athlete development systems, British International Rowing have focused their resources on a select group of high performance centres and schemes such as World Class Start.
“This has left the bulk of the sport out in the cold and has almost completely divorced international athletes from club rowing. The majority of our current senior international rowing team have never been in a ‘club’ as opposed to a ‘rowing facility’ and thus feel no sense of loyalty, other than that with purse strings attached, to any ordinary club.”
I put out a call on Twitter, asking club-level athletes from all Olympic sports to get in touch, and put the same questions to each, aiming to see whether trends are similar, and whether there are any communal lessons that sports can learn from the people at their grassroots.
Here is the cast of volunteers who kindly gave up their time and offered their opinions.
Of course, there are as many opinions as there are sporting participants – these respondants are a straw poll, not necessarily a full representative sample. If you would like to get involved – particularly if you are involved in an Olympic sport at any level – please tweet me @martingough22 or comment at the bottom.
Hockey – Mani Kochar has played for Great Britain and England, and is still involved at Reading HC.
Swimming – Laura Fell will race for Gloucester SC again this year after three years off, having swum competitively from the age of seven to 19, attending Loughborough University during that time.
Rowing – Christopher Revell competes for Cambridge University’s Caius Boat Club, and at Marlow RC.
Below are selected highlights from their answers. You can each answer in full here.
How has your sport changed since London 2012 bid was confirmed in 2005?
Mani (Hockey): The sport in England/GB has changed massively. They essentially stripped back the infrastructure, conducted an audit of each and every element in extreme detail and then said, “This is what we want and this is hows it’s gonna be”. There is now something for everyone who wants any part of hockey in their life.
Laura (Swimming): Following Beijing 2008, British Swimming set up five Intensive Training Centres (ITCs) of world-class standard as a long-term strategy for 2012. With swimming, participation levels are high at a young age and then numbers decrease. It is quite rare to find swimmers aged 21+ who are not in/on the cusp of the GB system. Your shelf life as a swimmer is far shorter than in a sport such as rowing. You would never see a Greg Searle comeback in the pool! Ian Thorpe is only 29.
Josh (Cycling): The most tangible effect is the fact that with UK road cycling on the up: the test event the Surrey Cycle Classic hit the headlines, and murmurings were soon heard of other potential pro races around the UK.
How often do elite athletes compete for their clubs and how does that compare to a decade ago?
Laura (Swimming): Loughborough University collects elite athletes from a variety of clubs, and creates the most professional and impressive set-up I have seen in a club environment. A decade ago, I believe [the concept of] where and when athlete could compete would have been a bit more relaxed. Most notably, chances are, some elite athletes would have been with home clubs anyway [before ITCs].
Mani (Hockey): The greatest bugbear for the domestic clubs is the lack of contact time in Olympic year. This has always been the case and always will be. The middle-class, public-school nature of the sport, and the lack of earning potential means good hockey players choose career over even solid domestic hockey, meaning the standard once the internationals disappear is quite poor.
Josh (Cycling): This isn’t something that happens much with cycling clubs, but I’ve certainly taken note of the number of pro cyclists that call Cardiff, where I’m from, home: that is Luke Rowe and Geraint Thomas. Ten years ago it would’ve been unthinkable you’d have two top tier pro cyclists from one town in the UK.
Rowing (Christopher): There seems to be no involvement at Marlow of elite rowers such as Zac Purchase and Kath Grainger. At Caius, however, Cambridge University Boat Club draws in a lot of top international athletes wanting to row in the Boat Race [although] college rowing is probably more novelty than anything else for them.
Does the national governing body have any initiatives to boost participation? Who do they target?
Josh (Cycling): There are particular races put on at various tracks and race meets called “Go Races” that [young] people can have a go at, plus discount sessions for kids during half-terms at various velodromes. But much of the initiatives are done through clubs.
Laura (Swimming): The swimming.org website is the home of grassroot participation. It also targets those swimming recreationally for health and fitness. My home swimming club really doesn’t look for children over the age of 10/11 to start swimming.
Rowing: British Rowing started much of this a decade ago, with talent identification programme World Class Start, now known as “Start” and Project Oarsome, focused on junior particpation. It recently launched Explore Rowing, which focuses on enjoyment in particpation, rather than competition. Specifically for this year, there is the Row for Gold programme, aiming to help clubs, members and others to feel a part of the London 2012 experience.
How do you think medals at London 2012 would change the sport as a whole?
Mani (Hockey): No-one will forget the impact of Sean Kerly and the success of 1988. It will help so much more.
Rowing (Christopher): Rowing is accustomed to large medal hauls, so medals at London will probably have little effect.
Laura (Swimming): It would again raise the profile of swimming in the country, both in the media, and in participation numbers.
What do you expect will happen to the Great Britain team after the Olympics?
Rowing (Christopher): I would imagine after the Olympics there will be a small turnover of athletes but the team as a whole will carry on as always.
Mani (Hockey): The British have a swansong mentality after an Olympics, which has been a problem for countless cycles. The same applies here, however the target for this group isn’t simply to be able to say, “I played in an Olympic Games”; this bunch are genuine medal hopefuls and they know it.
Laura (Swimming): As with other Olympic teams, some will retire, and new talent will come through. It will be a good period of renewing and refreshing a progressively competitive team.
Josh (Cycling): The GB women’s team has been outstanding these past few years. Afew are moving on after this, although with the likes of Dani King, we’re not short of exceptional talent for the track. As for the men’s team, this is more than likely Sir Chris Hoy’s last Olympics, and a few of the younger athletes will more than likely be targeting the spring road races rather than doing track events to prepare for Olympics beyond this.
Do you have any other hopes or fears for your sport as the 2012 Olympics loom?
Mani (Hockey): We are genuine medal contenders, we have the new “SmurfTurf” blue astroturf pitches to capture the non-hockey viewer and our sport contains players with real Xfactor in Ashley Jackson and Alex Danson – I don’t see how it can be a bad thing. There are sporting hangovers post Olympics in every sport, but the initiatives being set up by English Hockey will capture these people when they decide to check out hockey in September 2012 and beyond!
Josh (Cycling): The 2011 season has been a breakthrough year for Brits on the road … and I’d hate for the UK to once again merely focus on the track, and turn off [road] cycling for another four years until the next Olympics. The Australians are the only other nation to focus on track cycling so much; everywhere else, it’s primarily just an off-season discipline.
Laura (Swimming): My fears are that the media hype may prove too much and certain swimmers will fall short of targets. Rebecca Adlington sometimes comments on the pressure she feels, and there won’t be much more pressure than that of a home Olympics.