For a British athlete, getting to an Olympic Games is a year and a half in the making. Every sprinter, runner, jumper and thrower will need to bring their best in every meet, in each round, semi-final and final, to produce the one performance that brings them up to the British Olympic Association’s ‘A standard’ - the first step in being selected for the Games.
The dreams for these track and field stars will be swirling around in their minds for the next year and a half, stepping out into the hallowed Maracanã stadium to the roar of the crowd.
Only the top two or three of each sport will be selected by the British Olympic Association’s committee, leaving many disappointed; the extra hours spent on the track could make all the difference against the closest competitors.
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Despite its popularity and impressive participation rates of 604,200 people taking part in track and field each week, athletics is not the sport to get into if you dream of earning big money. Even in the largest athletics league, the IAAF Diamond League, winners of a race receive just $10,000, and if you finish eighth in the final, you would be looking at a mere $1000.
Long jumper Greg Rutherford, part of the ‘Super Saturday’ winners in London, in which Rutherford, Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill all won their gold medals, is a prime example of the struggles of making a living from athletics, after falling on hard times since the games.
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He was axed by his main sponsor Nike seven months after the games, after rejecting their reduced contract which he described as having “horrible clauses”, leaving him with no sponsorship whatsoever.
With no income other than prize money and some small competition appearance fees, in order to make a living for himself, Rutherford endured ridicule and humiliation from his critics by making numerous television appearances, on game shows and panel shows. Not the situation you’d expect given his fame.
This begs the question, just how do these athletes manage to dedicate the time and money it takes to train, travel to events and reach the very pinnacle of their discipline, without earning any money? Without funding, they simply would not be able to.
UK Sport, British Athletics and the British Olympic Association all contribute to setting the criteria of funding, choosing who receives funding and casting a watchful eye over all elite sportsmen and women.
The system is very unforgiving, although that is somewhat out of their control. Very few athletes are blessed with funding, and for those that are not, it becomes harder and harder to keep up the demands of training and performance the older an athlete becomes. High jumper Matt Watson knows this all too well.
Watson represents Southampton Athletics Club and has competed nationally and at a few small international competitions for England. He began high jumping in 2009 - aged just 18 - working alongside coach Erik Little at the club, and within a year had made big progress, finishing with a bronze medal at the 2010 Aviva England U23 and U20 World Trials Championships in Bedford. In his first year, Watson was making jumps of over two metres and showed exciting potential.
Unfortunately, this potential is simply not enough to fulfil UK Sport’s criteria for ‘podium potential’; that is, those who are believed to have what it takes to make the podium at the Olympic Games following the next cycle. In Watson’s case, this would have been Rio 2016 at the time.
With such a rapid progression in a short period, who is to say Watson could not have achieved a very high level in the next six years?
With funding from UK Sport and British Athletics, Watson could have devoted far more time to his training, but everyday life has made it difficult for him to balance everything: “I work an 8-4 Monday to Friday job so, as soon as I finish work, I either go to the track or I go to the gym, I do six days a week and I have Sunday as a rest day.
“It’s kind of got to the stage where I maybe need to start adding a few more sessions so, in the next coming months I’m going to start doing a few sessions before work as well, so it’s gradually building up for me to become a bigger and stronger athlete.”
Winter brings further frustrating challenges for Watson. Southampton Athletics Club train and compete at a very dated track, with a rickety old stand and no clubhouse facilities. Worst of all, though, the club has no indoor facilities for winter training:
“The biggest thing we don’t have here is an indoor facility for me to jump in the winter. Last year we wouldn’t have been able to jump from the middle of September, because the weather gets too cold, and the closest place I can jump at is in London.
“If there were facilities, I could totally change the way in which I train and spend Saturday and Sunday all day training there.”
With funding, Watson could have access to indoor facilities, but in his current position, loses valuable training time in the winter months.
The funding policies of UK Sport, and in turn British Athletics, are extremely strict. UK sport is the government-funded body that deals almost exclusively with elite level sport, and British Athletics then chooses which athletes receive funding on the World Class Performance Programme (WCPP).
Michael Cavendish, British Athletics’ Performance Programme manager, explains the harsh guidelines they set:
“UK Sport sets a limit on the number of athletes we can fund via our World Class Performance Programme. These athlete places are then divided up further between podium, athletes with the potential to win Olympic medals within this cycle, and Podium Potential, athletes with the potential to win Olympic medals within the next two cycles.
“We then choose athletes for funding based on who is most likely to achieve these aims across the various track and field events. Our maximum numbers change through the cycle but are approximately 80 for the Olympic programme, which includes relays.
“We can therefore only fund our absolute best athletes, and only then if we can see them going on to potentially win global medals in the future. A top ten ranked athlete is unfortunately not close enough to this global standard to be afforded funding via the programme.”
Watson concurs with Cavendish in the difficulty of receiving funding, but is still optimistic he can step onto funding within the next few years: “British Athletics and UK Sport won’t fund you unless you’re in the top five in the world, in athletics they won’t fund you unless you’re number one, number two in the country. I’m pushing the top ten barrier, but they don’t have the money themselves to support it.
“They’re not given enough money, there’s not enough money that goes towards them in terms of revenues because it’s all government funded. It’s not like a professional football club where they’re able to generate their own money, so that’s a really hard thing.
“Some people come across a bit of a gold mine where someone might say ‘okay, this guy is talented enough to get some support’, and it’s a random kind of private sponsorship, but other than that, government funding is only for the top-level athletes.”
Watson has made an ambitious online attempt at finding financial backing, using a site named Crowdfunder, but has so far been unsuccessful in securing any help in a last resort effort to receive funding outside the conventional methods.
Cavendish mentioned some of these other methods of helping athletes: “There are further funding opportunities via our Futures Programme, which is an athlete/coach programme aimed at the next level of athletes below the WCPP, and again via TASS, for promising athletes within the education system - usually universities, SportsAid and other charitable organisations.”
The Futures Programme is aimed at young athletes; typically those born in 1994-1997, and is targeted at those who look able to step onto the WCPP. This programme gives the athlete and their coach some financial assistance, access to physiotherapy for athletes and coaching workshops for coaches.
TASS, the Talented Athletes Scholarship Scheme is again tailored for young athletes. A very last resort is Sports Aid, a charitable off-shoot from British Athletics, in which unsuccessful funding candidates can receive a small amount of assistance, but often, it is only the top two outside of the Futures Programme or WCPP who are eligible. The opportunities for anyone of Watson’s age, 23, seem very limited.
It seems the only answer to give more promising athletes a shot at reaching their full potential through funding is to put even more money into UK Sport’s hands.
More than the £355 million already being invested into Olympic and Paralympic athletes, or perhaps, somehow, like Watson says it sorely lacks, athletics needs a new commercial focus so it can create a way of generating its own revenue to put back into track and field hopefuls.
The problem with this is the vast number of sports that UK Sport has to fund. Around 1,300 Olympic and Paralympic performers are funded from the Podium and Podium Potential brackets, at a cost of over £100,000 million, with even more spent on the other programmes.
For now at least, it looks like Watson will be stuck in a catch-22 situation; he is not quite at the standard to receive funding, but to reach that level, he ideally needs to be funded to take time from work to develop as an athlete and produce the jumping form that he is adamant that he can produce:
“It’s now just fine tuning little bits, those small little bits that come together will provide me with a jump that’s good enough to step on to something like funding. It’s what the Olympic legacy actually means, whether they see that there’s a lot to gain in high-performance sport rather than grassroots.
“I can see myself stepping onto funding, I think I’m capable enough of doing it, I think that I’m definitely talented enough, and I’m dedicated enough to do it, so we’ll see what happens in the next couple of years.”
Watson will have to hope that like his high jumping compatriot Robbie Grabarz, he can overcome adversity to make it in the sport. Grabarz found himself kicked off the WCPP in 2011, following his failure to qualify for the 2011 World Championships in South Korea.
Grabarz picked himself up and started anew to become one of the UK’s best ever high jumpers.
As Rio 2016 looms ever closer, spare a thought for those still in far from tropical Britain, fighting to improve with hopes of someday representing their nation at an Olympic Games.
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