Amateur athletes in a professional age – where has the money gone?

On the day that UK Sport’s cuts to some sports funding comes into effect, you can’t help thinking that we find ourselves in a bizarre situation.

Sport is a money-making behemoth. You only need to go to a Premier League match or a major tennis tournament to understand the scale of the financial operation. There are so many people and so many businesses who choose to tie their interests up with professional sport.

So how are we in a position where badminton, wheelchair rugby, archery, fencing and weightlifting will all lose the UK Sport funding they rely on?

The athletes who will be hit are all professionals. Most of them are very successful professionals. Chris Langridge and Marcus Ellis won the men’s doubles bronze at the Rio Olympics, Britain’s first badminton medal in 12 years. They will have to fund themselves on tour, as badminton loses all its £5.7million UK Sport funding today.

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Have UK Sport cocked up? Image credit: Dee’Lite (Flickr).

Participation figures in badminton have been in steady decline since 2008. And if you look at the situation now, what reasons would there be to pick up a shuttlecock?

Even worse is the situation for wheelchair rugby. Their athletes performed valiantly in Rio, finishing fifth. And their thanks? The loss of £750,000 a year of vital UK Sport’s funding.

I was told by a source close to the top of the GB Wheelchair Rugby hierarchy that the GB team could be disbanded within the year if funds aren’t found sharp-ish. That is a shocking statement.

It goes without saying that the most visible sports are also the most monied. They perpetuate each other. So it’s easy to forget that, for the vast majority of professional athletes, it’s often a case of scraping by.

I can’t help thinking that it’d be nice to redistribute certain players’ Premier League wages…

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Heroes and Villains

This week’s World Championships reminded me of Sean Connery tied to the table in Goldfinger. The film’s charismatic villain swaggering before a hopeless Bond, detailing his plans for world domination before he finally manages to dispose of the pesky secret agent. Goldfinger takes his time, chats cordially to Bond and then leaves our sweetheart to be eaten up by the laser beam.

But then, with the end in sight, there’s a stumble.

And just as Goldfinger was thwarted by Bond with just seconds remaining, so Usain Bolt steps up to deliver on the biggest stage, as we always knew he would. He snatched victory from underneath Justin Gatlin’s running spikes.

Gatlin seems to have embraced his role as villain just as readily as Bolt has hero, with his agent claiming after the 100m final that ‘only Gatlin beat Gatlin’.

But that disregards the greatest sprinter ever, the six-time Olympic Gold Medal winner, and the hero of our sport: Usain Bolt. Gatlin was beaten by the sustained supremacy of Bolt over the last seven years. As Michael Johnson has since said, Justin Gatlin needs to show signs of contrition before he can be considered as anything other than a villain, a foil for the heroes of the sport to thrash it out against.

Meanwhile, Andy Murray has been reassigned the role of Daniel Craig’s Bond; a gritty and more reluctant hero. He’s forced into the position of tennis’s ‘saviour’ as he faces Nick Kyrgios in the first round of the US Open.

Just as Hollywood constructs these diametric oppositions between good and evil, so it is not just a coincidence that many of sports biggest rivalries are characterised in such black and white terms.

Sean Connery wasn't always keen on being the hero, just as Bolt has expressed reservations about his portrayal in the media.

Sean Connery wasn’t always keen on being the hero, just as Bolt has expressed reservations about his portrayal in the media.

Goldfinger wasn’t saving the world, but he was the focal point of the film. Kyrgios and Gatlin are never going to struggle to draw a crowd, they are the ones you don’t want to miss. As long as the good guy wins, it’s ok to have a couple of baddies isn’t it?