‘Ditch Simon Cowell Approach to funding’

UK Sport is facing a rebellion from eleven national governing bodies over how they allocate funding to Olympic-level sports. In the case of Gail Emms’s sport of badminton, that funding has been cut to zero. Here the Athens silver medallist pens an open letter to her old friend Katherine Grainger, now the chair of UK Sport

Dear Katherine,

Firstly, huge congratulations on your new role as chair of UK Sport. I think it is a great appointment, not only for you, but also for UK Sport to recognise that a former athlete will be one of the best minds to be the head of elite sport in this country.

I first met you on the set of Superstars in 2004, straight after the Athens Olympics where we had both won silver medals in our sport. I loved hearing about rowing – a sport that I hadn’t experienced a lot due to being five feet three inches and not advised to go in that sporting direction. But I learnt so much about your training, the rowing mentality and I took a lot of what you said on board. I went home with a different attitude, determined to make a bigger impact in badminton.

British sport culture is a funny one. When I met you, I couldn’t believe how little we knew about each other’s sport and training. I was an elite athlete, an Olympian, just like you, yet we knew nothing about our respective lives. It occurred to me then how bad we are at sharing information that could ultimately help each other. We were all missing an amazing opportunity to pool our resources and learn from one another. You may not have known it, but just meeting you helped me. So why are we so protective of our own sports and athletes in this country?

This, of course, brings me on to the funding issue. Team GB is now a powerhouse in the world of sport. After Atlanta, the nation was grateful for any medal and our respective silvers in Athens were applauded and well respected.

I have already mentioned that due to my short stature, I was never going to make it as a rower. I have never been in a sailing boat, nor do I live near a velodrome. I did, however, live next to a tin hut, which had three badminton courts which started my sporting journey. I was good at all sport, but there were limits to what I could choose, and ultimately badminton chose me. If I’d been born 10 years later, what would my options be following the funding cut to zero imposed on badminton by UK Sport? As a junior progressing through the national and European ranks, my hopes and dreams to become an Olympian and win medals for Team GB would be cruelly halted due to the absence of funding. There’s no pathway to achieve this nor maximise my potential. Unless the Performance Director can ‘predict’ that I will achieve and I will ‘probably’ be a medal chance in the presentation to UK Sport, there is no chance. And the funding goes.

I call it the ‘Simon Cowell Approach’ now when I explain to people outside sport. I feel that each national governing body of the many Olympic and Paralympic sports are contestants on X Factor. They walk into the room, see the judging panel and have to deliver their performance. And the camera zooms into Simon Cowell as he looks them up and down and if he sees the dollar signs, No1 singles, platinum albums, then it is a yes from him. If there is an element of doubt, a risk, where he isn’t sure it could be a No1, or it might ‘only’ be a top five, then it’s a no. Not interested. The best is all that matters. It’s a gamble and who really knows? Like the entertainment industry, sometimes the sports stars are born out of nowhere. The beauty of sport is that the underdog can win. We could all give examples of this in sport, and it will always happen. Given the chance that is.

As an athlete starting off in the world of professional sport, we have to earn our stripes, earn our Lottery funding, show commitment and get results. A tiered, Lottery-backed system that helps fund individual athlete’s living and training costs has been shown to work. So why don’t we do that with the sports themselves? Let there be a base level of funding to keep sports alive, a fund to keep pathways open for talented kids, to show that the message of anything is possible is the right one in sport, to say that every sport matters and not just the gold-medal-producing ones? Then that sport has a chance to move up the tier and increase funding as it achieves … just like the athletes in the programme. The cycling, rowing, sailing sports will still get their funding – and deservedly so – but at least we don’t throw in the towel for all the others.

Finally, Katherine, my plea to you is not to let the gap between elite sport and community/grassroots sport get too big. I have been retired longer than you, granted. And I know that the sports bubble in which we lived and breathed is fantastic, the best time ever, but when you step out of it, there is a much bigger picture. The pursuit of gold and ‘win at all costs’ could be detrimental to so many kids, sports clubs and doesn’t translate to the legacy of a British sporting culture which was the reason UK Sport was set up in the first place. Right?

Good luck 😉



Gail Emms MBE is one of Britain’s most successful badminton players, best remembered for her silver medal in the mixed doubles at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. With partner Nathan Robertson, she won gold at the World Championships in 2006, the Commonwealth Games in the same year, and the European Championships in 2004. Gail was six times national mixed doubles champion and national ladies doubles champion five times. Since retiring after the Beijing Olympic Games, Gail has been a versatile sports presenter on a variety of television and radio programmes. She was awarded the MBE for services to badminton in 2009. She is the mother of two boys. Gail’s latest articles

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One thought on “‘Ditch Simon Cowell Approach to funding’

  • 30th June 2017 at 12:31 pm

    I have long had doubts about the approach to elite sports funding. If a sport doesn’t produce medals the funding gets cut. Sure, that’s going to help them get better. Then what happens when we have focused all the funding on a select group of sports and one of them fails to deliver. If, say, the next lot of rowers who go to the Olympics don’t get the medals expected of them, and after all nothing is guaranteed, the other countries are trying to win as well, and their funding gets cut, then perhaps cycling doesn’t do so well… We end up with a dwindling group of elite sports and no other sports to step up to replace the ones that aren’t doing so well because they all had their funding cut previously. As a way to keep the medals rolling In from a select group of sports in which the UK currently does well it might be a good strategy. As a long term funding plan for success across the whole range of sports it is eventually doomed to fail. As one by one sports lose their elite funding and nothing else is in a position to replace them.

    Why too, the almost exclusive focus on the Olympics? Sport goes on at the top level in between Olympic years. There are lots of international sporting events and lots of non-Olympic sports in which success is every bit as laudable and hard-earned as an Olympic medal. Why is success measured only in terms of Olympic medals won?


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