Wheelchair rugby is one of the sports who have had their funding stopped in the build-up to the Olympic Games in Tokyo. But instead of feeling sorry for themselves they have come up with an initiative to raise the money to keep their dreams alive. The Mixed Zone’s Catherine Smith hears from former Olympian Kylie Grimes about a speck of light at the end of a very long and dark tunnel
Kylie Grimes, one of the stars of Team GB’s wheelchair rugby team at London 2012, is pinning her hopes on a crowdfunding campaign after UK Sport upheld their decision to cut all funding to the squad for the next Olympic cycle. Murderball, as the sport is colloquially known, has a special place in Grimes’s heart. “That was the sport that got me going in my career,” she explained. “It got me fit again after my accident and it’s really helped me to build a new life for myself.”
Wheelchair Rugby have enlisted the support of Mike Brown, the England full-back currently in the middle of an unbeaten Six Nations season, to spearhead their plans to raise £3 million over the next four years and make participation at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020 a reality. Grimes says: “I think Mike Brown has been an absolutely fantastic ambassador for the sport. He pushes it and when you speak to him he’s really passionate about it. He’s had a try himself and so he knows how tough it is and what a great sport it is.”
Brown has amassed 58 caps since he made his debut nearly 10 years ago, so he has the perfect profile to front the project. Grimes said: “I felt really sad when UK Sport upheld their decision because it’s going to have a huge knock-on effect for all the guys who desperately need that funding for training, for equipment, for fuel, for everything. I love the sport to bits, so I was just completely devastated for the guys.”
Some of the current squad face the prospect of having to claim disability benefits to fund their sporting careers. “They need to have money in some way or another if they want to continue doing their sport,” admitted 29 year-old Grimes. “Either they’re going to have to get second jobs, which is going to tire them out because they’re going to have to be working and training which you can do but it’s very hard – especially when you have a disability. Not only do we get tired anyway, but we have to live with the complications of our disability, then think about training and then think about work. Or, the majority of them would have to claim disability benefits again.”
However, David Pond, CEO of Wheelchair Rugby, appears hopeful that the campaign will be a success. He said: “We have had a huge amount of support from the general public, and the rugby community in particular, so we are optimistic that our fundraising campaign will help us on the journey to Tokyo.” Nonetheless, he is realistic that if the money cannot be raised, “the future of the GB team is bleak and, ultimately, this will have an impact for those who have aspirations to represent their country”.
Grimes became involved in the sport after she suffered paralysis from the breastbone downwards after a swimming pool accident in her teens, followed by botched treatment after she was taken to A&E. She has partial paralysis in her hands and can therefore manoeuvre a wheelchair.
Wheelchair rugby stands out as one of the few gender equal sports, where men and women play together on court, as Grimes proved when she was the only female in Team GB at the 2012 Olympics. For many players, that is a huge driving force behind their participation. That includes Grimes, who said: “For me being a strong, competitive female all my life, I love playing with the men. They don’t see me any differently, they just see me as a player on court. Everyone is included and it is no different playing with four men on court than it is playing with a woman and three men. I just find it brilliant that we can do that. It’s one of the only sports where we can.”
Indeed, such is the pull that Grimes still plays for the London Wheelchair Rugby Club even though she left the Great Britain set-up in 2014 to pursue individual success in the F51 club throw in the British athletics team. The sport became one of the nation’s favourite Paralympic events during the 2012 Games. Four years later, in Rio, Team GB narrowly missed a place in the semi-finals, finishing fifth overall.
So UK Sport’s retraction of funds is a major blow for Wheelchair Rugby, who had seen so much growth and forward progression in the last Olympiad. The sport has attracted huge interest since the London Games and now boasts more than twenty teams across the UK and three leagues. The loss of funding will not just affect the elite team, but the entire framework of the sport from the grassroots upwards. In 2015 the GB team became European champions. Grimes believes they could win a medal in Tokyo with the necessary funding. Instead they must fend for themselves.
Pond, though, is sceptical about UK Sport’s funding allocations. “We are dismayed and feel ‘dumped’ by UK Sport, who cut all of our funding even though they acknowledged that we have medal-winning potential for Tokyo. I do not accept the position that there was just not enough money to go round. There is plenty of money; the issue is how UK Sport has decided to allocate it.”
However, Liz Nicholl, CEO of UK Sport, retorted: “The sports that made representations to our board, which included wheelchair rugby, were unable to provide any critically compelling new evidence that changed our assessment of their medal potential for Tokyo. Their position in our meritocratic table therefore remains unchanged and they remain in a band that we cannot afford to invest in.”
Kylie Grimes, like many others in the sport, questions this formulaic, results-driven approach. “It’s sad isn’t it, putting all sport down to medals? I’ve not won an international medal at a high level yet, but it’s not all about the medals for me. I love the training and being part of the sport, but it’s so hard because that’s what they want I guess. European gold is an outstanding achievement, but it is not Paralympic or world level.”
Grimes is worried that many players will now move to other sports that still receive funding. “What we’ve developed in the last four years is all just going to go. It will be devastating,” she said. The team’s future now lies with the support and funding of the British public. If they are able to raise the £3million they require, we may yet see the return of GB’s Murderball team and a serious challenge for medals in Tokyo. However, they have a long way to go.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Katie Smith. Katie’s latest articles.