London 2012: The Funding of the 500

The British Olympic Association (BOA) announced last week that it
expects to send more than 500 athletes to London 2012. Team GB will be
50% bigger than at Beijing 2008, reflecting a ‘once-in-a-generation
opportunity to transform Olympic sport in Great Britain.’ The extent of
the growth is such that this will be just the second time in the history
of the games that the number of Brits involved will surpass 400.

The BOA faces a tricky balancing act. On one hand, in these times of
particular scrutiny of the spending of public money, the existing
strategy of rewarding medal success and prioritising medal opportunities
seems entirely appropriate. Colin Moynihan, BOA Chairman, points out
that despite the growth, “we won’t be taking any passengers with us and
we will set exacting standards.” On the other hand, it is natural to want competitors
in every event in this, the only London Olympics of our lifetimes.

Hopes for representation in many of our less successful sports were
boosted in December, when an additional £13 million was awarded (or
returned, depending on your point of view) to a whole spectrum of
‘minor’ events, including fencing, shooting, volleyball (both
varieties), waterpolo, weightlifting and wrestling.

An additional £1.4 million was awarded to handball. This a sport in
which our women’s team recently failed to qualify for the 2010 European
Championship, and our men have yet to win a competitive match (in
January losing their World Championship qualifying matches to Finland,
Bosnia-Herzegovina and Romania, none of whom qualified for the 2008
Olympics). Team GB does not have a hope of winning a medal, and, on
current form, will clearly only be passengers on the Olympic stage.

To complicate matters a little further, it is the BOA who will
ultimately decide whether Team GB’s handballers will take part in
London. Although the International Olympic Committee sets general
qualification standards for every sport, the hosts are typically exempt.
It is the BOA’s own standards, due to be set by the end of the year,
that hold sway, but having invested a total of £2.9 million in handball
for the four-year cycle, it would seem illogical – and indeed wasteful –
to set a standard that the team cannot meet. Yet Mr Moynihan is taking
no passengers.

For me, the conundrum is easily resolved. Our Olympics should be as much
about the taking-part as about the winning – even with sports in which we
don’t have a whiff of medal chance
. Funding handball, and creating
genuine interest in the sport, is another way in which a genuine
sporting legacy can be built: unlike rowing and sailing (which receive
£50 million between them), it is cheap, simple, accessible, takes place
indoors, and is perfect for schools.

Team GB at London 2012 may not quite match the 676 athletes who took
part in London 1908, but there’s every chance that the BOA will find a
miraculous way to justify the funding of its five hundred. I remain hopeful of
taking my place court-side in 2012 for a dose of plucky Brit underdogs
on the way to glorious handballing defeat.

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