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Investment is vital for future of UK sport

Lucy Wilde argues investment in UK sport must continue to grow if we are to make stellar summers like 2021 a regularity

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Image Credit: IMAGE: Adam Kerfoot-Roberts

If anyone reading this can hand-on-heart say they haven’t caught a glimpse of just one of the sensational sporting events this summer has been host to, then you’ve reached a new level of social media evasion I didn’t think possible in the modern era.

Tokyo Olympics. Euro 2020. Wimbledon. Formula One. Golf’s 149th Open. British and Irish Lions Tour. World T20 Cricket. The list goes on.

Following over a year of cancellations, postponements and outright abandoned events, the recommencing of competitive sport this summer hardly failed to disappoint.

The myriad of sporting events we’ve been witness to over the last three months have doubtlessly epitomised the power of sport in bringing people together. Regardless of whether you’re a seasoned sports player, or an impassioned fan. Or perhaps even a new tennis convert - don’t tell me Emma Raducanu is an unfamiliar name anymore.

The extent of public engagement and press publicity seems to have reached a new high; the future of sport is exciting and refreshingly unpredictable, as young stars rise through the ranks.

Consequently, interest and more significantly - financial investment in sport, is soaring. UK Sport’s December 2022 investment of £352 million into Olympic and Paralympic sport marked an exciting commitment to expanding opportunities in a wider range of sports, alongside the chance for British sport to reflect a diverse, multi-talented society.

Reflecting on this and the past summer of sport got me thinking about the cultural and geographical diversity of talent across the world.

England’s performance at the Euros, for example, forced us to confront some hard truths. A fierce sense of pride and patriotism defined England’s journey to the final, but their fall at the last hurdle also revealed a disturbing cultural hypocrisy among some fans.

Watching three young black men fail to score in the penalties was heart-wrenching. In more ways than one. We saw how their race and ethnic background became their defining characteristics rather than their athleticism, patriotism, or grace in the face of defeat. Is this the reason ethnic minorities still lack equal opportunities in sport globally?

To take football as just one example, players continue to be drawn from a limited demographic. The game has an opportunity, a responsibility even, to set role models drawn from a varied background. And yet, in the last four finals of the FIFA World Cup, 100 percent of players have come from European or Latin American leagues.

The financial imbalance in football is already startling, not to mention when comparing European and non-European clubs. Organisations such as the pan-African Rainbow Sports Global - who work to support the development of a world-leading talent identification and recruitment system - are paving the way by promoting the necessity of well-founded, and fair, talent-screening systems.

Yet their work alone is not enough. Greater public awareness of the impact of financial disparity, and governmental commitments to putting in place active solutions, is also key.

Given the extent of modern day technical abilities, it makes little sense that video analysts are only exposed to ten percent of African talent within major urban areas. The remaining 90 percent are scattered in more rural areas, seemingly deemed unworthy of scouts attention. I don’t have a solution to this problem of talent exposure, but an active, public recognition that these problems exist, seems a fundamental starting point.

This doesn't even scratch the surface of other issues, such as gender disparity, on a global scale. Arguably the professionalisation of women’s football in Africa has led to a one-size-fits-all outlook, with only four percent of countries having a female youth league. In comparison to European young talent programmes the starting disadvantage for athletes seems almost unsurpassable.

Investment in grass roots and community sports facilities is undoubtedly also key to encapsulating the sporting legacy of summer 2021. British 800m runner Alex Bell’s self-funded journey to the Olympic final highlights some of the shortcomings of our current talent screening processes. Failure to be accepted to the UK Athletics world-class programme - and secure their funding support - did not deter her spirit. But, although her performance in the Olympic final proved her doubters wrong, it’s worth considering how someone in a different financial situation could have achieved the same success on their own.

How many other talented people are missing out on fulfilling their potential because of similar financial barriers? Raw talent and a ruthless will to succeed can only take us so far.

Likewise, Raducanu’s multi-cultural background reminds us of the power, and necessity, of equal and diverse sporting opportunities. The cracks, however small, in government structures and funding bodies are there to see following the last summer of sport.

In case we didn’t already know, Britain is an intensely proud nation. The competitors representing us reflect a culture of fierce determination, will to succeed, and strength in the face of intense challenge. More than this, sport can offer an insight into our national attitudes on wider issues of race and equality.

Would we not then be extraordinarily proud to say our nation was doing its bit to open up opportunities for equal and diverse paths to success? We have the financial capabilities to invest in young people who could go on to be the next Raducanu or Bell. What’s stopping us?

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