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09 Aug 2021

How grassroots sports won the Olympics

Some of the most underfunded athletes triumphed for Team GB; how did they beat the odds and what does it mean for the future?

The Olympics invariably provides us with new heroes. From Steve Redgrave to Bradley Wiggins and Rebecca Adlington, every four years someone appears on our screens and wins our hearts. And at Tokyo 2020, just when we have needed a bit of cheering up, another group of young athletes has once again delivered.

How we relished watching Emily Campbell, 27, hair dyed red white and blue, hoisting more than three times her own bodyweight to become Britain’s first medal-winning female weightlifter. There was Kye Whyte, the Prince of Peckham, hurtling at warp speed around the BMX course on a bicycle that appeared far too small. Or how about Charlotte Worthington, lifting the nation off the sofa as she became the first woman ever to land a 360-degree backflip in competition to take the BMX freestyle gold.

The list goes on. Bethany Shriever, 22, winning the women’s BMX race despite a list of injuries that read like a medical encyclopedia. Holly Bradshaw finally getting her hands on a pole vaulting medal after years of ‘nearlies’. Or Keely Hodgkinson, 19, who came from nowhere to grab the women’s 1500m silver medal, breaking Kelly Holmes’s record. Not to forget skateboarder Sky Brown, Team GB’s youngest Olympian at 13.

Yet, even as they take their places in the long line of homegrown heroes, there is something different about these champions.

After the wretched embarrassment of Atlanta 1996, those in charge of British sport were persuaded to change their approach. The old system of enthusiastic amateurism was deemed archaic. Investment was galvanised; National Lottery funding was brought in, sport was professionalised. By London 2012, in rowing, cycling, sailing and athletics, Britain had become a powerhouse. Talent was nurtured through the careful application of cash.

In Tokyo, the wheels on the British sporting juggernaut appear to have come off. Take the rowers, the recipients of the largest chunk of central funding – £24.6m in the run up to Tokyo and earmarked for another £22m ahead of Paris 2024 – and based in their gleaming purpose-built headquarters on the banks of the Thames, but who failed to deliver a gold medal for the first time since Moscow 1980.

But while the rowers ‘caught crabs’, athletes false started and the cyclists crashed out, those who actually won medals have come, in many instances, from outside the system; young grafters who beat their own path to glory.

This has been the Olympics of playground scrappers, grassroots talent that made it despite – rather than thanks to – our hugely endowed sporting establishment.

Campbell only took up weightlifting five years ago. Pursuing a sport not deemed worthy of central funding, she did it herself, backed by her neighbours in Bulwell, Nottingham. “The community has got behind me 110 per cent,” she said after winning silver. “Every time I go to the market they give me free fruit and veg; the cobblers sort out my boots and raise money for me… I couldn’t have done it without them.”

Or take Schriever. Her problem was an age old one: she is female. After UK Sport said, in 2017, that it would only fund male BMX riders for Tokyo, she was required to make it on her own. Her parents helped out, she worked part time as a teaching assistant and struggled to raise money via crowdfunding. As she made her way round the European circuit, sleeping in her car and training on a second-hand bike, so successful did she become that in 2019 British Cycling magically found the money to bring her back into the national programme – on the condition she moved to Manchester.

BMX superstar Worthington, 25, was also not deemed worthy of funding because of her gender. As recently as 2018, she was working as a chef in a Mexican restaurant, near her home in Manchester and using her holiday allowance to compete. After British Cycling eventually stepped in, she “rapidly improved”, according to her mum, Sarah.

Hodgkinson, somehow not spotted by British Athletics, is fortunate that millionaire sporting philanthropist Barrie Wells – who’s also backed Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Jessica Ennis-Hill – decided she was worth investing in. Then there’s Bradshaw, 29, dropped by sponsor Nike in 2019; she believes because she doesn’t conform to a traditional pole vaulter aesthetic, choosing not to wear a crop top and bikini bottoms after being fat-shamed at London 2012 – now a bronze medallist.

All this unexpected success poses a question: should our sporting bodies return to relying on the glorious amateur? After all, what better way to hone the will to win than by making the path to glory a bumpy one? Those who know what they are talking about suggest that would be the least helpful conclusion to draw. Clearly it’s where the money goes that has to be addressed.

As Matthew Pinsent attests, British Rowing will be obliged to do some significant soul searching if it is to continue to justify its sizable investment. But this should not be seen as an either/or – more a redeployment of resources. What these Olympics have shown is that the growing appetite for locally based, unconventional sport is worth supporting.

Whyte, 21, is the exemplar of what might be considered the way forward. Raised in Peckham, close to where Damilola Taylor was murdered, he found the perfect outlet at his local BMX club. Without such an accessible local facility it is unlikely he would have made it to Tokyo.

“It’s been brilliant to see success in some of the less well known sports,” says Joe McTague of Access Sport, which works with the Peckham BMX club, among others, to widen sporting opportunity. “Perhaps the lesson is to focus a bit more on those, where the most gains can be made. The aim of Olympic success has always been to inspire participation. Investment in grassroots facilities, that are free to access, is more likely to give the next generation a way in. It might just be a place where they can get off the streets. For me, success like Kye’s is a delightful by-product, rather than what it should be all about.”

As Whyte himself has said: “BMX gave me respect for my elders and for myself. It’s kept me on the straight and narrow.”

It’s why the exposure achieved in Tokyo for some of the new Olympic sports is so vital – not only for the young athletes currently rising through the ranks, but for grassroots participation.

“Winning medals in things like BMX and boxing, sports which have real purchase among certain hard to reach, disadvantaged demographics, gives us the opportunity to rethink and start investing in areas that deliver real benefits,” says McTague.

It may not have been the reason they went for gold. But it seems the success of our grassroots Olympic heroes could extend beyond anything delivered by their predecessors.

Article Source: The Telegraph