Written by Jim Roberts
Edited by Genevieve Gordon
Slashed My Tyres
UK Sport announced on Friday the four year funding cycle for the next Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo 2020. GB Wheelchair Rugby’s funding has been cut as have four other Olympic sports: Weightlifting, Fencing, Badminton and Archery.
Angry, frustrated, disappointed, confused… there is not one word I can use to describe my emotions right now.
I landed from a 10 hour flight to discover the news that UK Sport have decided not to fund the Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby Team for the Tokyo2020 cycle. Words cannot describe how it feels to get off a plane from Phoenix, where my team Ability360 Heat are ranked No1 in the USA, to receive the immediate news that my life had taken a nosedive whilst I was in the air. On reflection though, I am sure I have been in similar situations before.
I’m still reeling from the news that our funding has been cut. We knew we were never guaranteed to secure future funding but the general consensus through the elite setup was that we we pretty confident we would get some UK Sport funding.
Looking in on UK Sport funding system it has been made clear that it tends to lean towards supporting individual sports rather than games. The difference being a sport pertains to only an individual’s skill and performance where a game involves more than one person’s skill and performance and more crucially strategy. Therefore it is harder to quantify. From a financial standpoint it does make sense as it’s much easier to measure, say an individual runner’s physical improvement, over a training period than perhaps a basketball players improvement in a game over the same period of time. The more variables the more there is to quantify and justify.
We are very lucky in the UK to have a sports system that is funded the way it is. I’ve written about this in a previous blog (which you can read here), I love that in this country we celebrate winning, but sometimes I wonder if it’s become too much of a business. During the Olympic and Paralympic Games the main focus is not the sport anymore it’s the medal table; we want to be the best and quite rightly. Society and UK Sport have put a value on what an Olympic and Paralympic medal is worth. Out of the 67 medals won at the Rio2016 Olympics each medal came at a price of just over £4million in terms of money invested. This, I think, is one of the reasons that team sports (games) are out of favour compared to individual sports. There is no medal equality! For example in swimming one athlete might have the option to compete in multiple events in that sport, and if successful each of those medals are added to the country’s medal table. In wheelchair rugby there are twelve athletes that can only compete for one medal. Now throw funding in to the equation: Would a country rather fund one athlete for four years who could potentially win eight medals (Michael Phelps) or fund twelve athletes for four years who can only win one medal for that all important medal table the BBC, Channel 4 and Clare Balding relied on so much during their coverage of the Games. We’ve gone away from the sport , the hard work, the dedication to counting medals and I’m not sure it’s the way we athletes should be portrayed. You can understand more about medal equality by reading my fellow competitor, Chuck Aoki’s blog, writing for the International Paralympic Committee.
The current elite GB wheelchair rugby team is considered a Podium potential program. This means that it has the potential to medal in the future. There was always a chance of medaling at Rio2016 as we proved by pushing the eventual gold medal winners Australia to within two points of victory. Then narrowly missing out on a semi-final spot by one point in overtime to Canada. It now feels as if the legs have been cut from underneath the program, (as an double amputee, pun intended). The twelve man squad we took to Rio comprised of five players with previous Paralympic experience and seven players who were at their first games. I think that highlights how much development had been achieved since London2012. Even more impressive, our main playing line up (we call it our strike lineup) consisted of three rookies and one veteran.
In the wheelchair rugby world our squad was widely considered to have enormous potential that was just starting to shine through. All we were missing was that composure that comes with time and experience in big game situations. Which makes this funding cut even harder because as a squad we are hugely confident that we can go on to big things.
Wheelchair rugby at the moment is more competitive than its ever been before. Rio2016 highlighted this massively, never before had there been a tournament with four overtime games in one Paralympics, everyone who watched commented on how thrilling a spectacle it is to watch at the highest level and how unlucky we as GB were not to progress to the medal rounds. You could put any of the top five teams in the world together and know that the final score would come down to one or two points.
Wheelchair rugby has and continues to be one of the biggest draws at the Paralympic Games. Not forgetting it was the first sport to completely sell out at London2012. It was much the same at Rio2016 and I personally don’t remember playing in front of anything other than a full, loud and excited crowd. It’s one of the sports that is instrumental in bringing a broader audience to Paralympic sport, people want to see the contact and the aggression that’s become synonymous with our sport. Great Britain is a leader in the Paralympic movement and with this funding cut it feels like one of those Paralympic frontiers has been stripped away.
Legacy is something Paralympics GB is very proud of and you’ll be hard pushed to see a greater impact of legacy than you can in wheelchair rugby. We have an amazing sport infrastructure that has pushed our sport domestically further than anyone would have imagined. During London2012 there were only seven clubs operating in one league in the U.K. There are now twenty two clubs and three separate leagues with a further two clubs about to join. Links have been formed with Rugby foundations across the country such as Saracens and Gloucester, improving people’s perception of disability sport all the time. Leicester Tigers have an affiliation team Leicester Tigers Wheelchair Rugby team.
GBWR have also set up youth programs operating across the country giving children with disabilities the chance to get involved with the sport from an early age. I personally have been involved with youth programs and military programs where I have gone to military rehab centres including Headley Court, as part of GBWR to deliver wheelchair rugby sessions help injured servicemen and women in their rehabilitation.Teammates, staff and myself are only able to do this sort of work because of the funding from organisations such as UK Sport funding and Sport England. There is a much wider impact on wheelchair rugby as a whole and not just the elite team athletes because of the funding cuts than first appears. GBWR has taken its social responsibility very seriously as do the elite athletes.
The military and youth programs are only a part of what GBWR do as an organisation. I was lucky enough to be invited to be part of the inaugural Invictus Games in London, where I got to compete with HRH Prince Harry, where wheelchair rugby was highlighted again as one of the most exciting sports to watch. All of the British servicemen and women who competed in the Invictus Games Wheelchair Rugby competition had been through the rehabilitation sessions that GBWR had set up. We are now seeing more ex servicemen and women entering in to the GBWR league and even the GB talent and Elite squads. This decision to cut our funding in effect means that an injured service person is highly unlikely to be able to represent their country at wheelchair rugby.
This funding cut is especially hard; I’ve been part of this squad for the past 4 years I know the hard work and sacrifices that go in to elite level sport. I love this game and personally put an architectural career on hold to pursue it. I’m not the only one though, every single person on this squad has made some sort of sacrifice to be able to play. Whether that’s a career sacrifice, family sacrifice or both. This sport is a full time job for us with everyone in the squad training at least 5 days a week. I’d made the commitment after Rio2016 that I wanted to chase the dream of a medal in wheelchair rugby. It strikes me as somewhat ironic that I lost both of my legs through contracting meningitis but I was more in control of that outcome than I am right now. Having faced adversity then, I am to a larger extent facing a bigger uncertainty as we wait to hear what the future holds for GB Wheelchair Rugby, us as a team and me as an athlete. I’ve put plans and goals in place to try my best to make this a reality. It’s heartbreaking that even though I have committed to that goal, ultimately the people who decide funding aren’t committed to us.