Julian Knight is MP for Solihull and was a member of the Culture, Media, and Sport Select Committee during the last Parliament.
Great Britain is a sporting superpower. Ever since the Beijing Olympics in 2008, our athletes and sports teams have astonished the world, and we’ve harnessed the energy and enthusiasm that they have generated to create a legacy which is inspiring tomorrow’s champions into sport. I’m particularly pleased that our high-profile success in athletics, in which men and women’s contests are much more evenly appreciated than in traditional team sports, is helping to change attitudes away from the stadium.
Just look at the England and Wales Cricket Board’s decision to make our women’s cricket team professional, giving its members the opportunity to train full-time and hone their skills to the fullest, or the fact that women’s sport was given full weighting during the latest round of broadcasting agreements.
But we must not get too self-congratulatory. When it comes to our treatment of athletes and sportswomen, we still have a long way to go.
I’m very proud that England won the latest Women’s Rugby World Cup. You might think that the Rugby Football Union would feel the same way – but instead, it has decided not to renew the contracts of the winning team! It’s impossible to imagine the male team being so treated.
Some might say that this unequal treatment simply reflects market interest. But this would ignore the important role that sporting bodies have to show leadership and drive change. Just look at what the ECB has achieved: old hands once dismissed women’s cricket, but this summer their fixtures have packed out the world-famous Lords ground with fans and families enjoying a fine day out and some truly excellent sport.
Too often, I feel that bodies such as UK Sport take too narrow a view of their role. It shouldn’t end once the cheques are written: they ought to have a duty to ensure that all funding is conditional on fair and equal treatment for all our sportspeople. It should take a similar view towards another area of pressing concern: mental health.
As a society, we have made great strides towards tackling stigma around mental health issues, and offering those affected the care and support they need. But our sporting bodies are playing catch-up, and too often fail to show any understanding of the extraordinary mental pressures involved in competitive sport.
One small, personal example is the treatment of young people who lose contracts with football clubs. Years ago a family friend lost a junior position at Arsenal. That would be a crushing blow for any aspiring footballer – but to be told, as he was, that next time he visited the club he’d be “using the turnstiles and paying for the privilege” was a cruel humiliation which no adult would accept in a normal working environment.
Corporate callousness is just part of the problem: the extremely competitive and high-stress environment in which athletes work takes its toll too: Rebekah Wilson, the former Olympian bobsledder, only recently told the BBC that the pressure of her role led her to self-harm.
In April, during an inquiry by Parliament’s Culture, Media, and Sport Committee, I pressed UK Sport on why they had allowed “the pursuit of medals to take priority over the health of athletes”. I was told that their welfare was “first and foremost… the responsibility of the sport”.
Not only did I find that they took little direct interest in competitor welfare, but in fact their funding priorities were exacerbating the problem. Very competitive and high-profile sports such as cycling and swimming are amongst those with the worst doping and welfare challenges – not to mention bullying, as Jess Varnish’s extraordinary allegations about her treatment in cycling team have illustrated.
Yet these are the events that UK Sport most heavily funds, and this “fire-and-forget” approach to funding sets a bad example to every sport they help. If sports such as cycling can go on receiving top funding regardless of how they treat their athletes, that sends a signal to other sports, to young competitors, and to the world.
This isn’t good enough. I don’t want British sport to follow the paths taken by China and the former East Germany, entirely focused on winning international prestige without a thought for men and women giving their all to make our triumphs possible. I want the Government to consider introducing a new code of practice across British sport, backed up by proper personal support facilities and entry and exit interviews to provide an accurate assessment of an athlete’s wellbeing.
We owe it to ourselves to use this golden age of British sport to show that there is a better way to compete, and set an example as world champions in athlete and sportsperson welfare. The wellbeing of competitors needs to be baked into the very DNA of our sporting structures. That sort of attitude change has to start at the top.
Our Olympic and sporting champions have inspired a generation of young competitors who will one day do our country proud. We have a duty to ensure that the system they’re signing up to will support them every step of the way – on and off the track or field.