New £3m fund for Tokyo Olympics will not solve fight for survival, warns wheelchair rugby chief

Lawrence Ostlere
The future of GB Wheelchair Rugby is at risk: Getty Images

The head of British wheelchair rugby has welcomed the government’s new £3m Aspiration Fund ahead of Tokyo 2020 but warned that it will be not be enough to prevent marginalised sports being “killed” off in the long-term.

The Aspiration Fund was announced last week as a lifeline for the raft of sports cut from UK Sport funding in the current Olympic cycle, which includes archery, basketball and badminton. They will each be eligible to apply for a share of the £3m pot to help prepare for the Games in Japan.

While the announcement has been welcomed as a much-needed boost, the funding has been limited to a maximum of £250,000 for individual sports and £500,000 for team sports, equating to only half of what a sport like wheelchair rugby needs to operate, and its CEO has called for a base level of funding to be introduced for all sports, or else risk their future existence at the elite level.

“We are very pleased to see the fund has been made available,” David Pond, the chief executive of GB Wheelchair Rugby, told The Independent. “But we are mindful that it isn’t the end of the story. I have no money at all, our money is generated all through fundraising and sponsorship. It is totally unsustainable. If I hadn’t kept [GBWR] alive over the past two years it would have died.”

Pond confirmed that GBWR will be applying for funding and is confident of securing some of the £3m when it is divided up in December. But he questioned the reasons behind UK Sport’s policy which has seen major prospects like athletics and cycling receive more than £20m ahead of Tokyo, while many others have received nothing.

“If you look at cycling, for example, it’s had a massive amount of money from UK Sport but also has its own income, thousands of membership fees around the country and huge commercial revenue,” said Pond. “UK Sport needs to assess what income each sport has to start with, and not necessarily take lots away but redistribute more fairly, to give every sport a core level of funding to work with.

“I can understand if wheelchair rugby was a basket-case sport with no hope in hell of medalling, but we started the Olympic cycle fifth in the world … and we have just finished fourth in the world championships. We were under the impression we would be funded for eight years.”

However, UK Sport says all sports are assessed on affordability and sports such as British Cycling make significant contributions to its costs through co-funding, precisely because it has access to other income.

The Aspiration Fund suggests a shift away from the cut-throat, win-at-all-costs mentality which underpinned much of Britain’s Olympic medal haul in recent years to a more balanced approach which recognises the wide-ranging benefits of many different sports running successful elite programmes. The government is currently running a public consultation on sport funding and is expected to reveal reforms in spring 2019.