Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is leading calls for a greater focus on post-career assistance for Olympic and Paralympic athletes amid a growing acceptance that the current elite sports funding model needs to evolve.
Grey-Thompson was one of a host of past and present Great Britain stars who congregated at the Olympic Park in Stratford to mark the 25-year anniversary of the advent of National Lottery funding.
A total of £345 million has been invested into the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic cycles, at a time of unprecedented scrutiny over UK Sport’s perceived ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality and tacit acknowledgement of the need to advance the importance of athletes’ after-care.
Grey-Thompson, who had already competed at two Paralympic Games before funding kicked in in 1997, told the PA news agency: “It is a brutal system and we can’t get away from the fact that the medals table is all about gold medals.
“That is the reality of the world we live in, but for me I’d like to see an evolution in how we offer support for talented young people, and what happens when they leave their sports, at whatever level that is.
“That is not the job of governing bodies or UK Sport, but I think it is the responsibility of our sporting nation of what we do with athletes when they leave, to ensure sport remains one of the best things that happened to them, not something that belongs in the past.”
An increasing number of high-profile Olympians, notably the former badminton player Gail Emms, have spoken of their despair at losing an almost lifelong but rarely lucrative relationship with their respective sports.
Samantha Murray, who won silver in modern pentathlon in London and retired after Rio 2016, acknowledged the difficulties and said she concurred with Grey-Thompson’s comments.
“We’ve now got 864 medals since (National Lottery) funding began, and what are those 864 people doing now?” Murray said.
“It is a very difficult time for an athlete and a really strange place. You’ve got so much time and you’re constantly trying to find something new to do. I hope we can create something robust to support our future champions.”
Grey-Thompson won 11 gold medals during her career and has witnessed, both through her athletic and administrative careers, a remarkable growth in Paralympic participation and success.
But she warned the funding levels for Tokyo may not be enough to secure a repeat of second place in the medals table in Rio, as other nations continue to evolve their own Paralympic programmes.
Grey-Thompson added: “As other countries decide they want to compete on the world stage and put in more funding, it is going to be harder for us to maintain that level of success.
“I don’t think we are going to fall back to the place where the Olympic team were in Atlanta, but it is about refocusing and being realistic about what we can achieve as a nation.”