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Money for medals

Money for medals

If the UK does well at the Tokyo Olympics, there’s a reason why: money. Britain pays for its elite sports to do well. But it turns the taps off if they don’t. They’re wrong.


Nimo Omer: Hi, I’m Nimo and this is Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, the winners and losers of team GB’s money pot. 


“Here he goes, he takes the flag of the union, looks down and will look up at the finish line to see the glory of the gold medal awaiting him.”

BBC Sport

That was the moment Tom Pidcock became Olympic champion in the men’s cross-country mountain biking. A first in British sporting history. 

And “Magic Monday” also saw Team GB bring home two more gold medals… in swimming and in diving. But beyond the top podium spot, there’s one other thing these three sports have in common.


“There is a direct correlation between money and Olympic and Paralympic success…”

Sir Hugh Robertson, Chair of the British Olympic Association

And UK Sport is the government agency that can control the purse strings. They have the power to decide who gets the chance to become an Olympic champion, like Tom Pidcock, and who misses out. 

“It’s our responsibility here at UK Sport to make the right investment decisions in the right athletes and the right sports for the right outcomes, and the right outcomes being medal outcomes in the Olympic and Paralympic stage.”

Liz Nicholl, Chief Executive, UK Sport

UK Sport “strategically” invests money into sports that they think will give Team GB a good chance of getting a spot on the podium.

The funding comes from a combination of the National Lottery and taxes and the money pays for things like facilities, nutrition, physio, and world leading coaches. 

For Tokyo 2020, the price tag was £345 million, split between 32 different sports. 

That’s a lot of money. So the question is: who are the winners and losers when it comes to Team GB funding?


[Clip of Atlanta Olympic Games]

Back in 1996, Team GB won just one gold medal at the Atlanta Olympics… in rowing. And overall, Team GB ranked 36th on the medal table.

Below France, the USA, Russia and Germany but also below the likes of Kazakhstan and Algeria. 

It was rock bottom for British sport. 

The press picked up on the story of two British divers who had gone onto the streets of Atlanta to sell their kit. Not for fame but to help pay their bills. And so from that moment on, it was decided that something needed to change for sport.

“We began to see the benefits of the national lottery coming through in the 2000 Games in Sydney and every Games, every major Championship, for Olympic and non Olympic sport since then…”

Lord Sebastian Coe, Chairman, British Olympic Association

For the first time, athletes were able to fully devote themselves to their training. And because of the funding behind them, Team GB began to climb up the medals table.

10th in Sydney and then Athens, 4th in Beijing, 3rd in London, and then 2nd in Rio where they won a staggering 67 medals. 

The investment was paying off… but only for those lucky enough to have it.


“Winning medals matters, not just to the men and women who get them, but to those who cheer them but to the sports they represent. Winning means more funding, losing means less. Failure can end funding all together.”

Sky News

UK Sport takes a “no compromise” approach to its funding model.

“That doesn’t mean we’re not compassionate or caring about those who perhaps will find themselves on the wrong end of this, but it’s compassion without sentimentality. It has to be tough compassion if we’re going to continue to our high performance system.”

Baroness Sue Campbell, Former Chairman, UK Sport

They choose to “prioritise” to enhance medal potential. If you’re not winning, or you don’t look like you have the potential to win, your sport will lose out. And even when you do win, like Badminton did in Rio after taking home a bronze medal… your funding can still be cut completely for the next Olympic cycle. 

And there’s a new problem too. As the Olympics introduce more and more sports like skateboarding, surfing and karate, the funding available from UK Sport will be spread even more thinly. 

For Paris 2024, the funding has been split between 43 different sports. That’s nine more sports sharing the money pot than the Tokyo games. 

But for cycling and Tom Pidcock at least, there’s no need to worry. They won 12 medals in Rio, and just saw their funding increase by 12% for Paris.  

It’s clear that medals mean money.

Team GB’s total medal target for Tokyo is between 51 and 85 and the athletes will know that there’s more than a bit of glory riding on reaching that podium spot. 

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.

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