16 August 2016

With the UK currently in second place in the medals table at the Rio Olympics and having its most successful Olympic Games ever, people are asking how Team GB is managing to win so many medals. Revisiting our 2012 ‘Making the Games’ report, Emma Norris looks at the role of UK Sport.

One of the reasons for Team GB’s success is ruthless performance management by UK Sport, the arm’s length body that allocates funding to high-performance sports. Prior to the London 2012 Olympics, UK Sport set a target of winning between 48 and 70 medals, spread across at least 12 different sports. Britain’s final medal tally of 65, with medals coming from 16 sports, indicated the success of UK Sport’s performance management techniques against an ambitious target. A similar story existed in the 2012 Paralympics. Against a target of 103 medals from 12 sports, Britain ultimately won 120 medals in 13 sports.

They are proving just as successful this time around and, based on our research, there are four reasons UK Sport delivers:

Consistency of personnel

Liz Nicholl noted that she has worked in various roles in the organisation since 1999 before becoming Chief Executive in 2010, and remains in post today.

Transparency

In the run up to the London 2012 Olympics, UK Sport invited journalists into the organisation several times a year to share their estimation of how each Olympic sport was performing against multiple metrics in its preparations for the Games. In the eyes of Liz Nicholl, this media engagement ‘...really led to more of an acknowledgement of the importance of National Lottery funding and the role of UK Sport in developing the high-performance system that drives success. We took them on a journey with us. We’d never had, as we had here at Games time, this level of acknowledgement about the significance of our role.’

Detailed and honest performance management system

In the build up to the 2012 Olympics, each sport was evaluated on a quarterly basis, with annual targets put in place for the performance of each sport at its most significant event that year. These targets were agreed with the sport in question, ensuring buy-in to the target, but were ambitious so as to continuously drive performance levels upwards. This constant measurement contributed to the successful delivery of UK Sport’s ambitions on the most prominent international stage of all.

‘No compromise’ culture

The final key factor lies in the culture of UK Sport itself. In common with the other entities which played a key role in making the Games, it had a clear ‘no compromise’ culture and not only relentlessly delivered against its targets, but was comfortable in outlining why it wouldn’t take on roles outside of its core objectives. As Liz Nicholl, Chief Executive of UK Sport, told us, their success was down to ‘our “no compromise” philosophy. We will not do any of the “nice to dos”. We won’t tolerate distraction from our core mission’.

Meanwhile, non-sports commentators are getting in on the act, debating whether this is a success for planned, top-down intervention or a ‘right-wing’ triumph. There are attempts to draw parallels for industrial strategy (back emerging sector winners, rather than propping up losers – whether it is steel or basketball) and education (with some arguing that this is an example of elitism working). In truth, these analogies are a bit tortured. There are few other areas of public sector activity which have such licence or where it is desirable to focus so ruthlessly.

But, as we said in Making the Games, one important lesson is that well-designed and governed quangos can deliver. In fact, the biggest threat to our Rio success came from within government – when it was proposed to merge UK Sport with the grassroots sports promoter Sport England. This would have created a body with a confused mandate and muddled accountability. Staving off that merger may have been a key factor in ensuring that we have been able to celebrate building on Team GB’s London 2012’s medal success rather than bemoan a precipitous drop.

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