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Jonathan Males writes

My daughter asked me this morning – who’s in charge of Team GB? Who decides which sports get money? Good questions. The British Olympic Association is responsible for Team GB, ensuring that hundreds of athletes, coaches and support staff are prepared and able to safely compete at the Games. The answer to the second question is UK Sport, the agency responsible for allocating money raised by the national lottery and some direct government funding. Given Team GB’s sustained success over the last four Olympic cycles, the forgotten name is Peter Keen. As UK Sport’s Director of Performance in 2005, Peter was responsible for developing Mission 2012, the system created to wisely spend the many new millions of pounds that entered sport with the announcement that London would host the 2012 Games.

I worked very closely with Peter and others in UK Sport to develop and implement Mission 2012. We developed a template containing all the elements of a world class system. The high-level headings were Athletes (their performances, development profiles, wellbeing, health and commitment), Systems (staff, structures, processes, knowledge and expertise) and Climate (the culture, feel and day-to-day function experienced by athletes and staff). We took this framework out to all the Olympic and Paralympic sports in a series of facilitated workshops. The message was, “This is what good looks like, now you tell us (UK sport) what you want to achieve and HOW you are going to develop your system so that it will produce the outcomes you want. We’ll give you money when we have evidence that you will spend it wisely.” It was essentially a coaching approach intended to help sports assess where they were, where they needed to improve and take responsibility for action within clear parameters. And the big sports (like rowing and athletics) hated it, they bucked at being ‘told what to do’ or feeling like they had to ‘jump through hoops.’ The smaller sports loved it, grateful for the guidance on ‘what good looked like’ and the targeted support that followed.

Despite the emphasis on athlete wellbeing and climate, many sports became fixated more on the outcome (winning medals) than the process (developing a healthy and sustainable system). The pressure (real or perceived) to win medals to maintain funding contributed to the ‘dark side’ of high-performance sport; toxic cultures that allowed bullying and abuse. Sadly, this type of aggressive and defensive response lies deep in human nature and requires a concerted leadership effort to change. The increased re-emphasis on wellbeing in sport is welcome.

Now 16 years on from Peter Keen’s pioneering vision, ‘the system’ is well established and Great Britain has won more medals in more sports than any other nation at the last three Olympics. I think this is more impressive than the overall ranking (in the top 4 nations) because it speaks to the depth and breadth of the change. Is ‘the system’ perfect? No, far from it. Could the money invested in elite sport be spent with more benefit elsewhere? Possibly, that should be open for debate. Does this represent a powerful example of large-scale change? Yes, absolutely. It worked because of a combination of leadership (Sue Campbell, John Steele, Liz Nichols of UK Sport), enough resources, and a change strategy that provided clarity of direction, clear standards AND the freedom for sports to innovate and act within these parameters. There’s plenty to be learned from Britain’s ongoing pursuit of sporting excellence.