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Thursday, 4 July 2013

Should Athletes Pay Back Their Lottery Funding?

Last week The Mail online’s sidebar of shame made me think (and that’s not a sentence you can write often). A reader had commented on a story referencing a British Olympian’s ‘reported income’, posing the question that if the ‘reported’ earnings were correct – or even half correct – then was the athlete concerned required to repay their lottery funding? The athlete concerned probably wasn’t too thrilled with their income being tabloid fodder but that is a whole different sports PR question.

The issue of funding repayment is hardly an unfair one, especially given the economic times we find ourselves in now. Students repay their loans once they hit a certain income bracket so why shouldn’t we ask the same of any sports person who has been the beneficiary of funding? Athletes receive funded income in two ways; their governing bodies are given between £30,000 and £55,000 per athlete – on a sliding scale subject to their ‘podium’ potential – to pay for support services such as coaching, warm weather training, access to sports medicine etc. Athletes are then gifted another £13,800 to £27,700 directly each. Clearly this isn’t megabucks but given the average salary in the UK is £27,500, it isn’t too shoddy either.

Few people question the dedication and sacrifice it takes to become an elite athlete but plenty of people work incredibly hard without the prospect of increased fame and fortune. It is churlish to object to any money that comes with hard-earned success but nor is it unreasonable to ask high-earners to repay grants or funding from the public purse if those helped them get to where they are financially.

Many sports people do a huge amount to help and inspire others, especially school children. The cynical suggest that this is pure sports PR company spin but usually athletes willing to undertake this type of work take huge pleasure in it. Remember the picture of a pre-teen Laura Trott meeting Bradley Wiggins? The look on both their faces may be a sports PR dream but is something you can’t fake. Athletes love their sports and they love it when other people love the sport too. However, the way the current UK system operates means that we are relying on ad hoc acts of goodwill when really it is good funding that delivers international sporting success. As beneficiaries of the system it would be hard, on that basis, to see why successful sports stars would resent being asked to pay back.

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