Is UK Sport facing a PR disaster with its wheelchair rugby funding cut?

For many, 2016 was a terrible year with just one bright spot - Britain's sporting achievement in the Olympics and Paralympics. But has this come at a cost to the spirit of the games?

Is UK Sport facing a PR crisis with its decision to cut funding for wheelchair rugby? asks Peter Bowles
Is UK Sport facing a PR crisis with its decision to cut funding for wheelchair rugby? asks Peter Bowles

I ask because UK Sport has decided to cut £3.3m in funding for Team GB’s wheelchair rugby team.

What message does this send out to other Paralympic athletes and grass roots disabled sport? Is UK Sport simply sleepwalking into a PR crisis?

UK Sport has to make difficult decisions with the money they allocate, but my feeling is they’ve picked the wrong fight.

I’ve known the Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby (GBWR) team for some time.

They are both European Champions and the only Paralympic sport to have their funding cut in full.

By doing so, they’ve left a team re-evaluating their funding options, left up-and-coming future athletes from achieving their potential and created a huge press and social media headache as rugby stars Mike Brown, Joe Marler and Danny Cipriani have lent their public support to #saveGBWR.

An even bigger comms challenge for UK Sport is that every single member of the wheelchair rugby team has a personal story of fighting in the face of adversity.

There’s my friend Jonny Coggan, who at age 16 had a car accident, was told he may never walk again but made the team for Athens, Beijing, London and Rio.

It is still the most inspirational journey I have ever personally witnessed. Alongside Jonny, there’s Stuart Robinson, a member of the RAF who served in the war in Afghanistan and Ayaz Bhuta, a young Muslim from Bolton.

All these stories will help GBWR to win over the court of public opinion against this UK Sport cut.

When I spoke to David Pond, the CEO of GBWR, he was in complete shock and disbelief. He is clear that without funding it will not be possible for GB to compete in Tokyo.

Meanwhile player’s hands are left tied up in UK Sport’s red tape, unsure if they will be able to train properly for Tokyo and with only disability benefits to look forward to.

This unfair decision will be portrayed as such in the wider press.

There is no denying UK Sport’s ruthless pursuit of medals has struck gold.

But are team sports like wheelchair rugby, where only one medal is possible, being overlooked for sports like cycling where a Jason Kenny with his personal endorsements, can win three golds, compared to an individual team’s tally?

Despite cycling’s numerous scandals, their funding remains well over £20m, while tetraplegics, with less sponsorship income, are denied the funding they so desperately need.

UK Sport needs to avoid the Sunday Times, who have reported a number of sporting scandals, from reporting this narrative.

Could they find a pot of money to avert disaster for this diverse team? 2016 may have been UK Sport’s finest hour, but they leave the starting blocks of 2017 with a short-sighted decision which has all the hallmarks of PR disaster.

Peter Bowles is the co-founder of Dynamo PR

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