The Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games did more than unite the country behind British athletes; they showed that with the right funding, sport can plot a path to a more diverse, inclusive future for the country as a whole, and MPs agree.
When more than a million Brits tuned in to watch the Winter Olympic opening ceremony one Friday lunchtime in February, it proved that even inconvenient time zone differences can’t dampen public support for Team GB and ParalympicsGB. As the Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games come to a close, it’s clear that sport’s ability to unite a country behind its national team is as powerful as it ever has been – even (and perhaps especially) when the stakes are higher than the medal count.
Like their summer teammates, the athletes who went to Beijing 2022 to represent Great Britain came from every corner of the country and from a range of socio-economic backgrounds – and the fact that they reflect a cross-section of the wider society they represent is down in large part to the funding and support many of them receive from The National Lottery and the government.
Vicky Wright, for example, who played a starring role in the gold-medal-winning women’s curling team, has a very different life back home in Scotland. As an NHS nurse at the Forth Valley Royal Hospital near Falkirk, she has found herself on the frontline of the battle against Covid-19 during the pandemic – making her a real-life hero; not just a sporting one.
“The Winter Olympics – and sport more generally – show the outstanding commitment and courage that so many of our athletes have,” says Conservative MP, and Vice-Chair of the Sport APPG, Ben Bradley. “When we were kids, we all admired sports personalities – and my kids do now – yet throughout the pandemic we have seen nurses, doctors and a whole load more that have been looked up to and admired.
“We’ve all been inspired by those who have gone the extra mile over the last two years. Vicky Wright’s heroics at the Winter Olympics are fantastic, and I’m sure that hers and her colleagues’ work throughout the pandemic will never be forgotten either.”
UK Sport invested £5,257,900 in curling during the Beijing cycle, making it possible for athletes like Vicky to train for and commit to their sport, whatever their backgrounds. The funding also allows athletes to access some of the best coaching, sport science, medical support and training facilities in the world meaning they can go the Games with the very best chance of success.
Dave Ryding, who competed at Beijing 2022 in the men’s alpine skiing, is another athlete who has been supported by The National Lottery and government funding. He learned to ski on dry slopes in Lancashire, making his journey to competing at the Winter Olympics something really quite remarkable.
Earlier this year, Ryding won Britain’s first ever alpine skiing world cup title in Kitzbuhel – a feat that can be credited to a combination of his skill and dedication, as well as the opportunities he was given as a born-and-bred “dry sloper”.Despite a 13th place finish in Beijing at his 4th Olympic Games, the Lancastrian could leave the Chinese capital with his head held high and a smile on his face.
Winter Paralympians benefit too, with Para ski and snowboard enjoying an uptick in funding for the Beijing cycle. This funding across the four years leading up to Beijing 2022 supported British athletes to achieve some remarkable feats whilst at the Games. These included, Menna Fitzpatrick becoming Great Britain’s most decorated Winter Paralympian as she added a silver and bronze medal to her impressive collection and Neil Simpson, alongside guide and brother Andrew, becoming the first British male to win a Paralympic gold medal on snow as he won the Visually Impaired Super G.
Speaking ahead of the Paralympic Games opening ceremony, Jon-Allan Butterworth who has transitioned from the summer sport of track cycling, in which he’d previously won four Paralympic medals, to snowboarding said “With everything happening in the world right now, what the Games stands for is such a positive,” he said. “To be part of the Paralympic movement and what it stands for and its values is amazing – it unites people from all backgrounds, cultures, and inspires and creates passion amongst equals. That’s what is special about sport.
“There are few opportunities to get disabled people into sport and so the coverage of the Paralympic Games is amazing. The number of sports around that you don’t know realise exist is incredible and it just shows that there is something for everyone. It’s hard not to be inspired by the Paralympics – it’s just cool!”
His sentiment was echoed by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse, who praised sport’s power “to bring together people who otherwise have nothing or little in common to play”.
“Sport can act as a catalyst for change,” she added. “Events like the Winter Olympics and the Winter Paralympics are powerful vehicles for engaging audiences, raising awareness and improving representation. However, much more progress is still needed to improve the lives of disabled people and to tackle regional inequalities that are so prevalent across the UK.
“It is important that people from across the country have the opportunity to play sports at any level. What I would say is that there could be more funding for grass-roots sports across the country. This should boost participation as wide and diverse as we can to better represent the UK.”
It’s part of the reason UK Sport remains committed to funding British athletes to compete at the Winter Games which Dame Katherine Grainger, UK Sport Chair, who was out in Beijing for the Paralympic Games reflected on at their conclusion. She said, “Beijing has been an undoubted success for ParalympicsGB and another step forward for Winter Paralympic sport in the UK. We are thankful for the role of Government and The National Lottery continue to play in providing the financial support that enables athletes to pursue their dreams.
Following the excitement and inspiration of these Winter Games we are optimistic for the future for winter sports and are committed to making them ever more relevant and accessible as we now look towards Milan-Cortina in 2026.”
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