The Backing The Best programme, managed by SportsAid for Sport England, supports athletes who would face difficulties progressing through their sport’s talent development system without critical financial help.
Backing The Best is supported by £5.5 million of new National Lottery funding which aims to level the playing field among England's brightest sporting prospects. The four-year scheme was launched in 2016 after a new study, carried out by Leeds Beckett University, showed the rising cost of becoming a sports star had led to certain athletes having to drop out.
All Backing The Best athletes must demonstrate outstanding ability to be eligible for the funding. They also have to show that, because of their family's financial situation, they might not get the opportunity to fulfil their potential without it. The awards are worth up to £5,000 per year to help cover expensive costs such as travel, accommodation and medical bills.
65 athletes were awarded the first set of Backing The Best awards by Sport England and SportsAid in 2016. This year, athletes from across 34 different sporting disciplines are benefitting from the scheme. 56 athletes from the 2017 intake were renominated and continued on Backing The Best. Therefore, 59 new recipients joined the programme in 2018.
Backing The Best athletes benefit from a yearly workshop where they are given expert advice on performance lifestyle management, nutrition, sports psychology and telling their story through the media. Parents have their own specially adapted sessions focusing on these areas as well as a discussion on growing relationships with prospective sponsors.
The athletes are joined at the workshop by Olympic and Paralympic heroes, including Becky Adlington OBE, Richard Hounslow MBE, Keri-anne Payne and Zoe Smith, who act as mentors and share their own experiences. Women's Rugby World Cup champion Maggie Alphonsi and John McAvoy, a Nike sponsored triathlete, also provide support as ambassadors.
Backing The Best has already produced world, European and national age-group level champions with gymnast Taeja James, taekwondo athlete Bradly Sinden and tennis players Jay Clarke and Freya Christie among the programme's alumni. Taeja won silver at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games after a spectacular floor routine in the team event.
Boxing sensation Caroline Dubois was crowned SportsAid's One-to-Watch Award champion in 2018 having claimed women’s -60kg gold at the Buenos Aires Youth Olympic Games, the AIBA Youth World Championships and the EUBC European Youth Continental Championships. She has received support from Backing The Best throughout the last three years.
Backing The Best project funding is helping many sports to unearth the next generation of athletes from under-represented communities, as well as areas where there may be untapped talent geographically. The funding is available to sports governing bodies to enable them to be more proactive in widening the demographic profile among athletes on the talent pathway, in time leading to high-performance success for a more diverse group.
Sports including para athletics, para rowing, canoeing, archery, goalball and wheelchair basketball have all launched their own talent identification projects through the funding as they look to increase levels of diversity. Street 2 Stadium, searching for future Olympic and Paralympic track and field stars in inner city areas, and the Paracanoe Talent Club Partnership Programme, seeking to increase disabled participants in canoeing, are just two examples.
“I wouldn’t have been able to get to certain competitions without SportsAid’s support, and that means I wouldn’t have won the medals I have. It’s allowed me to progress and be more noticed within the sport. It’s competitive and there are multiple people who make up your weight category. It’s really helped me to get to where I want to be in my career."
Aaliyah Powell is a taekwondo athlete who won gold at the World Junior Championships 2018 and has represented Team GB. She is supported by Backing The Best.
"Backing The Best has been designed to give a helping hand to those who need it – so that ability and attitude are the only criteria for success, and not money. Ultimately, we want our national teams to be truly representative of our country, rather than just those that can afford to reach the top. We are incredibly proud of our supported athletes."
Phil Smith, Sport England's Director of Sport, is a leading advocate of Backing The Best. The programme forms a key part of the talent plan for England.