Financial awards distributed to talented young athletes this year through the ground-breaking Backing The Best programme surpassed £1 million. The initiative, overseen and delivered by SportsAid for Sport England, was launched in 2016 to level the playing field for up-and-coming sports stars who, without critical financial help, would face difficulties progressing through the talent identification system.
All Backing The Best athletes must demonstrate outstanding ability to be eligible for the National Lottery 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.
The first annual cohort saw 70 award recipients from across the country, whereas there are now 205 athletes, spread across 38 different sporting disciplines, benefitting from the initiative in 2019. The average age of the currently supported athletes is 17-years-old - with 52% being females, 23% having a disability and 30% coming from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.
“Talent Inclusion is a key objective in Sport England’s Talent Plan which was published in the autumn of 2018," said Duncan Truswell – Strategic Lead for Talent & Performance at Sport England. "We want to see winning England and Great Britain teams that are representative of all corners of England and of all backgrounds and circumstance.
"We know that it takes a lot of commitment to realise your potential and that at key stages of the journey this may include a significant financial commitment - we can't allow this to stifle ambition or for it to prevent a young person realising their dreams.
"Backing The Best is here to make sure that those who need help, get it - so that ability and potential determine success rather than financial horsepower. We have a long way to go to ensure that the system is as meritocratic as we would like, but Backing The Best has made a great start and already created future champions who would likely not have had the resources to continue their sporting journey.”
The programme has produced many world, European and national age-group level champions with several athletes making their mark in the senior ranks including gymnast Taeja James and taekwondo athlete Bradly Sinden. Bradly won gold at the World Taekwondo Championships earlier this year while Taeja claimed silver at the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games.
Boxing sensation Caroline Dubois was also crowned SportsAid's One-to-Watch Award champion in 2018 having secured 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.
“SportsAid have helped me a lot,” said Caroline. “When you go to big competitions like a World Championships or Youth Olympic Games, or training camps, which are usually quite far away from home, the travelling can be very expensive. I’m very grateful for their help. The travelling takes its toll but SportsAid’s support helps make that so much easier for me.”
Para-dressage rider Mari Durward-Akhurst received support from Backing The Best in 2017 and 2018. The 25-year-old, who aims to win gold at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics, has cerebral palsy, hyper mobility and lax ligaments. She is a qualified sports therapist but relied heavily on Backing The Best as the effects of her disability prevented her from being able to work.
“It’s been an enormous amount of help and support,” said Mari - who originally began riding through her local Riding for the Disabled programme as a form of physiotherapy. “Backing The Best meant I could keep training, having two sessions a week with my trainer – it’s also allowed me to have strength and conditioning and physio support to help stop the deterioration.
“I couldn’t have done it without the funding and without the training, the horses wouldn’t have gone as well, we wouldn’t have got the results and I would have dropped out,” admitted Mari. “I was always concerned and worrying, whereas now it’s in place, it takes the pressure off my parents which makes me a lot happier and I can fully concentrate on the sport and doing what I love.”
Backing The Best athletes also benefit from a yearly workshop where they are given expert advice on performance lifestyle management, nutrition and telling their story through the media, as well as recording interviews on camera. Parents have their own specially adapted sessions focusing on these areas and are able to share their experiences and challenges with each other.
Harriet Rogers, 19, is a sailor who has represented Great Britain at multiple international competitions. Sailing is an expensive sport which has put a financial strain on her family to meet the associated costs. Harriet’s mother Reb really felt the benefit of the workshop delivery, in particular the performance lifestyle advice, when her daughter received Backing The Best support.
“The workshops are absolutely invaluable for parents,” said Reb. “We all come together under one roof with exactly the same issues and experiences. In order for us to be able to advise [their children] with some authority or educated perspective, asking questions of panels of athletes or the industry experts can confirm a lot of what we already thought. That’s amazing.”
The athletes and parents are joined at the workshops by Olympic and Paralympic heroes who act as mentors and provide invaluable insight. Becky Adlington OBE, Richard Hounslow MBE, Keri-anne Payne and Zoe Smith have all given their support, alongside Women's Rugby World Cup champion Maggie Alphonsi and John McAvoy, a Nike-sponsored triathlete, in the past.
Maggie and John are both committee members of the Backing The Best awards panel where they offer oversight and guidance on the operational delivery of the programme. John, who found redemption in life through the power of sport and is an ambassador for SportsAid, feels pride in the opportunities being presented to the athletes through Backing The Best.
“Every child should be given an opportunity in life to be successful,” said John. “There is no greater waste than being able to do something but not having access to the pathways to do it because of money. That’s not fair. These athletes all have aspirations and Backing The Best is allowing them to go off and achieve their dreams, go forward and be very successful people.”
Backing The Best is also helping many sports to unearth the next generation of athletes from under-represented communities and areas where there may be untapped talent geographically. Funding through the programme is allowing sports, including para athletics, canoeing, archery, goalball and wheelchair basketball, to launch their own talent identification projects.
You can find out more about Backing The Best and the impact of the programme here!