Monday, 8 March 2010

The biggest waste of resources in British sport

Back in 2002 the bodies of thousands of soldiers serving in Napoleon Bonaparte's Grande Armée were found in a mass grave outside Vilnius. They had perished during Napoleon's hubristic, gruelling eastward advance in 1812, with the purpose of conquering Russia.

Another bleak and depressing tale of shattered ambition arose over the weekend in the Lithuanian capital. Great Britain's Davis Cup team were defeated 3-2 by Lithuania in their Euro/Africa Group II tie in Vilnius, a result nothing short of humiliating. Excuse, if you will, the rather graphic metaphor - but The Cynical Challenge doesn't quite know whether to remove one's cap and pay respects at the graveside, or to stick another knife in the corpse.

Actually that's not true. It's definitely time to put the boot in.

For once, though, the target of ire shouldn't be the players. There have been times in the recent past when Great Britain's Davis Cup players have shouldered responsibility in defeat. One thinks particularly of Alex Bogdanovic, the loser of six live singles rubbers in Davis Cup matches. Despite being the current British number 2 singles player, 'Boggo' has not been selected for a Davis Cup tie since 2008, thanks largely to what has been seen as a suspect attitude. And he has an awful nickname, though that's less his fault.

This time around, though, like Leonidas at the Battle of Thermopylae, hell, like Jedward in the X-Factor, the British players can retain some pride in a losing effort. Credit goes to doubles pairing Ken Skupski and Colin Fleming (rather dubiously dubbed 'Flemski' by the press), who breezed through their rubber in four sets. 

Meanwhile the performances of 19-year-old Dan Evans and his 23-year-old counterpart James Ward were courageous and at times promising. But as the BBC's Jonathan Overend points out in a frank interview in the aftermath of the defeat in Vilnius, it was not for lack of effort that the pair lost out over the weekend's singles rubbers. It was lack of quality that did for them.

Ultimately, responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the LTA. Britain, Andy Murray aside, has consistently failed to produce players of a good enough calibre to defeat teams like Lithuania. Never mind Lithuania - it should never have come to this. Britain should be producing players able to come through previous ties against stronger teams - the likes of Austria, Poland and the Ukraine. 

Instead, the LTA has shown unbelievable hubris. As has been pointed out by many, the LTA's annual budget for producing talent is over £40m; the Lithuanians had a mere £90,000. But after a series of damaging defeats across East/Central Europe which make Operation Barbarossa look like a cakewalk, Britain now languish one match away from Europe Group III and some unwelcoming ties against the likes of Armenia, San Marino, Moldova and Malta. As a tabloid might put it (and who wouldn't love to see this in print?) Vilnius was truly GB's Stalingrad.

Appearances suggest the LTA is currently operating the biggest waste of resources in British sport. It earned £29.2m in 2009 in profits from the Wimbledon Championships. A further £14m was earned in sponsorship and commercial partnerships such as that provided by AEGON, who as an insurance company who ask their customers to "rely on our resilience and experience to help them plan for their financial futures" should really have spent their money more wisely. According to the LTA's 2009 annual report, the organisation has also secured a further sum of up to £26m over the next four years from Sport England - a public body which draws from tax revenues. Yes, that's right, your money is being spent on this failure, and plenty of it.

And where does it go?

£40m has been spent on the new tennis centre at Roehampton, south-west London, which opened to great fanfare in 2007. It has 22 courts, which is good, and a hydrotherapy unit, which is probably not an entirely necessary facility for producing tennis players. Either way, it has been criticised in some quarters as, well, a bit of a waste, not least in the Daily Mail, in its own imitable (but on this occasion pertinent) way:

The LTA spent £500,000 last year financing its elaborate canteen at Roehampton's National Tennis Centre, which is five times the annual budget for Lithuanian tennis. As [Dan] Evans could testify, all the five-star nutritional dishes in the world are not much help when you are faced with a deciding rubber against a hungry East European feeding off constant adrenalin refills from hugely patriotic support.

Not sure if that reference to "a hungry East European" isn't a tiny bit racist, mind.

And then there's the six-figure salaries to top coaches, £2.2m per annum by some estimates to men such as Paul Annacone, Peter Lundgren and Brad Gilbert, none of whom have really cut the mustard. In Lundgren's case, a rather embarrassing episode in 2007 culminated in the Swede, who had previously successfully coached Roger Federer and Marat Safin, being placed on gardening leave before being moved on.

The millions of pounds being spent with no end product is a diabolical misuse of valuable assets. The contrast could not be clearer, coming in the wake of the Vancouver Winter Olympics, where Amy Williams won gold in the skeleton despite the British Olympic Association having received only £6.5m investment in winter sports in the last four years.

The first decade of the 21st century taught us that money helps sport and athletes to thrive. I give you Chelsea FC as a case in point. The second decade has already revealed, through Portsmouth FC in particular, that hubris, mismanagement and financial excess in sport are liable to be severely punished. The LTA is no exception, and heads will roll.


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Always glad to hear your thoughts. Be nice now! James