Dame Katherine Grainger, Great Britain’s joint most decorated female Olympian and now Chair of UK Sport, tells the story of seismic change for all athletes over the past 20 years
Hand on heart, it is difficult to put into words how genuinely grateful countless British athletes are for National Lottery support, which began in 1997 – the year I first made the rowing team, coincidentally. It has made such a striking and transformational difference to the country’s sporting fortunes.
I was lucky to be funded by the National Lottery throughout my 20 years as an athlete. But when I joined the team, ahead of Sydney 2000, every other member was either holding down a job or had an overdraft or loan.
If you wanted to be the best in the world back then and even have a chance against the more prominent, well-funded nations, you had to beg, borrow, or steal to train and compete properly. Because there wasn’t access to top facilities, coaching and medical support. It’s unrecognisable to the standard of support we have today, thankfully.
Indeed, on the eve of Sydney, we all felt as though we were in great shape but wouldn’t be doing this were it not for help from the National Lottery, thanks to John Major’s instigation. It was an absolute game-changer.
Britain has always been blessed with brilliant athletes who have a burning desire to succeed. But without a structure and enough support, we were at a disadvantage – until National Lottery support improved everything almost overnight.
What is especially important to athletes, and makes us try even harder, is that the money comes via members of the public who have played the National Lottery. So there is a lovely link – a collaboration between top sportspeople and National Lottery players – and you want to do them proud.
Anyone who buys tickets – as I do – wants to win a life-changing amount of money, primarily, but in a way, even if your numbers don’t come up, you are helping to fulfil someone else’s dream.
It’s incredible to consider how much evolution Team GB’s athletes have undergone in just over two decades, thanks to National Lottery support. It is easy to take it for granted now, with every athlete surrounded by coaches, medical teams, nutritionists and so on, but we have taken tremendous strides.
Amazingly, the women’s rowing team first had a full-time coach in the run-up to Sydney, and before then, there had not been a centralised programme. I recall how teammates would tell me that, before I joined, because there was not a physiotherapist to see, they would be advised to lie down for a fortnight if they suffered a back injury.
However, by the time I was training, if you felt your back going on the river, you would be seen by a physio within 30 minutes and referred to an on-site doctor, if necessary. Suddenly, injuries were manageable and didn’t set athletes back. It was wholly reassuring to know you were in good hands, and that bred confidence when you were training and competing.
The coaching and the central base were part of the obvious initial upgrade. Other elements have been added over the years, building on those early gains. Before Athens 2004, for instance, many institutes of sports were established. And while great investment was first made in the physical preparation of the athletes, now there is also a focus on the mental side.
As Chair of UK Sport, I don’t know what we would do without National Lottery support, which has provided 60 per cent (£204 million) of the £340 million we have allocated for the Tokyo cycle. It has been critical to supporting the athletes and the institutes of sport in these uncertain times; I doubt many of the latter would have survived if not for the National Lottery.
Athletes have been delayed by a year, of course, and the coronavirus restrictions have added another significant cost to training and competition. Thanks again to National Lottery support, though, the Team GB athletes can be assured that they will have had the best preparation, so I’m quietly confident and have high hopes that we will perform well.
If the support suddenly stopped, it would be a massive loss and I fear it would transform sport in Britain, in a hugely debilitating way. So the thought of it continuing, and having the wonderful public support and backing, is fantastic. While it propelled our success in 2012 and 2016, every new wave of athletes is keen to make their mark. I firmly believe there are still so many memorable moments to come, and that’s essentially thanks to National Lottery support.
Dame Katherine Grainger is Great Britain’s joint most decorated female Olympian – the former rower has one gold and four silver medals – and is now Chair of UK Sport, the government agency responsible for investing in Olympic and Paralympic sport.