“We are asking hard questions like who might be facing bankruptcy in the short term, because that’s the reality right now,” Katherine Grainger says as, in her role as the head of UK Sport, she considers the financial devastation of the global pandemic.

“These are the honest conversations we need to have. Some sports are at short-term risk while other major sports have much bigger budgets. But because they don’t have money coming in from their partners, and they are not hosting events they expected, some of the big sports could also be under threat. It’s across the board. People’s jobs and the future of sporting bodies are at stake. We just don’t want to see any of the sports going under.”

Grainger, the most decorated British female Olympian of all time, is the kind of intelligent and calm leader needed in a crisis. As a rower she won a medal at each of the past five Olympic Games, with her gold at London 2012 being the high point. The 44-year-old is also a six-time world champion who earned a PhD in criminal law.

She is amiable as ever as we talk for more than an hour but, surveying the impact of Covid-19, Grainger does not conceal the severity of the situation. UK Sport is in the midst of obtaining a comprehensive health check on the finances of all its Olympic and Paralympic sports. Key information is still to be collected but the early indications worry Grainger as she concedes that some sports are in danger. “If [the crisis] goes on for another six months there will be a handful of sports, three or four [which could go under]. If no other financial stability was guaranteed it would go up into the teens. We have talked to about 30 sports and I think about half would be in quite serious threat if this went on.”

Grainger is understandably reluctant to name the sports in potential jeopardy but says: “We have started talking to the government and they are sympathetic. But as much as we will be fighting for sport to get reassurance [of government help] as early as possible, we know there are very big decisions to be made in health, education, industry and the economy. The impact on these areas must be considered first and we’re not saying sport should be ahead of any of these.”

Does Grainger envisage a situation where she might have to choose which sporting bodies are kept alive? “I don’t know if we will be in that position – but there is a chance we will end up there if we can’t get some financial certainty.”

The worst effects could well be mitigated by the £195m Sport England plans to inject into grassroots sport. Grainger also looks up on my laptop screen, as we are doing this interview remotely, and offers a familiar smile of encouragement. “The Olympics and Paralympics will be next summer as long as this pandemic hasn’t worsened. It would be an incredible opportunity for fit and healthy nations to come together again. We could have quite a celebration if the world’s in a better place.

“Just think how it would feel if we could all come together again, watching something together, united in actual physical contact. With that in mind, you feel that Great Britain would want our teams to be as best prepared as possible. But everyone is going to have some financial need over the next 12 months, in different areas, and rightly so.”

Has the crisis made her think even more deeply about moral questions as to how sport is funded – and how much money it deserves compared to health and education? “It has because we’re suddenly in a very different world. We’re always needing more money and we feel that sport can spread inspiration across the nation. But the pandemic has put everything on hold. It forces you to ask the right questions. Ultimately, what is important? What role should sport play in our lives?

“In a global crisis, we need to think how we will feel when we look back at this period in a year or 10 years’ time. We will think: ‘What part did we play?’ Those of us who work in sport, and love sport, always believe in its inspiration. But when deaths are coming and people are losing jobs, sport has a deeper role. How can sport help communities rebuild? Sport still has its part to play but not in the way we expect in more ordinary times.”

Sport will almost certainly have to accept less money than it has been given in the past. The issue is complicated by the fact that the current four-year cycle for Olympic and Paralympic sport ends next March. How will sporting bodies fund their teams as they prepare for Tokyo that summer? “Some money will be saved by not travelling and not competing. But we’re looking at a cycle when some sports will suffer big losses. We’re looking at who’s going to be at risk in the next few months, and what is ultimately needed.

“We’ve reassured everyone the money is in place until March and going right through next summer. But we don’t have any money for next summer yet so we’re putting it to government as well. We could say it’s as simple as needing a 12-month rollover because we have a new Olympic year coming up. But do we accept a reduced three-year funding cycle for Paris in 2024?

“Each has different ramifications so a few scenarios are being worked on. We’ve had a call with the sports minister and the people in the civil service, the DCMS, have been very supportive and understanding. We’re confident they feel sport has to remain ambitious and our teams prepare properly. We just have to see whether that’s feasible.”

There is an additional worry for Grainger because much of UK Sport’s funding comes from the National Lottery – and sales of lottery tickets had begun to dwindle long before the coronavirus. “It’s always a concern. Other lotteries have emerged and that’s complicated things. The obvious prediction is that this is not going to be a good time for lottery sales. This will have a direct impact on sport. So we do not have an easy financial future.”

Grainger has been the chair of UK Sport for exactly three years this month and she feels confident she can negotiate the minefield as to which sports deserve funding when the next cycle begins. She acknowledges that some sports – including badminton and wheelchair rugby – have cause to feel they have been harshly treated and she suggests the current crisis will demand an even more thoughtful approach.

When she began the job, UK Sport was emerging from 10 years where the mantra of “No comprise” underpinned the belief that only medals counted. A bullying culture pervaded some sports and the mental health of many athletes was affected. Grainger has encouraged a more balanced approach to elite sport – but stresses that the climate had already shifted in 2016.

“Rio was our most successful Olympics and Paralympics but it didn’t take long for athletes to say there was a human cost. When I came in UK Sport was already responding, so I can’t take all the credit for changing the culture. But as a former athlete I could say of course it’s competitive high-performance and it will always feel hard. That’s not a bad thing but it should also feel safe and people should be able to speak out.

“We had an environment where some people thought that they could behave in any way as long as medals were being won. That’s wrong and it’s a lot better now. But we shouldn’t sit back because it’s constantly evolving.”

Before Covid-19, Grainger’s ambition had been evident in her belief that it was conceivable GB could one day top the medals tables at an Olympic Games. Was this a specific aim? “Not necessarily. We had been asked about our biggest ambitions by the media. Could we ever become the best Olympic nation globally? We did a piece of work to see whether it was feasible to become No 1. The results were that it’s possible but it would take a significant investment over three Olympic cycles.

“It was useful to tell our government this was possible. But some of the new Olympic sports haven’t played to our strengths. So we’re up against more than expected and it would be at least three Olympics away. It’s a long-term thing. But we were looking mainly for public feedback as to what they want from sport. They wanted more sports to be given the opportunity. The public like a broader range of sports to win medals. The key move would be to maximise the number of sports with medal potential.”

Such talk hardly matters now. Surely Grainger would settle for Britain slipping down to fifth or sixth place in the medals table at Tokyo if money was spent in areas of society which need it most? “There’s some comfort being in the top five. If we’re anywhere in that top five we can take a lot of pride. I don’t think people will remember where we finished after a while. They will remember the stories rather than the details and numbers.”

We discuss how sport can lift a national mood and the conversation lightens. “I am ultimately a helpless optimist,” Grainger says. “That helped me through a lot of worry and adversity when I was competing. So I am still excited about the future of UK Sport – not only in terms of medals but in having a positive impact on society once we get out of this crisis. I see all the good sport can do. So we should remain ambitious. Sport still has an important role to play.”

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