Stopped dead in their tracks after funding slashed for Games failure

Part four of our series on the legacy of London 2012 turns the spotlight on a sport for which the Olympics proved a high point, and also the beginning of the end. Nick Westby reports.

Britain's Ben Pipes

Cycling is booming, triathlon is developing at a rate quicker than the sport’s governing body anticipated and rowing continues to go from strength to strength at grass-roots and senior level.

For those sports, London 2012 either acted as a starting gun to a legacy in action or the vehicle to accelerating its progress.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But there is a flip side to that coin.

Of the 26 sports in which Britain had representation, eight have regressed since the ‘greatest show on earth’, while one of those, volleyball, has been stopped dead in its tracks.

Between them, the men’s and women’s indoor volleyball teams won one out of 10 games at London 2012, which exceeded expectation for a home nation that had very little pedigree in the sport.

The net result was that in the winter UK Sport cut the funding for indoor volleyball completely, with only £514,000 being made available for the women’s beach volleyball programme in the next Olympic cycle to Rio.

The effect that has had on people behind the figures has been catastrophic.

Ben Pipes, of Hull, was the men’s indoor captain at London 2012. Now, one year on, aged 26, he works at a college in Bournemouth as a sporting director.

Sheffield’s Rachel Laybourne was 30 at the time of the Games and, along with her team-mates in the women’s indoor squad, she lived in the residences of the South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue service to help minimise costs for the British Federation, which was based at the city’s English Institute of Sport.

Laybourne trained and worked towards her Olympic dream for a decade.

One year on from realising that ambition, she is trying to get employment as a teacher after the funding cut effectively retired her from the sport.

“Overnight, the team was disbanded and British volleyball was finished,” says Laybourne.

“You can’t find Great Britain in the rankings for either the men or the women. We’ve not been invited into any of the senior competition qualifiers.

“We’ve got Sport England funding, but that doesn’t support the elite senior level, just the junior levels, after which there’s no programme for seniors.

“So there’s no coaches employed, no medical staff, no facilities – nothing.

“I spent 10 years training for the Olympics, and you never expect that that high point would also prove the end.

“At 30 years of age, I was forced into retirement. It was never about Rio for me, but there should have at least been a chance to continue playing the sport at the top level.”

With no senior team, there is no legacy to aspire to.

There are plenty of junior clubs and a senior volleyball league, but without funding for a national team, any talent will have to go abroad to further their career – and stay there.

“From my perspective, it was fantastic, I got to live my dream, but it’s heartbeaking that there’s nothing now for anyone else,” adds Laybourne.

“That should never be the case for any sport in this country.

“There should be a grass-roots level talent pathway and then a competitive outlet.

“Without those how can you grow a sport? You can’t.

“It’s incredibly frustrating.

“The opportunity was there to tap into the legacy of the Olympics. Instead, the absolute opposite has happened.”

For Pipes, the lack of any future for the sport post-London is something he has taken personally.

“As the captain, I was the one standing in front of the press saying, ‘I promise there will be a legacy’,” says Pipes.

“But I meant it, I truly believed it. It was so hard, because the people above us were always fighting fires to keep the programmes we had running and we ran out of plans and ideas.

“A lot of things could have been done differently.”

Pipes lays partial blame at the door of the Volleyball Federation, more through naivete than anything else.

“Rather than going to UK Sport and asking for £4.5m over four years, they might as well have asked for £20m a year over 12 years,” he says.

“At least it would have shown they had any sort of long-term plan.

“They were fighting a lot of fires but maybe the people at the top of the tree could have made a better plan. As players, we felt in the cold, left to the crowd while everyone else stepped back.”

No matter how great the fall since London 2012, at least the likes of Pipes and Laybourne got the chance to scale the heights.

The men’s team did disappoint at London, losing all five matches without winning a set.

The women’s team, on the other hand, produced one of the most memorable moments by any home team when they defeated Algeria in an enthralling game that lasted into the early hours of the morning.

“I remember that game being a slog, a real fight, point for point,” reflects Laybourne.

“When we won that final point it was a sense of relief. We went there to try and get a victory and we got one.

“I don’t think I will ever have such a high in my lifetime.

“Every time I see a clip it just rekindles all those memories and images and I can’t help but smile.

“We showed we deserved to be there. Okay we only won one of six games, but we finished ninth out of 12 teams. We weren’t the worst team. I thought we’d done enough to be able to carry on.

“Whenever I wear my kit in front of schoolchildren their eyes light up, and that’s the legacy for me.

“They don’t care whether you’re playing or not.

“I just hope one day when these kids grow up, there’s a chance for them to continue playing volleyball competitively once they get to 18.”

A legacy from London? These sports disagree

ARCHERY

The sport’s failure to secure any medals at London 2012 led to a 20 per cent drop in UK Sport funding to £3.1m for the 2016 cycle. Alison Williamson was the last British medallist, taking bronze at Athens 2004.

BADMINTON

A poor performance at London 2012 saw badminton fail to meet any of its UK Sport targets and the result has been one of the biggest percentage drops in funding of any sport, down 20.6 per cent to £5.9m.

BASKETBALL

British Basketball fell short of its target but earned a reprieve from UK Sport after initially losing all its £8.6m funding. After an appeal, UK Sport decided on a £7m award dependant on performance.

HANDBALL

The British handball teams ran into difficulties even before the London Olympics and it was little surprise when it lost all its £2.92m funding when UK Sport made its announcement in December. That decision is also likely to impact at grass-roots level.

JUDO

Although judo hit its target of medals, the sport has paid the price for being in some turmoil even before London 2012. Its elite funding was cut from £7.5m to £6.8m.

TABLE TENNIS

A calamitous year for table tennis saw the sport lose its £1.2m funding completely, and had an appeal rejected by UK Sport.

VOLLEYBALL

Lost all its funding for the indoor game, with financial support of £514,000 awarded only to the women’s beach volleyball team. British Volleyball Federation president Richard Callicott said: “We could not be more disappointed that the phenomenally hard work and commitment of our athletes and coaches has been rewarded with the utter obliteration of the sport at elite level.”

WRESTLING

UK Sport removed all the £1.4m funding, but there is grass-roots investment of £850,000 from Sport England.