Para-cycling success and growth: spotlight on Team GB’s model

Mar 9, 2019, 08:56 AM

 “Things would look very, very different without funding. It’s unlikely we would be in a position where we can afford the type of equipment we’re using; athletes would be unlikely to be full-time; and we would be competing on a slightly more level playing-field with the rest of the other nations.” Jon Pett

In less than two weeks, the world’s best para-cyclists will descend on the Dutch city of Apeldoorn for the 2019 UCI Para-Cycling Track World Championships.

Riders from more than 30 countries will take part, looking to build on their performances at the 2018 event held in Rio, Brazil.

Heading the medals table last year was Great Britain with a tally of 18 medals, comprising 11 gold, four silver and three bronze medals. To boot, Team GB’s women’s tandem of Sophie Thornhill and Helen Scott claimed two of the four world records broken in Rio: 1:05:0.79 in the 1km time trial and 10.891 in the 200m sprint.  “It was a great competition,” said Jon Pett, Para-Cycling Programme Manager for Great Britain. “We look forward to 2019…”

With the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics just one year away, nations will be taking large delegations to Apeldoorn. The British squad will include their most successful Paralympian Dame Sarah Storey, along with other former and current UCI World Champions such as Kadeena Cox, Jody Cundy, Katie Toft, Megan Giglia and Jon-Allan Butterworth.

Great Britain is currently surfing a wave of success after dominating the Manchester Para-Cycling International in January, but how has Great Britain success come about? There is no doubt that National Lottery funding has played a key role.

In 2019, British Para-cycling will host six to eight events, all supported by the National Lottery. That money also provides taster days, enabling physically- and visually-impaired individuals to give para-cycling a go. At the other end of the competitive spectrum, 2018 saw the introduction of the British Cycling National Para-cycling Track League Meetings, held in velodromes at Derby and Newport, to give riders opportunity to improve in a professional, competitive environment.

As for the funding model, it’s clear that money talks. In the four-year build-up to the Athens 2004 Paralympics, para-cyclists received £516,000 (€600). Fast-forward to the four-year Olympic cycle to Tokyo 2020 and that figure’s grown more than 15 times over to £8,094,453 (€9,406,987). The impact is not lost on Pett, who told journalist Paddy Jack: “Things would look very, very different without funding. It’s unlikely we would be in a position where we can afford the type of equipment we’re using; athletes would be unlikely to be full-time; and we would be competing on a slightly more level playing-field with the rest of the other nations.”

Money’s one thing; maximising its impact is another matter entirely. And Great Britain’s para-cyclists can rightly claim they’re fiscally efficient. In Britain, able-bodied cycling is perceived as the medal flagbearer but, £ per medal, it’s got nothing on para-cycling. Since Lottery funding began back in 1997, cycling has received £92,450,816 (€107,441,929) and won 46 medals – that’s around £2 million (€2,320,000) per medal. Para-cycling has received £13,308,400 (€15466388) and won 125 medals – that’s around £100,000 (€116,220) a medal!

It’s not all money, of course. Britain’s heritage in Paralympics dates back to the mid-20th century. In 1944, Dr Ludwig Guttman opened a spinal injuries centre at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital, located around 40 miles north-west of London. Guttman used sport as a rehabilitation tool… which quickly evolved to recreational sport and then to competitive sport.

Come 29 July 1948, on the same day of the London Olympic Games’ Opening Ceremony, Dr Guttman hosted the first competition for wheelchair athletes, which he named the Stoke Mandeville Games. The Games comprised 16 injured servicemen and women who took part in archery. In 1952, Dutch ex-servicemen joined the movement. The event grew to become the Paralympic Games, whose inaugural edition took place in Rome in 1960 featuring 400 athletes from 23 countries.

Of course, with over 30 countries competing in Apeldoorn, some of which benefit from similar funding and development programmes, Great Britain will have their work cut out to reach their target of 10 to 16 medals across the Para-cycling Track and Para-cycling Road World Championships (to be held later this year in Emmen, the Netherlands). But it just goes to show that with commitment from the government to resource this fast-growing sport, para-cycling, both at recreational and elite level, can go from strength to strength.