Over 60 talented young athletes have been awarded the first set of Backing The Best awards by Sport England and SportsAid. The programme is backed by £5.5 million of new National Lottery funding which aims to level the playing field in top-level sport.
The awards are worth up to £5,000 per year to help cover expensive costs such as travel, accommodation, nutrition and medical bills. SportsAid is delivering the scheme – the first of its kind in this country. In its first year, athletes from over 30 different sporting disciplines, including, athletics, boxing, table tennis, goalball and swimming, have secured awards.
They must have demonstrated outstanding ability to be eligible for the bursary. However, they must also show that, because of their family's financial situation, they might not get the opportunity to fulfil their potential without it.
Among the first awardees is Jess Hunter, a 19-year-old 100m hurdler from Aylesbury whose personal best is less than a second off Jessica Ennis-Hill’s time.
She was brought up in care and credits athletics for keeping her grounded. However, despite her natural ability, Jess struggles to afford physio and specialist training camps, which her coaches believe would make all the difference to her future as a potential medal winner.
Wakeboarder Izzy Goode, from Bedfordshire, is just 15 and has already beaten the competition to win the National Championships.
However, she has had to pass up on international competitions because of cost, and trains at her local lake in freezing conditions – including snow – over the winter while her peers perfect their tricks abroad at warm weather training. Her ambition is to campaign for wakeboarding to be included in the Olympics, and to help shift the perception that it is a middle class sport.
The four-year scheme was launched after a new study, carried out by Leeds Beckett University, showed the rising cost of becoming a sports star has led to some of England’s best up-and-coming talent dropping out.
It’s also supported by findings from SportsAid's annual athlete survey which revealed that parents of talented athletes may have to fork out as much as £27,000 a year to help their child pursue their sporting ambition. Backing The Best is designed to help families of the next Bradley Wiggins, Jessica Ennis-Hill or Ellie Simmonds who might feel competitive sport is out of their financial reach.
Sport England director of sport, Phil Smith, said: “As well as encouraging more people to play sport and be active, Sport England’s job is to help identify and develop talented athletes. But being talented can be expensive, as the cost of travelling to competitions and the essential coaching needed can mount up.
"Backing The Best has been designed to give a helping hand to those who need it – so that ability and attitude are the only criteria for success, and not money. Ultimately, we want our national teams to be truly representative of our country, rather than just those that can afford to reach the top.
“We are incredibly proud of our first group of athletes; they are an inspiring group of young people that deserve to be recognised for their talent and dedication. They, and their families and coaches, have given everything to their sport and in doing so have overcome so many barriers, sometimes against the odds. We believe Backing The Best has the potential to help level the playing field in sport and help our national teams to become even greater.”
By widening the pool of athletes making their way up the talent pathway, it is hoped England’s medal winning potential will be given a boost.
Tim Lawler, chief executive of SportsAid, said: “Backing The Best is exciting. It’s a new initiative never seen before in the environment of talent in sport, being targeted at those young sports people facing the toughest financial challenges.
“Backing The Best will provide the means to give certain talented young sports people the financial help they need to access the talent pathway and develop their sporting potential – not making the journey to success any easier for these athletes, but actually making it possible.
“Without support through Backing The Best, there is a chance some talented young athletes will be lost to their sport; with Backing The Best, they have a chance to reach their full potential. It's going to be fascinating to see how the first cohort of athletes grow and develop over the next few years - we really think Backing The Best is going to be a game changer for sport in this country.”
Part of the money will also go towards helping sports bodies to broaden their talent development schemes so that those slipping through the net because of cost are supported.
According to the research carried out by Leeds Beckett University, travel and accommodation are by far the biggest costs for a young athlete trying to fulfil their potential.
The study also found that drop-outs are more likely for athletes from single-parent families, those living in rural locations and in areas across the North East of England – primarily because the region is isolated from key training and competition venues.
Young athletes with a disability also have to travel further - often abroad - because there are fewer sports clubs and teams for disabled sports, which again means the price of making it to the top is higher.
Sports Minister David Evennett said: "Backing the Best is a fantastic initiative that will help even more young athletes reach their full sporting potential. Success should be based on talent and hard work – not wealth. This fund will help level the playing field and develop the next generation of sports stars.”
Simon Timson, UK Sport’s Director of Performance, said: “We want every talented young athlete with the potential to inspire the nation at the Olympic and Paralympic Games to be able to access their chosen sport. It’s fantastic to see these athletes being given that chance through Sport England’s National Lottery funded Backing The Best programme, and I hope this proves to be a real stepping stone on their pathway towards world class sporting achievement.”
The first cohort of Backing The Best athletes are....
Eva Henderson-Hirst, 17, Buxton (Archery)
Jacob Boden, 14, Sleaford (Archery)
Lauren Bann, 15, Hadleigh (Archery)
Joseph Dewar, 20, Ilford (Athletics)
Jessica Hunter, 19, Aylesbury (Athletics)
Souleyman Bah, 17, Surbiton (Athletics - Disability)
Billie Jean Franks, 17, Poulton le Fylde (Boxing)
Cameron Paul, 15, Radlett (Boxing)
Chantelle Reid, 17, Derby (Boxing)
Connor Butler, 18, Liverpool (Boxing)
Ellie Scotney, 18, Catford (Boxing)
Jade Ashmore, 18, Chesterfield (Boxing)
Joseph Kerrison, 15, Harleston (Boxing)
Lewis Coley, 16, Sutton Coldfield (Boxing)
Muavia Nasim, 16, Rochdale (Boxing)
Noah (Hamidou) Dembele, 17 , London (Canoeing)
Aiden Dunne, 16, Ashton under Lyne (Climbing)
David Taylor, 16, Wigan (Climbing)
Megan Belt, 18, Broadstairs (Cricket)
Tara Norris, 17, Hassocks (Cricket)
Luz Esperanza Merry, 15, Plymouth (Disabilty Tennis)
Raffael Benitez, 14, Sheffield (Diving)
James Russell. 17, Petworth (Fencing)
Yasmin Campbell, 15, London (Fencing)
Nicole Douglas, 15, Middlesex (Football)
Dan Roper, 28, March (Goalball)
Laura Perry, 25, March (Goalball)
Megan Parker, 14, Solihull (Gymnastics)
Taeja James, 13, Nottingham (Gymnastics)
Ashton Whalley, 18, Blackburn (Judo)
Halimat Adio, 18, Muswell Hill (Netball)
Phillip Mitchell, 22, Bootle (Para Climbing)
Jack Sheffield, 13, Salford (Para swimming)
Katie Crowhurst, 12, Maidenhead (Para swimming)
Billy Shilton, 17, Stonehouse (Para Table Tennis)
Felicity Pickard, 21, Burnley (Para Table Tennis)
Gabriel Ibitoye, 18, London (Rugby - mens)
Connie Powell, 15, Ipswich (Rugby - womens)
Lauren Rigby, 17, Tamworth (Rugby - womens)
Rebeckah Mallard, 17, Wellingborough (Rugby - womens)
Tom Darling, 17, Kettering (Sailing)
Harriet Rogers, 15, Lymington (Sailing)
Ellie Seward, 18, Chard (Shooting)
Katie Gleeson, 21, Worthing (Shooting)
Thea Fenwick, 14, Whitby (Snowsport - skiing)
Alice Green, 15, Billericay (Squash)
Kace Bartley, 18, Battersea (Squash)
Lucy Turmel, 16, Ipswich (Squash)
Jamie O’Connor, 16, Margate (Swimming)
Amirul Hussain, 12, Manchester (Table Tennis)
Jasmin Wong, 12, Hull (Table Tennis)
Bradly Sinden, 17, Doncaster (Taekwondo)
Ellie Bowden, 15, Bradford (Taekwondo)
Freya Christie, 18, Hucknall (Tennis)
Jay Clarke, 17, Derbyshire (Tennis)
Lauryn John-Baptiste, 16, Hackney (Tennis)
Paul Jubb, 16, Hull (Tennis)
Faye Hills, 16, Chelmsford (Volleyball)
Isabella (Izzy) Goode, 16, Maulden (Wakeboarding)
Dylan Green, 19, Royton Oldham (Waterpolo)
Lee Fryer, 16, Gillingham (Wheelchair Basketball)
Toni Cave, 16, Pontefract (Wheelchair Basketball)
Charlie Hetherington, 22, Gloucester (Wheelchair Rugby)