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Action Replay: Basket Case

You might well be able to guess that football is the most popular participant sport in Britain, but you would probably be surprised to learn that basketball ranks second. Every year over 2.5 million people over 14 play the game.

But in terms of medals and national prestige, things are not so good. The British men’s basketball team has never qualified for an Olympics contest, though they did play as host nation at London 2012, where they won just one match out of five. They recently failed to make it through to the European national tournament in 2015, having lost in the qualifiers to Iceland and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Early this year funding at the elite level was cut from £7m to zero, as UK Sport reassessed its priorities after the London Olympics. This organisation (which receives money from the government and the National Lottery) deals only with ‘top end’ sport, and – in addition to money for athletics – dishes out sizeable sums to sports such as sailing and fencing, which deliver a fair number of medals but have very little impact in terms of participation. It should be pointed out, though, that basketball still gets funding from, for instance, Sport England, which is concerned with grass roots sport.

Former international John Amaechi argued (BBC online, 22 August) that basketball could help solve various social problems: ‘There is legitimacy to all the sports in question, but are canoeing, shooting, archery, fencing, modern pentathlon and rowing the answer to our obesity problem? Are these the sports that can permeate our urban communities and inspire a generation of youth who are dramatically less well off than the previous?’ He proposed radical changes to the way the sport is run, at all levels.

The boss of British Basketball, Roger Moreland, dismissed Amaechi’s complaints, and insisted that progress was being made. Though in relation to the recent qualifiers he could only say, ‘Frankly, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. We just happened to have lost on this particular occasion.’

Amaechi is probably rather optimistic about what sport could do to keep people fit, well and off the streets. This little spat tells us quite a lot about the priorities that drive establishment support for sport: weighing up the furtherance of national glory against promoting a healthy population. But they all see sport as serving some useful (for them) function and not just being for fun.

PB