The Gulf Today - Panorama - - CONTENTS - By Lawrence Ostlere

Here’s an in­ter­view with Zoe Smith, the Olympian weightlifter forced to crowd­fund her way back to the top of the sport

“Imake next to noth­ing,” says Zoe Smith, with typ­i­cal blunt hon­esty. “I earn pretty much just above min­i­mum wage work­ing at a bub­ble tea cafe, so I don’t have any money to put aside for a world cham­pi­onship fund.”

She says it with a shrug and a laugh, but some­thing has clearly gone wrong when an Olympian and Com­mon­wealth gold medal­list from one of the wealth­i­est coun­tries on the planet is hav­ing to train, work and appeal for do­na­tions to get to the next Olympic Games.

Smith’s dis­ci­pline, weightlift­ing, is one of those that was stripped of fund­ing by UK Sport in 2016 along with bas­ket­ball, bad­minton, wheel­chair rugby and a raft of oth­ers deemed un­likely to achieve more than one medal at Tokyo 2020. She has lost out on coach­ing, a physio and strength and con­di­tion­ing coach, as well as reg­u­lar train­ing camps and ac­com­mo­da­tion at weightlift­ing’s Lough­bor­ough Univer­sity base.

Smith can carry on without much of that sup­port but not without the £10,000 (Dhs47,264) she needs to reach the six qual­i­fy­ing com­pe­ti­tions around the globe, in­clud­ing Novem­ber’s world cham­pi­onships in Turk­menistan. She has got­ten cre­ative, of­fer­ing coach­ing and classes in re­turn for big­ger do­na­tions on her Gofundme page, but the

re­al­ity is that both Smith and her team­mates may be forced to drum up the money them­selves. “If I max out all my other av­enues then I’ll be look­ing to take out credit cards. It’s a shame you have to think about putting your­self in debt just to com­pete in your sport.”

This might seem a strange sit­u­a­tion in a coun­try that spends £266 mil­lion (Dhs1.3 bil­lion) on Olympic fund­ing. Row­ing cur­rently gets £31m (Dh­s147m) per year. Sail­ing gets £26m (Dh­s123m). Ca­noe­ing £19m (Dh­s90m). Taek­wondo £10m (Dh­s47m).

Mod­ern pen­tathlon

£6m (Dh­s28m). Yet weightlift­ing and other out­casts don’t re­ceive a penny.

The irony is that there is cur­rently a real win­dow of op­por­tu­nity in the sport. Weightlift­ing is in dis­ar­ray with sev­eral of the tra­di­tional Asian and East­ern

Bloc na­tions fac­ing re­stric­tions fol­low­ing mul­ti­ple dop­ing vi­o­la­tions; China are not com­pet­ing at the cur­rent Asian Games af­ter a one-year sus­pen­sion. “Re­al­is­ti­cally, if there was ever a chance to take a shot at an Olympic medal, it’s now,” says Smith. “It just so hap­pens that this is the one time we can’t af­ford to get there.”

UK Sport’s dras­tic fund­ing pol­icy is now be­ing dis­cussed in a pub­lic re­view. This month, the former UK Ath­let­ics chair Ed Warner called for a rad­i­cal over­haul of a sys­tem that has be­come warped by its un­healthy ob­ses­sion with medals and let­ting the long-term de­vel­op­ment of a more di­verse range of sports suf­fer.

“There are sports on the list like row­ing which aren’t par­tic­u­larly ac­ces­si­ble,” says Smith. “I think it’s im­por­tant we fund sports — not nec­es­sar­ily just weightlift­ing — but bas­ket­ball are in the same boat, bad­minton, things where you pretty much just need to turn up. It cer­tainly doesn’t take your mum and dad own­ing a mil­lion-pound house in the coun­try­side on the wa­ter so you can train or own­ing a horse in a mas­sive back gar­den so you can prac­tice in. It would be a mas­sive shame if weightlift­ing in the UK was to die be­cause of un­der­in­vest­ment.

“There have been ru­mours of how (the fund­ing sys­tem) might be chang­ing, ev­ery gov­ern­ing body has been told they have to be­come more self-sus­tain­able. That’s a good thing: you don’t want to be re­liant on govern­ment hand­outs — it’s like be­ing on ben­e­fits. No one wants that for their sport, and ob­vi­ously, it’s be­com­ing more self-de­pen­dent. But while it’s still avail­able, we re­ally need the sup­port.”

The strip­ping of the safety blan­ket has at least given Smith added fo­cus. She has had to struc­ture her life metic­u­lously to fit train­ing around work while she has also been study­ing bi­ol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy and en­vi­ron­men­tal science — “I’m do­ing my A-lev­els aged 24, which isn’t at all de­mor­al­is­ing,” she jokes — jolted by the re­al­i­sa­tion that she can­not rely on a ca­reer in sport. “I’d lit­er­ally just got off the plane from the Com­mon­wealths (in April) and had about a week to re­vise. I do my fi­nal ex­ams next sum­mer, so I’m go­ing to have a lot on, but I’m set­ting my­self up for some­thing af­ter weightlift­ing.

I’m quite in­ter­ested in con­ser­va­tion: I could stay in the sport and maybe coach, or I could go and save the world.”

Be­fore she saves the world, Smith is de­ter­mined not to let the op­por­tu­nity to com­pete at the Tokyo Olympics slip away. Train­ing and fundrais­ing re­main the pri­or­i­ties above study­ing in her packed work­load, all while serv­ing bub­ble tea to stay afloat. A sense of hu­mour also seems to be a nec­es­sary qual­ity to go with that ded­i­ca­tion.

“I’ve been recog­nised a cou­ple of times at work,” she says. “They say ‘Oh, are you that weightlifter?’ and then I say, ‘Do you want tapi­oca with that?’”

UK Sport’s dras­tic fund­ing cuts two years ago have left top Bri­tish ath­letes like Smith strug­gling to reach the Tokyo Games in 2020.

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