Sport or Hobby?

Should we call ourselves athletes if Sport England doesn’t realise what we do? Or without recognition is UK sled dog sports left to languish in the realms of hobbyland.

Let’s start with the definition of an athlete: one who participates in physical exercise or sports, especially in competitive events.

Going by the dictionary for all intents and purposes my dogs and me are athletes, albeit the dogs are far superior ones. I’ve trained very hard to earn my World and European Championship medals, battled out with the best competitors and have done this all whilst racing under a Team GB banner……. so I feel like an athlete. I’ve also sacrificed holidays, money, and going out to ensure I get up to train and can afford racing and travelling to events…….so I feel I have the dedication of an athlete. I follow a specific training programme and dietary requirements…….so I feel I live like an athlete. But if Sport England doesn’t recognise me as an athlete, what does that mean?

Sport England is the umbrella organisation for sports and there is an application process for sports to gain recognition. As an approved sport it would mean sled dog clubs could apply for possible funding for various reasons, but projects would need to provide a sustainable impact on people’s physical and mental health. The grant and funding process can seem daunting and clubs would need to be compliant in all aspects of club management and health and safety, but heh we’ve got dogs what better therapy is there for mental health than our canine buddies, so that’s one box ticked! Whilst difficult it is doable. I’ve some experience and have successfully submitted three funding bids (one for £6000, the second £2000 and third was on a renewable yearly contract) – the first was an 8 week programme to teach disadvantaged teenagers to ski, the second working with a similar demographic with dogs in harness sports and the third was teaching futsal in a school. The projects were aimed at increasing participation in a group who normally couldn’t access such activities. You would struggle to get money for harnesses, rigs, bikes, pay for race entries, travel or help with kitting out a van for dogs, unless linked to a community project that would increase participation and well being. There is money allocated to develop volunteers, which could help with races and possibly even an event could be supported, but you will be expected to show outcome goals and the success of the grant. The bids I was involved with were also done at a local level through County Sports Partnerships (CPO’s) which have now been rebranded Active Partnerships (AP’s) and most counties should have one. You may find some funding available through AP’s without Sport England recognition, depending on your project. AP’s are great resources for clubs, more info can be found here:-

AP’s also champion something called clubmark, which is a gold standard accreditation for clubs. It ensures that clubs operate under codes, guidelines, etc and is for the protection of everyone. If applying for funding your club would be expected to have this or be working towards it and sport recognition approval can be tied to ensuring affiliated clubs gain this accreditation. This is normally a certain amount of clubs per year as it’s a timely process, with club volunteers needing to complete certain courses (mostly online). If you’re a club and have a project idea, here’s some of the Sport England codes that would need to be in place to secure grants, recognition, etc:-

Once recognised by Sport England, the next step would be for UK Sport to accept sled dog sports into the fold and they deal with funding for elite athletes to fullfill their potential at the Olympics. At present sled dog sports are not an Olympic Sport, so we couldn’t access UK Sport money. The IFSS is a member of the Global Association of Sports Federations, which is the first step of becoming an Olympic Sport and if we ever did get in then we would have to part of UK Sport. However with lots of sports vying for a limited pot of funds, the standard to gain funding is very high and geared at those with a genuine chance of getting on the podium.

So given the fact that even if recognised an individual couldn’t access funding, is there a bigger picture? Of course there is and that’s the development of sled dog sports. Our governing body should pursue recognition, but with caution and perhaps prepare clubs as to how they may need to change and operate. Clubs can start the clubmark process even without Sport recognition, which may go to help the overall process. Opening the doors to a larger audience, does come with problems though especially from those that don’t understand what we do and dog welfare would need be a high priority. Shine a spotlight and it will highlight what you want to see as well as what you don’t. The wider community may not understand lean, fit racing dogs and education would need a strong focus. At present we enjoy our sport in relative isolation which is a luxury, who knows what notoriety could bring?

And then there will be those who will be quite happy with the ‘hobby’ label and when you look at the description it’s easy to understand why. Hobby: an activity done in one’s leisure time for fun and pleasure. What a great description of running dogs and instantly conjures up images of cuddly dogs, windswept hair and gliding through the elements with a beaming smile. It’s a no pressure statement and also requires little more than following race rules and having a club for support and insurance. It’s kinda more about camaraderie and ‘good times’ than the serious stuff and there will be reservations that the ‘athlete’ tag brings along the attitude of winning at all costs (will leave that one for a future post). Hopefully changing from a hobby to an official sport, we should still be able to maintain the ‘fun’ element.

Whatever happens in the future it will be interesting to see how things progress. It’s nice to dream of racing being shown on TV and the rewards that might bring, but in reality is it that spectator friendly? One of the reasons it’s not in the Olympics is it’s failure to attract crowds at previous demonstrations. Individuals would still struggle to get funding and grants. Sport England is community focused and not about athletes racing internationally, but in all sponsorship deals I’ve been involved with, sponsors need to see we have associations, Internationally sanctioned events, etc, so being part of Sport England would help with credibility. And perhaps more importantly as a recognised sport, athletes are better protected. National Governing Bodies (NGB’s) have to have fair selection & equality policies, transparent accounts and grievance procedures. You can even access legal fees, etc if you feel you’ve been treated unfairly. NGB’s have to be accountable and if your complaint isn’t resolved satisfactorily or correct protocols aren’t followed, then there would be a higher authority you can go to. Don’t discount this protection, sadly in sports allegations of bullying, discrimination and favouritism do exist. Take the example British cycling, which has long been embroiled in sexism rows with their macho culture and former staff being hauled over the coals for telling one female athlete ‘to just go and have babies’ and referring to his female protegees as ‘bitches.’ Both UK Sport and Sport England are trying to ensure more protection for athletes and the Code of Governance goes along way to address this, with particular emphasis on decisions being ‘athlete centred.’ It makes it clear that athletes should be able to speak out without fear of negative consequences. There is a long history of people being snubbed or dropped, because someone had an issue with them. There is no place for personal feelings within committees, they serve the whole membership, not just the ones they like or those who never speak up.

Proceed for recognition, but tread carefully and make sure the resources are in place, to comply with recognition requirements. Workload for those in power will significantly increase. Snowsport England over a decade ago got around £1.5 mill of Lottery funding to grow grass roots. There was little money for competitors, the bulk of this went on pathways to introduce new people into the sport. A substantial amount went on development staff, training to meet new standards, new offices and getting the many registered clubs ready to gain the clubmark award. It sounds a massive amount, but the investment in time, money and new staff needed to revamp and meet the conditions of the grant meant it was soon swallowed up.

I’m happy to call myself an athlete. I take it more seriously than a hobby and whilst I want to have fun, I also quite like to win. I’m not paid like a professional athlete and never will be, I can’t get grants or funding and can’t get to the Olympics. I can race at World and European Champs, call myself a British Champion and pull on a team jersey and race for my country…..that’ll do for me.

Hang on though if the dogs don’t care about the result and are running purely for fun and enjoyment…doesn’t that make them a hobbyist? But…..they are partaking in physical exercise within a competition so surely that defines them as an athlete? Bottom line we are both and that’s just how it should be. Defining one or the other doesn’t really matter as there are elements of each which should be present. Maybe we can be serious athletes, but still crave the thrill of running dogs. And that’s the difference in having animals as part of your team. Things may go wrong and your dogs may not be feeling it, so where you might push yourself to victory, the same can’t be done with the dogs. That’s where being part hobbyist can help reign in the athlete. Ultimately if we become an official sport or remain a hobby we should never lose sight of putting the dogs first and whether you class yourself as an athlete or not, we should all remember why we started running dogs…..and that’s cos it’s bloody good fun.

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