#23) Liz Nicholl CBE

Photo credit: UK Sport

Ask any British Olympic medalist the story behind their success and often they will tell you it’s down to help they received from others.

While everyone has their own unique path, look closely into the journey of many athletes from the last 20 years and there will be one common contributory factor in each – Liz Nicholl CBE.

It is no understatement to say that as CEO of UK Sport, Nicholl helped transform our nation from perennial underachievers to serial overachievers on the Olympic and Paralympic stage.

As has been widely documented since the former Welsh netballer announced she would be stepping down earlier this week, the level of success under her tenure is remarkable:

Since taking up the role in 1999, Nicholl has overseen:

  • 863 Olympic and Paralympic medals across 20 events
  • Team GB rising from 36th in the Summer Olympic medal table at Atlanta ’96 to second at Rio 2016, their highest finish since 1908
  • Team GB’s first Winter Paralympic gold (Kelly Gallagher and Charlotte Evans – Alpine skiing, Sochi 2014)
  • Team GB’s first Olympic titles in canoeing, diving, golf, gymnastics, skeleton, taekwondo, trampolining and triathlon
  • Team GB’s first Olympic medals in snowboarding, freestyle skiing and badminton
  • All or part of the careers of ten of Britain’s top 15 Olympic medalists (Chris Hoy, Jason Kenny, Bradley Wiggins, Steve Redgrave, Ben Ainslie, Mo Farah, Matthew Pinsent, Laura Kenny, Charlotte Dujardin and Ed Clancy)
  • All or part of the careers of ten of Britain’s top 15 Paralympic medalists (Sarah Storey, Tanni Grey-Thompson, David Roberts, Lee Pearson, Isabel Newstead, Robert Matthews, Sophie Christiansen, James Anderson, Darren Kenny and David Weir)
  • Team GB’s highest greatest Summer Olympic gold and overall medal tally away from home (67 – Rio 2016) and highest ever Winter Paralympic medal tally (5 – Seoul 2014/Pyeongchang 2018)g

And that’s not to mention the almost uncountable number of Commonwealth, European and World Cup/Championship victories too.

The numbers are indeed dazzling but Nicholl’s impact has been more than just the mere statistics.

She has reshaped the British sporting landscape.

No longer are we stuck in the colonial ages of just playing cricket, rugby, football and hockey – we now regularly win major international accolades in the likes of taekwondo and canoeing, sports which were alien just a couple of generations ago.

Furthermore we also now expect to win medals at the Winter Olympics despite barely having enough snow to cover our gardens and an average Winter temperature around 20C above that of Canada.

Of course the increase in the number of sports at each Games has no doubt had some affect on this but the fact is that, at the helm of UK Sport and by deciding where the National Lottery money goes, Nicholl made all of this possible.

On top of this – and while it may only have been a by-product of increasing the professionalism of British sport to ensure we compete with the likes of the USA, Germany, Russia etc. – she has also created a climate where female athletes are generally accepted as equal to men.

While some team sports such as football and cricket are still playing catch up when it comes to gender equality, for the likes of cycling and athletics this has been clear to see for a while now.

Even before her stunning heptathlon victory in London, Jess Ennis-Hill was one of the most recognisable faces in British athletics. Laura Kenny is arguably even more well known than her husband Jason, despite the fact he has appeared at more Games than her. Lizzy Yarnold will go down in history as one of our greatest ever Winter Olympians. The moment Hollie Pearne-Webb scored that decisive penalty against the Dutch to win hockey gold will stick in the minds of everyone who watched it for as long as they live. Hannah Cockroft and Ellie Simmonds are two of the most recognisable Paralympic athletes on the planet, let alone in the UK.

While obviously their unquestionable talent has been the major factor behind their success, they would not have been given that opportunity if it wasn’t for the funding and support provided by UK Sport.

It’s not been a completely smooth ride for Nicholl though.

Each cycle sees UK Sport come under immense scrutiny as it decides which sports to fund, with many athletes ultimately left disappointed as their money is cut, while the model is often criticised for failing to recognise team sports, ignoring the grassroots and focusing too heavily on medals.

Then there have been the incredibly worrying allegations of sexism, racism, harassment, bullying and a ‘climate of fear’ in several sports since Rio, while accusations of doping have also dogged British Cycling in recent times.

But rather than throw their toys out of the pram, Nicholl and UK Sport have dealt with each situation in a calm and composed manner, often unafraid to scrutinise themselves and expose their own failings in order to improve.


In a world still dominated by men at governance level, the 66-year-old has been a shining beacon of light for women across the country and her legacy will live on for a long, long time to come.

We’ll leave the final word to BOA Chairman Sir Hugh Robertson:

“The word outstanding is over used but it, genuinely, applies to Liz.” 

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