Banks hires top sports official to oversee Manchester Games

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The Independent Online
THE MAN Sports Minister Tony Banks calls his "Enforcer" is set to take charge of the troubled Commonwealth Games in Manchester.

Sir Rodney Walker, regarded by many as the British sports troubleshooter- in-chief, has been asked to oversee the run-up to Britain's first post- millennium showpiece, en- suring it is neither a financial disaster nor an embarrassment to a government seeking to re-establish the nation's credibility in the international sports arena after a series of fiascos.

Manchester was twice defeated in bids for the Olympics, but awarded the 2002 Commonwealth Games as the only candidate city.

Plans for the event have been hit by crises, with rumours of a potential deficit of up to pounds 50m, delays in building the new 45,000-seat stadium, the resignation of the organising committee's chief executive, imported from Australia, and a threatened boycott by half the eligible sports because of warnings of cuts to the Games' programme.

Sir Rodney, aged 55, a millionaire businessman from Yorkshire, was brought in earlier this year to chair the Games' financial review committee and re-examine the budget for staging the event, originally set at pounds 56m. He confirmed last week that he is now being invited by the Commonwealth Games Council for England to lead the entire project as the chairman of Manchester 2002. He is likely to accept the offer early next month when he returns from holiday.

Sir Rodney points out that he is already chairman of the UK Sports Council - among several key posts he holds in sport - and his new role would have to be formally cleared by the Government. This should not be a problem. Ministers are anxious to avoid a repeat of 1986, when Britain last held the Games, in Edinburgh. That resulted in a fiasco after the late Robert Maxwell intervened as their "saviour".

Mr Banks and Chris Smith, his boss at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, are admirers of Sir Rodney's hands-on style of sports management. "We will leave the decision to him," Mr Banks said last week.

"We know him as a forthright, go-getting, in-your-face operator - a bit like me really - and the only question is whether he can find the time to do the job with his other commitments."

These are numerous. Apart from Rupert Murdoch, Sir Rodney is now the single most powerful figure in British sport, over which he presides with a cheery charm and Bothamesque beefiness. He controls projects worth more than pounds 1bn, and has also been approached to fill the vacant chair at the Football Association, although he says he has declined as "that would really be one job too many".

A former Rugby League forward and Yorkshire shot-put champion, Rodney Myerscough Walker is a substantial man in every sense. His array of chairmanships run from the UK Sports Council to Leicester City Plc, the Brands Hatch motor racing circuit and the Rugby League, as well as being involved in organising England's World Cup bid.

He is a board member of the new company developing Wembley as a national stadium and, outside sport, chairs NHS trusts, runs 11 businesses of his own (mainly in engineering) and holds nearly 100 directorships.

When Mr Banks moved him from the chairmanship of the English Sports Council to take over the UK umbrella body last year, his brief was to sort out the bureaucratic muddle of sports administration.

"I told him to get in there and kick some backsides if necessary," said Mr Banks. "He is a man who won't stand for any faffing or fannying around."

Mr Walker's position at the UK Sports Council puts him in charge of both the new UK sports institute and Britain's drug-busting programme. "I've been called a professional chairman, which is a bit of an insult," he said. "It makes me seem like someone who has been on the gravy train all my life, which isn't actually true.

"Most of my chairmanships take up a few days every year. All my businesses make money and virtually run themselves. I manage my time well and I never feel I'm trying to do too much - although my wife does."

He added: "If I have any sort of reputation at all it is that I deliver satisfactory outcomes in a fairly undramatic way. And I believe that is what the Government wants.

"I'm obviously flattered that the Commonwealth Games people think I might bring something to the party. We appear to have sorted out the problem of fitting in all the sports which want to take part, and what we have to do now is to solve the financial conundrum. This means an aggressive attitude towards costs, some penny-pinching and maximising revenue from television and sponsorships.

"The financial aspect was one thing they did not seem to have got to grips with, but I believe with robust housekeeping we can keep the Games solvent."

After the Olympics and football World Cup, the Commonwealth Games are the world's biggest sports event.