Blair runs ahead of Major in Olympics

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair stole a march on John Major by addressing British Olympic athletes in Atlanta via satellite yesterday. The Labour leader told the UK team that sport was a "national asset" and "an investment for the whole country".

The Prime Minister had been invited to take part in the link-up but "failed to commit", according to a spokesman for the firm sponsoring it, Lucent Technologies.

Mr Blair stopped short of claiming Britain would win more medals under a Labour government, and resisted pressure from the British Olympic Association to promise more money for sport. Instead he wished the athletes "the best of luck" and launched a review of how the money the Government spends could be better used.

"I think we have got to decide from now on that as a country we are going to treat this as a major national priority," he said.

Dick Palmer, the BOA chief, speaking in America, told Mr Blair that British sport was "muddling through" due to too few resources. The rowing gold medallist, Matthew Pinsent, told the Labour leader that it was a "disgrace" for the Olympic team to be sponsored in the way it was, saying it needed to be "funded up to the hilt".

But Mr Blair said: "All these things can be looked at. All these things need to be reviewed urgently; we need to come out with a proper programme and we have to stop just treating this as something you just parcel off to National Heritage and say we'll forget about it."

Pinsent told him that it was not just a question of looking after Britain's athletes for the few weeks of the Olympics - it was necessary to look at how lottery funds were spent on sport and how young athletes make the transition from school through to international level. "It is vital that the people we send have got everything - not just for two weeks - we need funding for 600 people in the team for a year or two years back," he said.

Fencer Fiona McIntosh told Mr Blair that the problem was not just about facilities; there was also a lack of good coaching for Britain's youngsters.