Forget the Ashes, Blair wants Britain to go for gold

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Athletics, swimming and other Olympic sports are to gain a new pounds 100m national training facility to help Britain regain its medal-winning prominence in world competition.

Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has scrapped John Major's plans for a general academy of sporting excellence, to concentrate on sports without huge commercial backing. That means that most team sports, including soccer, rugby and cricket, will be excluded. Instead, athletics and other sports which feature at the Olympic Games will be singled out - a decision likely to anger proponents of team games over more individual sports.

The initiative follows Britain's disappointing performance in athletics at this month's world championships, when for the first time in its history Britain failed to win a gold medal, and at the Atlanta Olympics a year ago.

The UK is acknowledged to have fallen behind other leading sporting nations which possess their own elite institutions which regularly turn out a crop of gold medal winners. Three bids to run the academy have been put on ice, while the Government produces a series of criteria laying down the kind of institution it wants.

Mr Smith told the Independent on Sunday: "It should be very clearly about world-class elite athletic performance, about bringing out the very best of British athletes, winning competitions and reaching the full potential of athletes. It will help us bring out the best.

"Obviously, I would hope for better British achievements in competitions like the Olympic Games but that depends on other factors as well. This all about giving British athletics a real leg up in world international competition."

The idea for the academy first emerged under the last government, and Mr Major was especially keen to encourage the growth of his favourite sport, cricket.

The pounds 100m project will be funded from proceeds of the National Lottery. But ministers say that the criteria Mr Major's administration laid down were so vague that the three outstanding bids to run the academy bear little relationship to each other and do not complement other government initiatives.

Mr Smith said: "We inherited a bit of a shambles and we decided we had to take a grip."

The minister hopes that one of the sites - Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire, Gamston in Nottinghamshire and Sheffield - will host the headquarters of the academy which will have a series of regional satellites.

There will be immediate consultation with the Sports Council and other interested bodies with new bids invited. Ministers have yet to finalise the list of sports to be covered, but some, including tennis, are said to be borderline.

Mr Smith argues that most of the team sports have more than enough money for them to establish good quality training and medical advice facilities without extra assistance.

A decision on the main site could be reached by the end of next month, with ministers hoping to get the project up and running within two years.

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