Help us, plead Britain's athletes, or we'll never scale the heights again

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The recent suggestion to take the "Great" out of Great Britain has long been a foregone conclusion in Olympic terms.

As the British Olympic Association Athletes' Commission report published yesterday notes without irony: "It is upward of 70 years since Britain was what could be described as a major Olympic power. Not since 1924 have we won more than six golds at an Olympics."

In short, the Chariots of Fire were not on their way to glory, but to perdition.

The problem is, of course, money, or rather, the lack of it. Britain came back from the Olympic Games in Atlanta last summer with one gold medal and an overdraft.

According to the commission survey, 51 per cent of those returning from team duty in Georgia, did so with average debts of pounds 3,400.

For the women, who made up 40 per cent of the team, the debt was higher - about pounds 5,000-pounds 6,000.

Athlete Jon Ridgeon, one of the many Olympians present at yesterday's launch in central London, admitted that injury had put him into debt "way in excess of those figures", mostly, Mr Ridgeon pointed out, since he had had to find treatment abroad, until such time as the promised British Academy of Sport came on line, another bone of contention.

Rower Annamarie Stapleton, one of the report's authors, described the extraordinary circumstance of a "fortuitous accident" funding her Olympic campaign. Had she not received compensation after being hit by a lorry on a pedestrian crossing in October 1993, "I might not have been able to afford my preparation".

The British Olympic Association (BOA) has always been strapped for funding, and unlike most other First World countries has not in the past been given many concessions, let alone cash from central government. So the BOA was happy yesterday to back up what is essentially a participants' forthright view of the state of play. The report is peppered with comments such as "there is no national strategy", "short-term solution", "poor communication [with governing bodies]", breakdown of trust (ditto)", "frustration" and "irrelevant decisions".

However, the report might have had more impact if more than the 62 per cent of the Olympic squad who responded had got involved. None the less, it is a timely follow up to yesterday's news of Lottery funding for major Olympic sports, which however welcome, as virtually all present at yesterday's launch pointed out, is going to work out at substantially less than the possible pounds 28,000 per annum to elite practitioners mooted before Christmas.

The reality is going to be closer to, in the terminology of Gavin Stewart, the commission's chair, a "subsistence level" pounds 9,000.

It is also two months' late which, as Mr Stewart pointed out, "might be OK if you're building sports facilities, but not if you've got to put food on the table". He added: "Income levels for sportspeople are well below the UK average, and more so among women".

Mr Stewart, Ms Stapleton, Mr Ridgeon and the BOA's chairman Craig Reedie were all upbeat about Britain's medal potential in Sydney if the right (financial) moves were made, but, few doubt that we shall be making another Odyssey to central London in 2001.