Sue Campbell: 'Sport should shape our lives - whatever our shape or size'

Many children no longer know how to play. The most influential woman in British sport talks to Alan Hubbard about the importance of games
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It would be a gross exaggeration to say that Sue Campbell taught Clive Woodward all he knows, but there can be no doubt that some of the lessons he absorbed from his tutor during his days as a student of sports science at Loughborough University have helped make the England rugby coach the sort of combative bloke he is today, and a winner to boot.

Woodward was not alone as star pupil in Campbell's class of 1976. Also benefiting from her educational expertise were two athletic young men who also went on to achieve distinctions: Sebastian Coe, subsequently the double Olympic 1500m champion; and his running mate David Moorcroft, now the head of UK Athletics. "All good lads," she reflects. "Didn't they do well?"

Well, Campbell has done rather well for herself, too. What is not an exaggeration is to say that she is now the most influential woman in British sport, freshly installed as the new chair of UK Sport, the principal body for funding and promoting élite sport, and administering the drugs- testing programme, and the guru to whom the Government turn for advice on a whole range of sporting and educational issues, notably those concerning sport in schools.

Kate Hoey, the former sports minister who recruited the 54-year-old Campbell as a Government adviser, describes her as a sporting missionary. "She had made her mark in sport long before she became a public figure. Wherever she goes she exudes an enthusiasm which envelops anyone in sight. I decided we had to make use of her after she had presented me with a damning critique of the lack of any coherent Government policies on improving PE and school sport."

While Sol may be a more familiar Campbell to the fan in the street than Sue, hers is a name more meaningful to the millions of grass-rooters. Lecturing at Loughborough is one of the many things which have occupied this tall, slim Midlander's 30 years in the engine room of sport following her playing days as an international pentathlete and England netball player and coach. She has been chief executive of the Youth Sports Trust for eight years, and before that had a similar role with the National Coaching Foundation.

It seems something of a paradox that at a time when women are complaining that they are not getting their share of the sporting limelight, British sport now has a helmswoman of unprecedented clout. Yet she is no sportsbra-burning feminist. She told a Women's Sports Foundation conference last week: "Women's sport has come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. If you want equality you have to work for it. You have to become winners."

And that philosophy, she believes, must be nurtured in schools. "We have to think much more about how we can make sport a more attractive option. Most young women want to feel fit and look good, so sport has to be more glamorous, about more than sweat. We have a lot of schools looking at simple things such as clothing for PE. Some of the things that young girls had to wear were ridiculous. For young women going into puberty, whose body shape is changing, to have to put funny little skirts on and go out in the cold and get hit around the shins with a hockey stick, it can hardly be enjoyable.

"The Sue Campbells of this world will always want to sweat. I am still playing competitive hockey and squash, and I'm very decrepit. They call me granny. But we have to remember that we are not all beautiful-looking creatures, so shouldn't be totally projecting that sport is all about glamour. We have to find the right balance. What we should be saying is, 'How can we find ways to help people enjoy sport, make it more fashionable, more aesthetic and give them a wider vision of life?'

"It is also time we understood that some boys like to dance and some girls love to play cricket and football, and that as far as girls are concerned, playing sport is not freakish. We know that participation in sport is declining and obesity is increasing. Wouldn't it be dreadful if in 2012 we hosted the Olympics and obesity levels had quadrupled and we had no talented youngsters? Unfortunately, many children no longer know how to play. We must present sport as an activity for everyone, whatever their shape or size, and this particularly applies to women."

Campbell, unmarried and a self-confessed workaholic, is now two months into her 18-month stint as successor to the more ebullient Sir Rodney Walker at UK Sport. Her appointment follows that of Jack Straw's best buddy, Patrick Carter, as chair of Sport England. There are those who believe Carter was installed to do New Labour's bidding. So is Campbell a Government lackey? She bridles at the question. "I don't think anyone who knows me can call me that. In fact at times I have had some strong words to say about the Government and investment in sport, particularly schools sport. I've won some hard battles on that. I've never seen myself as politically motivated. I love sport and that is my motivation, it is what I care about. I am a product of good sport myself.

"Working with the Government was not a political statement by me, it was a real passion to try and get something done, which is why I am here. I wouldn't have accepted this job if I thought I was expected to be an arm of the Government. Sport shaped my life, and it still does, because I know what it did for me. I was a kid who without sport might have been seen as a problem child, but sport really engaged me, so I am very passionate about the power of sport and what it can do for young people. The other great experience in my life is having been an international athlete in the days when you had to buy your own kit, pay your own fares and sit in the back of the plane. It may sound arrogant, but I have a sense of destiny about being involved in sport."

Her appointment is part-time, for she still oversees the work of the Loughborough-based Youth Sports Trust, where there has been recent controversy over the involvement with the Cadburys voucher scheme, which Campbell instigated. This brought in £9m worth of revenue which Campbell says went mainly into schools rather than the YST. That's not buttons, chocolate or otherwise, but the idea of encouraging youngsters to collect these vouchers from products hardly renowned to encourage healthy eating, vouchers which can be exchanged for sports equipment, was condemned by many dieticians and nutritionists. Several schools - including Tim Henman's alma mater in Cobham, Surrey - have banned chocolate- vending machines, and the scheme seemed to conflict with Tony Blair's call to end obesity among school kids. Campbell insists she has no regrets while acknowledging it created a "huge debate".

"We did a lot of research, the majority of which showed the calorific intake of youngsters is not changing dramatically, even though obesity is rising. What is needed to tackle obesity is physical activity. And certainly if you were to ask Paula Radcliffe, she would say that chocolate is part of her daily intake of food. What is happening is that activity levels are dropping off. You can say it was poor judgement on my part, but I think I would do it again. Some 6,300 schools have registered with the scheme, which is over a third in this country, and early evidence shows that chocolate consumption has not increased, although brand loyalty may have changed - a bit like the Walkers crisps thing. They didn't necessarily eat more crisps, they just ate more Walkers crisps."

However, Cadburys say they will not be renewing the scheme, although vouchers can continue to be redeemed until next year. "My understanding is that they will be changing tack because they feel it has served its purpose, although I do think they were very shocked by the reaction."

Campbell says that one of her greatest frustrations in sport is the inability of sports authorities to work together. "One of the things we constantly tell Government is that sport is about helping kids to develop into team players, and this is probably the one thing sports organisations demonstrate least effectively. We are always having a pop at each other. My other disappointment is that sometimes the media don't celebrate enough the good things that come out of sport. I am one of those people who read papers from the back inwards. There are some fabulous success stories, particularly in the so-called minor sports. There have been some wonderful results this year which have gone largely unrecognised.

"Most of the people I know in sport don't do it for money. In my world you don't go into it to become a millionaire and end up living on an idyllic tropical island. You do it because you believe in it, and that's all the recognition you want."


Sue Campbell, CBE

Born: 10 October 1948 in Notts.

Education: Long Eaton Grammar School, Bedford PE College, Leicester U.

Sporting career: Netball - British Universities, England U21, England assistant coach, England manager inter-varsity. Athletics - British Colleges pentathlon champion, GB junior and full England international, Midlands AAA staff coach, England manager inter-varsity. Also: manager England women's basketball team.

Administrative career: Regional Officer, Sports Council (1980-84). Chief executive National Coaching Foundation (1985-1995). Chief executive, Youth Sports Trust, 1995. Became Government sports adviser in 2000 and chairman UK Sport 2003.