pounds 40m prize from lottery gives British sport its biggest ever win

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Britain's Olympic medallists yesterday welcomed the announcement of the largest funding package for sport in the country's history.

Announcing the initiative yesterday, John Major, the Prime Minister, said the Government would use the fund to put "sport back where it belongs - at the heart of school life".

The Sports Council will use a pounds 50m-a-year "Talent Fund" to offer subsistence grants to talented individuals, on the back of an expected boost to National Lottery funding from the new mid-week draw.

The World Class Performance Programme, launched yesterday, will see new funding for up to 4,500 competitors who will share pounds 20m in annual individual grants from National Lottery money, with another pounds 20m going to governing bodies. The first individual payments are due next March.

The grants will be particularly welcome after Britain's disastrous showing in the Atlanta Olympic Games earlier this year.

"This is going to be a great confidence booster for British competitors," said Paul Palmer, winner of Britain's only swimming medal at the Atlanta Olympics. "When you line up for an Olympic final, there is a tendency to think your opponents are bound to be that much better prepared. This means we can compete on level terms in future."

The new scheme offers grants of pounds 15,000 to pounds 17,000 to Britain's best sportsmen and women, although "elite individuals" - those ranked in the world's top 10 with world or with Olympic medal potential - could get a maximum annual award of pounds 28,000. The question of whether payments will be tax-free is still a matter of negotiation.

That kind of money would enable Palmer to locate himself closer to a top-class training facility. Before the Atlanta Games, he had to use a 25-metre school pool in Yarborough, Lincolnshire. In term time, he had to rope off a lane from splashing children; outside term time the pool was shut.

"It got me to an Olympic silver, which isn't bad," he said. "But I don't think it could take me that one step further."

Ben Ainslie, the 19-year-old Olympic silver medallist in the Laser class sailing competition, said the new system would help him with travelling costs and allow him to take his coach to more events. Last year he only went to two out of 18 regattas.

"I also think it will keep a lot more people in the sport now they know this funding is available," he added.

Details of the plan were announced on the second anniversary of the sale of the first National Lottery ticket.

There has been widespread criticism of the lengthy consultation period since the announcement on April 1 last year that Lottery funding could be made available for athletes as well as facilities for competition and training.

The delay appeared even less acceptable in the light of the poor overall British medal tally in Atlanta. But Sir Rodney Walker, the Sports Council chairman, defended the procedure.

"We could have launched this programme earlier," he said. "We could have gone off half-cocked, but we weren't ready... As a result of this careful planning, the programme is bigger, better and directly meets the needs of the coaches and competitors."

The new annual figure of pounds 20m for individual competitors is 10 times what the Sports Aid Foundation, the main funding body for the last 21 years, has been able to offer.

"We were operating with inadequate resources, which meant we had to be extremely selective," said Noel Nagle, the SAF director. "We could only help 150 members of the British team for Atlanta, which left around 200 others unsupported. For the next Olympics, this scheme is going to help everybody."

The new scheme will be tied in with former Test cricketer Sir Colin Cowdrey's initiative to help encourage sports in schools and spread the love of sport among youngsters.

National Heritage Secretary Virginia Bottomley said the announcement to provide the highest-level support for top sports stars was made possible because the Government has changed the rules on how National Lottery funds can be spent.

"Since its launch in 1994, almost pounds 500m has been raised for sport, money which has provided much-needed support to sports projects right across the country, grass roots support which has seen awards made to 155 bowls clubs, 57 hockey clubs, 202 tennis clubs and many more.

"At the elite level, the Sports Council will announce soon its decision on the English National Stadium, and in the new year the United Kingdom Sports Council and my Department will announce the winning British Academy of Sport bid,"she said.

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