The way to turn silver into gold

The swimmer, Major's dream and the challenge facing British sport
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The Independent Online
A Union flag fluttered over his head, the Princess Royal joined in the applause and his family watched tearfully. For Paul Palmer, whose silver swimming medal was Britain's first Olympic award at Atlanta, it was a world away from the cramped 25ft swimming pool in Lincoln where he trains at dawn to avoid the crowds of children.

Palmer, 21, has struggled like so many British athletes who rise to the top despite inadequate facilities and poor funding. But he won his medal on the day that the Prime Minister took the first steps towards national sporting excellence by laying out a pounds 300m-a-year vision to transform Britain's neglected sports facilities for everyone, from the most mediocre to the most gifted.

Paul Palmer is a classic example of success against the odds. He has lived with his parents and worked as a general dogsbody in an Italian restaurant to keep his dream afloat.

After his silver-medal swim, he said: "We need backing from the Government if we are to win more medals, especially gold ones. But they only think about swimming and gymnastics every four years when the Olympics come round."

Palmer's call has apparently been heard. The centrepiece of John Major's plan will be a pounds 100m national sports academy for Britain's top athletes, which will be funded by money from the Lottery. Its doors are due open in 1998 in time for the build-up to the next Olympics in Sydney to create an elite stable of British sporting stars, including disabled athletes.

Mr Major announced the search for a suitable 100-acre site yesterday from the garden of 10 Downing Street. Bids will close in October and a winner will be chosen in January.

The Prime Minister said: "What I would like to see is the very best in British sport becoming the best of anywhere in the world, not just because we like winning ... but because national sporting heroes give a lift to the sport itself and to the whole country."

The academy, which will have around 300 residential places, will focus on 20 sports, including football, athletics, cricket, gymnastics, judo, rowing, swimming and squash. The Government will also provide scholarships for athletes worth pounds 35m a year from lottery money, and aims to double the number of places in universities.

The academy and specialist colleges will be open to gifted athletes, for long- and short-term residential courses, from very young gymnasts to players and squads who are already established in their fields.

Derek Casey, chief executive of the Sports Council, said: "Looking at the countries doing well in world sport, including Australia and Canada, they have a 15-year head-start on us in funding from their lotteries ... But the amount of money we are talking about for British sport surpasses anything else in the world. Although we're getting it later we will be spending more on sport per capita than any other country. "

Mr Major pledged yesterday to stem the sale of school pitches by giving the Sports Council a statutory right to object to any further sales. He also intends every pupil to have at least two hours each week of physical education.