Airborne aid for the men of action

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The Independent Online
Christmas Day was a noisy, hectic time in the Barry household. Unwrapping presents, a blow-out lunch, silly hats, a rather special bottle of wine. After a long day, Peter Barry was pleased to get to bed. He fell into a sound sleep almost immediately - until the phone rang at 8am.

Someone calling with Boxing Day greetings? Barry blearily reached for the phone. It was Tim Lamb, of the Test and County Cricket Board. "Peter, Shaun Udal's got a serious injury and needs flying back from Australia. Can you fix it?"

"Leave it to me," said Barry. He is quite used to having holidays and weekends disturbed - such as the time he received a frantic call from Barbados. It was Nobby "bite yer legs" Stiles. Fooling around by a swimming pool, he had crushed his false teeth. Barry got to work. Later that day, one of his staff played the part of the Tooth Fairy and delivered the former England player's spare set to his hotel.

It is not just heads, bodies and legs. Barry runs British Airways' sports bureau, looking after players and supporters of everything from pole-vaulting to elephant polo. He has built it up from nothing to a pounds 45m business and says: "This is just the tip of the iceberg. Although we're the only airline in the world with our own sports desk, this is a vast market - and it's getting bigger all the time."

Even in recession, sports travel was a boom industry. "Four years ago, Liverpool ran a trip to Tokyo for fans. The package costs pounds 1,250 for three days. We thought: "No one's going to pay that." But it sold out within three days. The attitude seemed to be: "Never mind the family holiday; we have to see Liverpool." Once cricket was a few players going to the black townships to coach youngsters. Now, almost all the first-class counties will go abroad for tours."

He joined British European Airways in 1960 "because it paid 2s 6d more than the other job I was offered". Though the airline had carried teams to the Olympics, nobody ever thought of it as a key part of the business, and did not do so for years. But in 1972, BEA (later to become British Airways) set up a temporary department to handle British teams heading for the Munich Olympics. "It made pounds 35,000, which was quite a lot of money then. I got on the coat-tails of that, and asked if I could handle other sporting things. I told them I believed it was a pounds 1m plus business. But they thought I was mad, and I had to fit it around my ordinary job."

Two years later, the fledgling business made pounds 1.25m and Barry was working on sports travel full-time.

"I realised from a very early age that I was not going to play cricket for England, but I realised it would be nice to become involved in some way to help sports people achieve their ambitions. So I look after the logistics: from seating to getting equipment over, to extra minerals on the flight - anything to do with the travel side. It's so much more than just organising a few tickets, or arranging a few extra kilos of baggage allowance for somebody."

He is intensely aware that his Mr Fix-It reputation makes him more attractive than Pamela Anderson to a sports person who trains abroad and travels worldwide for competitions. Flight, and transporting equipment, are a huge expense.

"People assume that I'm at sports events all the time. It's true that I get a lot of invitations, but I take up very few of them. Inevitably, people will want something in return."

His small office at Heathrow is stark, with none of the accoutrements so beloved by the insecure and the vain. There are no pictures of him shaking hands with Linford Christie, or helping the Ryder Cup squad on to Concorde. Instead, there are a few sales awards. The only sign of an exotic lifestyle is a case of champagne - but it's empty.

His title is the grand-sounding national team executive, but it's still a hands-on job. He has been up at 4am to man a travel desk at the Olympic village; he's there when pole vaulters get into a Heathrow car park and discover that the poles are too long for the lift; he's there to sort out check-in problems when British skiers, limited to six sets of skis, turn up with more than 30. He has unwedged a very large American footballer from the plane door, packed a bobsleigh and solved how to carry the British Muzzleloading team's black powder. "You must have flexibility. You don't get a lot done in this job if you stick strictly to the rule-book," he says.

Success has meant more work, longer hours. Where Formula One teams used to take 75 people to races, there are now 200. The next Commonwealth Games will see Barry shifting 1,200 competitors, including the Falklands team. Then there are the press and spectators.

His love of sport still burns bright, despite all the aggravations and late nights. "The best reward I can have is to see a team, whether it's cricket, table tennis or modern penthathlon, come back with a fistful of medals.

"Or the Ashes," he adds. He might have to wait a while for that one.