Athletics: Britain reaping reward for investment

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BRITISH ATHLETICS, bankrupt 18 months ago, is moving towards next year's Sydney Olympics on a growing tide of achievement and investment.

Speaking after the best British performance at the World Indoor Championships since the event began in 1985, Max Jones, performance director for UK Athletics, revealed that the domestic sport will receive increased levels of National Lottery funding of between pounds 18m and pounds 20m for a six-year period finishing after the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

The Lottery Sports Fund has accepted the sport's six-year plan - applicable from October last year - which involves increasing the annual amount of funding for athletes from pounds 2.4m to pounds 3m.

Of that figure, the pounds 1m currently given towards living expenses for individual competitors will remain the same, while there is an increase in the amount to cover UK Athletics costs such as travel, small international meetings, health cover, physio- therapy and warm-weather training.

That total is likely to be supplemented over the next few years by additional funding for training bases within the recently announced National Academy network.

In order to secure this funding, Jones and his colleagues have had to agree performance targets for a range of forthcoming events - for example, seven medals at this summer's outdoor World Championships in Seville, six at the Sydney Olympics, and eight four years later in Athens. The sport's case was greatly enhanced by last season's performances from British athletes, who retained the European Cup and won a record nine European titles in Budapest.

"There was no direct correlation," Jones said. "But I'm sure Budapest did a lot of good in a lot of areas. There were 9.75m British television viewers watching us on the last day. When we came back, the picture had changed for us..."

Many media observers, Jones added, had pointed out that last summer's success had come in a European year, and that winning at global level in the 1999 world indoor and outdoor championships would prove much harder. "They were right," Jones said. "But three golds and two bronzes in Maebashi has set us up well for the year ahead, in the same way as our success did in last year's European indoors at Valencia."

He accepted that there was a price to pay for funding that was so target- orientated. "It's pressure," he said. "You are only as good as your last Games or championships. But I'd rather have pressure than no money. And if the Lottery authorities are going to shove us pounds 3m every year, they should expect to get something back long term." Lottery money now supports Jones and a staff of six other performance directors for specific events or age groups within British athletics.

"We are all free to concentrate on getting the best out of British athletes," he said. "At world level, a difference of one per cent in preparation can make the difference between someone winning gold or coming fourth."

Jones also praised another influential feature of the British success, namely Linford Christie, who has coached Darren Campbell and now Jamie Baulch to major titles in the space of nine months. "It's obvious he's got a gift for coaching almost as good as his gift for running," Jones said. "Most superstars do nothing else in the sport when they retire because they've got everything they need. I hope that Linford is going to last the course and keep on coaching.

"I would love to use him more within our set-up. It's sometimes a matter of pinning him down although he does sit on the Performance Athletic Services board.

"Linford has been there, done it and got the T-shirt. When you touch greatness like that it does rub off on other athletes."

Ashia Hansen, who added the World Indoor triple jump title to those she had won at last year's European Indoor Championships and Commonwealth Games, was assisted in her preparations for Maebashi by the fact that her coach, Aston Moore, was able to work with her on a full-time basis thanks to Lottery funding. Moore was in Maebashi with Hansen - admittedly after that other, unofficial patron of the sport, Sir Eddie Kulukundis, had paid for his air fare.

"When Aston is with me at a competition it means I can relax and concentrate on my performance rather than having to worry about the technical aspects of my jumping," Hansen said. "Having to do all that for yourself is a big pressure."

Jason Gardener, who broke Linford Christie's five-year-old European 60m record in finishing third behind the Americans Maurice Greene and Tim Harden, has also benefited from a Lottery grant which has allowed him to train full-time in his native city of Bath.

"Without that I would not have been able to achieve what I have here," he said. The funding helped Gardener make the transition from promising junior to achieving senior at a time when his career was stuttering. Three years ago he was favourite to take the European indoor 60m title in Stockholm but false started twice in the final. Last season he lost form at the crucial time, failing to qualify for the European Championships, where two other young sprinting talents, Darren Campbell and Dwain Chambers, made a name for themselves with gold and silver medals respectively.

Now Gardener has put himself back in the frame as Britain looks forward to Seville with justified confidence.