Athletics: Tessa blazes a new trail

Alan Hubbard says it is time for a woman's touch at the top of sport
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HAS Tony Banks found his dream girl? It is no secret that the sports minister is desperate for a woman: strong-willed, dominant and preferably black. Step forward, Tessa Sanderson - just the figure to fulfil his sporting fantasy. The former Olympic champion has thrown her javelin into the ring for the vacant chairmanship of the English Sports Council, a role which Banks describes as "the single most important job in English sport".

So important that the appointment, which is due to be announced this week, has to be ratified by the man Banks calls "Mr Big at No 10". Sanderson has emerged, surprisingly, as a leading contender from a shortlist of five interviewed last Monday by an independent panel chaired by the former Test cricketer Raman Subba Row. Three are women and two are black, an indication of the way Banks and Chris Smith, his boss at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, are thinking.

This weekend, Smith and Banks are considering the panel's recommendation, but the final choice rests with them. The others on the shortlist are Dr Sue Campbell, a former netball international and ex-chief executive of the National Coaching Foundation now overseeing the Youth Sport Trust; Brigid Simmonds, chief executive of the Business and Sport Leisure Group; Geoff Thompson, the one-time world karate champion, who has built a considerable reputation for his work with the Manchester- based Youth Charter for Sport; and the current acting chairman, Trevor Brooking, the ex-West Ham and England footballer-cum-TV pundit.

Insiders suggest it could be a straight fight between the Iron Lady-like qualities of Sanderson and the safe hands of the bright but bland Brooking, who has filled the breach since the ubiquitous Yorkshire tycoon Sir Rodney Walker moved permanently to the umbrella body, the UK Sports Council, as Banks' "enforcer".

After an 18-month roller- coaster ride as sports minister, surviving more than the odd gaffe by himself and guffaws from his critics, the seemingly indestructible Banks is embarking on the crucial stage of his plan to shake up the cosy world of sports blazerati. In his own words, "there is an enormous amount of arse-kicking to be done". Equally, he is adamant that it is time for a woman's touch and an ethnic transfusion.

An indication of his commitment to the cause of female and ethnic advancement came at last week's annual conference of the Central Council of Physical Recreation when he berated the 220 leaders of British sports bodies for their apparent lack of ambition in recruiting women and blacks to their ranks.

"Sport is multi-cultural yet the administration of sport is overwhelmingly male," he said. "This tells me there are some ceilings involved here. Maybe they are glass ceilings but I'm not prepared to tolerate it. This is not because I am trying to be politically correct but because public money may be involved. I am absolutely determined to improve organisational opportunities for women and minorities at the highest level. There are going to be no glass ceilings."

It is this sort of pledge which could lead to the appointment of 42-year- old Sanderson as the new female figurehead of English sport. The Jamaican- born athlete, who won an Olympic gold medal at Los Angeles in 1984 and completed a record sixth Olympic appearance at Atlanta two years ago, would need to prove herself more than a pretty face and the possessor of a strong right arm. Her application for a position that has been seen as fundamentally bureaucratic has raised many eyebrows largely because of her lack of experience in sports administration. Outside of athletics she has slapped her thighs in panto, worked as a television sports presenter and now runs Management Plus, a sports promotional company which represents a number of personalities including Colin Jackson.

While sport's two governmental minders are aware that the appointment of a black and/or female personality might be seen as lacing positive discrimination with tokenism, they could argue that it is time sports administration was given a facelift, and a fresh, modern image with more charismatic leadership.

Next year the English Sports Council will operate under the new label of Sport England, with plans for its vivid red logo to be worn on the shirts of all representative England teams. In this respect the new chairman could be seen more as an ambassador and less a pen-pusher.

As the sitting tenant, Brooking would seem to be in pole position, but he may lack the assertive personality which is now apparently considered an essential ingredient and could well be outflanked, if not by Sanderson, then by the feisty Dr Campbell, an experienced and capable administrator who has ruffled a few feathers during her excursions into the corridors of power. The other black candidate, the personable, talkative Thompson, probably has the most street-cred of the quintet, while the former WRAC captain Simmonds, a mother of three, has a sound business background and experience on the Lottery distribution panel. Her commercial experience could make her the panel's preferred choice.

With ladies at Lord's, women's boxing now legitimate theatre and the first female installed as a steward of the British Boxing Board of Control, it doesn't seem as if British sport is facing a girl-power cut. Banks is out to ensure we continue to see the light. "Whoever gets this job will take English sport into the 21st century," he says. "Watch this space".

At the ESC's Euston headquarters, they will be doing so with a mixture of apprehension and amazement at the remarkable possibility that by the end of the week an athletics icon who in recent years has been more used to playing the Principal Boy could be installed as sport's Principal Girl. The answer, perhaps, to a minister's prayer?