Blair steps in to halt sport power drain

Exclusive: As Britain's world influence wanes, the Government calls for action. Alan Hubbard reports
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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR has stepped in to prevent England being bowled out by Australia in a battle to keep the 60-year-old headquarters of the Common- wealth Games in this country. On the Prime Minister's instructions, cash will be found to ensure that London does not forfeit yet another sporting powerbase as British influence wanes.

Following pressure from David Oxley, the former Rugby League secretary now chairman of the Central Council of Physical Recreation, Mr Blair has asked UK Sport, the newly refurbished umbrella body governing British sport, to secure headquarters for the Commonwealth Games Federation following attempts by Melbourne to poach the body.

In a letter to Oxley, Mr Blair says he is "very much aware" that the housing of international sports federations, such as the CGF, can have a positive impact on the profile and influence of British sport and that he is keen to retain them here. As a result, the CGF will be offered what UK Sport describe as "a package of support" to remain in London and not follow other sporting organisations, such as the International Amateur Athletic Federation and the International Rugby Board, to tax-friendly bases abroad. Sir Rodney Walker, chairman of UK Sport, said: "It is unthinkable that after all these years we might lose the Commonwealth Games Federation. It would be highly embarrassing, with the next Games being held in Manchester, especially as it is at the time of the Queen's Jubilee and she is head of the Commonwealth."

The CGF assistance will come through Lottery funds and will provide help for office accommodation and staffing as part of a blueprint to put Britain at the forefront of international sports administration.

Gone are the days when Britain told the world how to play the game, when the likes of Sir Stanley Rous ran international football and the Marquess of Exeter lorded it over athletics. Now the world dances to the beat of a Latin junta at the top with Britain taking a back seat in the corridors of power we once strutted with an air of sniffy superiority.

Britain has now become a nation of lost leaders, with no figure in a senior administrative post - the latest attempt to install one, as a Fifa vice-president, ending in ignominy and the resignation of FA chairman Keith Wiseman and chief executive Graham Kelly after the infamous "cash for votes" controversy.

Britain hosts 13 international governing bodies, the most important of which are tennis and cricket. But this is four fewer than Switzerland, home of the Olympics, football, swimming, rowing, hockey and gymnastics. Another sport, badminton, is now under pressure to move its international affairs from Britain to the Far East. "The UK has a great history in world sport," said Sir Rodney. "Icons such as Wimbledon, the Grand National, the Open and the FA Cup are renowned worldwide. But we also need to develop a co-ordinated, UK-wide approach in bidding for other major events."

The pledge to make Britain a major player on the world stage again was made by Mr Blair in Labour's pre- election manifesto. "When it comes to sport, the great danger is not that we aim too high and miss the target but that we aim too low and reach it," he said. Flying the flag for greater international prestige will also be part of the function of the new chairman of Sport England, Trevor Brooking, whose appointment was forecast here last week. He will shortly have a clear-the-air meeting with the Minister for Sport, Tony Banks - who had backed Tessa Sanderson for the job - to compose a shopping list of international events which, apart from the World Cup and Olympic Games, will include the World Athletics Championships in 2003 if Wembley can be renovated in time.

On Thursday, Banks will address a parliamentary select committee now examining ways Britain can play a bigger role on the international stage. He will tell them that it is vital the world sees that British attitudes have changed from the days when we had our own sporting empire.

"Attitude is one of the reasons we've lost so much influence," he said. "We just assume that because we started most sports we still have the right to run them. There's been this awful arrogance over the years from some of our sports people. Thankfully, this has been knocked out of them. I'm now involved in so many charm offensives - not just for the 2006 World Cup bid - to make people feel welcome here. It's about giving them due respect and not just assuming that because you are British and ask for something that Johnny Foreigner should be bloody grateful and snatch your hand off. We also need to persuade governing bodies like the CGF that London is a jolly good place to be and UK Sport now has the budget to find ways of making it more attractive to them."

Banks added that making London the hub of international sport should be "something the new mayor's office should be involved in". Especially, one imagines, if the nascent Dick Whittington turns out to be T Banks Esquire.

He also acknowledges that to attract and retain world bodies "may mean I have to go to my colleagues in government and talk about tax concessions". In other words, if Cool Britannia wants to rule the waves again, it must also waive the rules.

Home and away: The shifting headquarters of international sports bodies

Still in the United Kingdom

Commonwealth Games Federation

International Badminton Federation

International Cricket Council

International Federation of Netball


International Sailing Federation

International Tennis Federation

International Table Tennis Federation

International Wheelchair Sports Federation

Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews

World Bowls Board

World Curling Federation

World Professional Billiards and Snooker


World Squash Federation

Moved abroad

International Amateur Athletic Federation (to Monaco)

International Fencing Fed (to Switzerland)

International Motor Racing Fed (to France)

International Rugby Board (to Dublin)

International Shooting Federation (to USA)

International Tug of War Federation (to USA)