Centres kick Major's game plan into touch

The Sorbonne of sport became a school for scandal. Alan Hubbard studies a new broader approach
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FOR TWO YEARS it has all seemed rather like a squabble over a ball in a school playground, but the big boys have finally got their way, although Tony Banks and his governmental gang insist no bullying has been involved. It has all been very democratic, the sports minister says, because he has been a listening Banks and the denizens of sport are getting what they wanted all along.

Tomorrow, in a London hotel, Britain's new sporting curriculum will officially switch to the satellite system when Banks names England's network of 10 regional centres that will augment those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to comprise the re-modelled UK Sports Institute - more an Open University than the single site Academy of Excellence envisaged by John Major, whose battered political football has now been kicked firmly into touch by New Labour's determination to play the game by their rules.

Since it was first conceived as a panacea by Major following Britain's embarrassing solitary gold medal performance in the Atlanta Olympics, the idea of a Sorbonne of sport seemed destined to become a school for scandal, causing little but grief, not least to the city of Sheffield, selected amid much teeth-gnashing as the central site. Olympic gold, we were promised, would be forged from Sheffield steel.

Now Sheffield's role has become largely academic. The proposed hub is simply another spoke in the pounds 160m wheel, albeit a relatively important one as the administrative HQ. But effectively Britain's aspirant gold medallists will graduate, in mortar boards and lycra, from various parts of the country, notably at Bath and Loughborough where there are existing sports universities. Some will also be sent to study overseas.

Tomorrow's announcement coincides with the remodelling of another Major sporting institution, the United Kingdom Sports Council. As we know, sport is cool and is getting even cooler as the millennium approaches. Image may not be quite everything but it has a high priority: in-your-face marketing, slick spin-doctoring, new names and new logos (who was it who said if you haven't got any new ideas, change the logo?).

Not that this is the case with Britain's increasingly image-conscious sports bodies. First it was the British Athletics Federation which went by the board, becoming UK Athletics; then the English Sports Council was transformed into sexier Sport England, and at Lord's on Thursday the old UKSC was revealed amid a flourish of red,white and blue brushwork as the new UK Sport. Short, and presumably, sweeter.

Now it must be all systems go for the UK Sports Institute, which UK Sport will oversee. A few principles have been laid down but no principal has yet been appointed. No logo yet either, but watch this space. Something groovy is in the pipeline.

Sir Rodney Walker, UK Sport's chairman, hired by Banks to, as the minister quaintly puts it, "kick arse", describes the development as "a new beginning". On Thursday, the great and the good of sport assembled at Lord's were assured that once the Sports Institute starts delivering the goods a strategy will be in place to promote Britain's place on the world stage, as host to a number of international events.

New Labour was never enamoured with the Tory concept of a simple single beacon of excellence and neither, it must be admitted, were the majority of sports bodies. Out of the mess that the Academy concept had become, the indications are now that, given sufficient support and the vital funding into the next century, the idea of a sporting comprehensive system rather than a boarding school might actually work.

David Sparkes, chief executive of the Amateur Swimming Association, who sent William Hague away from the recent Tory talk-in with a flea in his ear, saying that the treatment of sport under his party's patronage was "a disgrace", is among those who believes the new formula is the right one.

"John Major's idea was fundamentally flawed," he says. "Sport gave the last government a very clear message that what was wanted was a network of sites, but they ignored it and told us we were wrong. They said they had based their idea on Australia's Institute of Sport but in fact they didn't appreciate that this only worked because the Australians also developed regional networks in every state.

"We seem to be dogged by a lack of willingness to do like the Australians and just get on with it. We seem to want to line all the balls up in advance rather than sort out the problems on the run. For this really to work, things have to get moving right now."

Banks pledges that this will be the case and that the bureaucracy and red tape that throttles sport will be ripped away. "Our athletes will not be betrayed," he vows. Fine words. But can he ensure government money where his mouth is?

Banks actually had a double-date at Lord's on Thursday, launching an initiative to induce more school children to take up cricket before addressing the playtime masters of UK Sport. From school sport to cool sport. The new satellite system may be up, but it is not yet running. Only when it is will we be able to judge whether, in its turbulent transition, sport's game plan for further education has gone from Major to minor.