One of Britain's leading black sports figures is set to join South Africa's campaign to thwart England's bid for the 2006 World Cup. Geoff Thompson, five-times former world karate champion, says he is giving serious consideration to the job offer from the South Africans because he is disillusioned at the way sport is being run in this country.
Should Thompson, 42, accept it will be doubly embarrassing for the government because he is currently involved as an ambassador with the England 2006 campaign team and is a long-serving member of Sport England. But Thompson, who runs the Manchester-based Youth Charter for Sport on an honourary basis and has received the MBE for his work in developing sporting projects in troubled areas like Moss Side and Toxteth, says: "The time has come to put myself and my family first. If I take the job I know it'll be seen as a defection but in no sense will I feel a traitor because for years I've been hoping an opportunity would open up for me here to make a valuable contribution to sports administration at a senior level. But nothing has materialised. I feel marginalised and cheated."
Thompson lays the blame for this squarely at the door of Sport England, formerly the English Sports Council, on which he has served for 10 years. Last year he was a candidate for the chairmanship, which eventually went to Trevor Brooking. "I am disappointed in Trevor. I thought he would have firmer control of things. There are too many Chinese whispers."
Thompson, one of three black members of Sport England - the others are vice-chair Tessa Sanderson and Garth Crooks - claims he was promised a more significant role by then sports minister, Tony Banks, but thinks this may have been blocked by Sport England officials who, he says, consider him "a loose cannon". He has a showdown meeting with Brooking and chief executive Derek Casey tomorrow and says he will quit unless he receives "satisfactory answers to my questions". The 6ft 6in Thompson, a highly respected and extremely influential figure among ethnic minorities in sport, has been disenchanted for some time with the way Sport England have conducted their affairs. The new sports minister, Kate Hoey, has promised changes in the set-up, which now appear to be forthcoming but Thompson believes they may be too late for him.
"The South African offer is a substantial package and I must weigh up my options. They have promised I will have an important part to play over there even if they do not get the World Cup, though it is now looking likely that they will. I have to wonder if there is a welcoming place for me in this country. We are told that sport needs leadership from ethnic minorities. Well, here is one who can deliver but is not being given the opportunity. I feel excluded and frustrated."
Thompson alleges that Sport England have not used him properly. "I know I could be a valuable spokesperson on certain issues but clearly they do not speak my language. They did not even invite me when they launched a new sporting initiative to combat drugs use by youngsters, which is what I am dealing with every day."
The controversy could not come at a worse time for Sport England. As we predicted, it will be announced this week that, as part of the government's new Sports Strategy, they will lose their role as the main distributor of Lottery funds, with the responsibility handed to sports authorities.
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