A new voice talks up his dream

The Steve Cram Interview: Legend of the track tipped to be the next Coleman is concerned about the future of sport
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We might think it, but he couldn't possibly say so. Is Steve Cram to be the new David Coleman? Those "informed sources"inside the BBC are letting it be known that the doyen's commentary baton will be handed over to the former world mile record holder and Olympic silver medallist at the end of the Sydney Games. But Cram is being uncharacteristically coy about the prospects: "There's no such thing as the new David Coleman," he laughs. "There's only one DC and there'll never be another. I'm just privileged to be working alongside him."

We might think it, but he couldn't possibly say so. Is Steve Cram to be the new David Coleman? Those "informed sources"inside the BBC are letting it be known that the doyen's commentary baton will be handed over to the former world mile record holder and Olympic silver medallist at the end of the Sydney Games. But Cram is being uncharacteristically coy about the prospects: "There's no such thing as the new David Coleman," he laughs. "There's only one DC and there'll never be another. I'm just privileged to be working alongside him."

The one certainty is that when the BBC announce their own Olympic squad this week, SC will be given as prominent a berth as DC. They are delighted with their close-season capture from Eurosport to become a front-runner in their coverage of athletics, not only in Sydney but, they believe, for years to come.

There is a feeling that Cram with his sharp eye, articulate tongue and inside track on the sport is in the same league as Gary Lineker when it comes to playing the TV personality game. Coleman himself describes him as "a natural". Although Cram was involved in BBC radio coverage from Atlanta, these Olympics will be a TV first for him. His is a timely signing, with the 74-year-old Coleman about to warble off into the sunset. In future the voice of athletics will have a Geordie accent, although it is a voice that will not only have considerable authority on the box, but an influential say in the future of our sport off it.

The master miler who once trod the Tartan tracks as one of Britain's three middle-distance musketeers - "Here come Coe, Cram and Ovett" was a phrase programmed into the Coleman vocabulary - is now emerging as an even bigger player behind the scenes. Leaving aside his mushrooming media work, he sits on sport's Lottery distribution panel and has just been appointed chairman of the English arm of the UK Sports Institute, a hands-on role which will have a direct bearing on the shape of sport to come in themillennium.

Talking of the millennium, more immediately he is immersed in the biggest event, in terms of numbers, if not status, ever to be held here, the multi-sports BAA Millennium Youth Games, the four-day grand final of which starts in Southampton on Thursday.

Almost £5m has been invested by the British Airports Authority and Sport England in a festival for 11 to 15 year-olds organised along the lines of a mini-Olympics. Not quite so mini, with over 70,000 competitors, both able-bodied and disabled, in eight sports. In all, a quarter of a million youngsters took part in the preliminary nationwide stages and Cram says this is one of the most exciting and innovative projects with which he has been associated.

Like his new BBC commentator colleague, the ex-footballer Trevor Brooking, the chairman of Sport England, the 40-year-old Cram believes British sport faces a critical future unless the now dissipating talent can be staunched, harnessed, encouraged and nurtured at school and youth level. This is why he is so keen on the promotion of this week's event and wishes more of his media colleagues were more conscious of its significance.

"These Games are a huge advert for sport, but I'm not sure too many have cottoned on to their importance. It is about time the media realised that if we don't give this enough attention there won't be anyone around to write about in five years time. Giving young people the chance to take part in sport, to get the taste and feel and what it is all about, underpins everything we do at professional level. The new Institute and our world-class support programme for the élite are all very well but it is pointless if you're not going to give kids the opportunities and facilities to take part. There is a gradual realisation that it is futile spending all this money on sport if kids don't get the right introduction to it at the grass roots.

"I'm a huge fan of the Millennium Games. We don't have enough events for youngsters which give them a dream, the opportunity to imagine they are David Beckham or are competing in the Olympics. I would like to see them take placebi-annually because being part of them helps you to develop not only as an athlete but as a person."

Cram shares the concern of many involved in developing youth talent that the nation has become unhealthily preoccupied with football. "I love the game. My uncle Bobby made more than 150 League appearances as a wing-half for West Bromwich Albion and I grew up dreaming of playing for Sunderland. But such is the dominance of football now that we tend to forget there are plenty of other sports out there that we do pretty damn well at. Kids need to be helped and encouraged to get involved with them. I've travelled around a lot but even in countries like France, Italy and Spain where football is big there isn't the same obsession with it to the detriment of other sports. Making our kids aware of the opportunities in sport is vital and it will determine our level of success in the future."

So, of course, will the Sports Institute, embarrassingly delayed, politically pockmarked and still not finally up and running. But Cram's appointment is an indication that things are on the move. He wants to ensure that his branch of the project is working effectively by 2002 with a network of facilities at regional and national level which will compare with the best in the world, though he warns that no one should expect to see golden returns on the investment for another decade.

"My aim is to make it athlete and coach friendly. It mustn't be overburdened with bureaucracy, we have too much of that already.

"I certainly wish there had been something like this and Lottery funding when I was competing. I knew very little about diet, nutrition and the like. Many of the injuries I received over the years could've been put right had I received bio-mechanical analysis when I was younger. There are things now that I'm having put right at 40 that someone could have spotted when I was 15 or 16. This doesn't mean I would have done things differently, but the idea of the Institute is not to take athletes and bash them into shape. It's to provide a supermarket of services, with the athletes and the coach selecting what they want."

Cram admits that when he retired eight years ago he never envisaged he might become a bit of a blazer. "Actually, I don't think I am, but I do believe people like myself should take the opportunity to stay involved in sport. There's nothing like having those around who've been there, seen it and done it." Cram certainly slots into that worldly category. While his old running mates have gone their diverse ways - Seb Coe into Parliament and now the House of Lords and Steve Ovett to his castle in Scotland - Cram built himself a rewarding media career, even though he might have followed Coe down the political pathway. Albeit on the opposite side of the track.

A life-long Labour supporter ("Does that surprise you, coming from Jarrow?"), he considered standing in local elections, possibly even for Parliament. While some sports personalities see their zenith as A Question of Sport, Cram looked equally comfortable when he appeared on Question Time.

"But I decided I'd rather be doing what I am now when I can effect some changes than sitting on the council or in the House of Commons arguing about things I'm not really interested in."

It has always been Cram's manner to call it as he sees it, and viewers can expect honesty rather than hyperbole from the new man behind the mike. "I'm looking forward to Sydney immensely, but don't let's delude ourselves that we are coming back with a shoal of gold medals. We have a good bunch of competitors and there are many medal chances, but sport is about a split-second here, a centimetre there. We tend to look back through rose-tinted glasses and when Seb, Steve and I were running there wasn't the same depth of global competition as now. We knew we had to beat the Russians, the East Germans and the odd African, but these days when you line up you can be standing alongside someone from almost any nation who might win gold. There'll be some surprises in Sydney, but there'll be those whodisappoint too."

Crammie is unlikely to be one of them. It will be interesting to see how much of the Coleman mantle will be draped over his shoulders during the Games. There is already speculation that the BBC see afuture for him well beyond the athletics commentary box, and no doubt the ambitious Cram would clearly relish the opportunity to broaden his sporting, or even political, spectrum. Although, of course, he could not possibly say so.

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