A sport stabbed in the back, a nation and its youngsters badly let down

The Alan Pascoe interview: Hard-up hurdler turned multi-millionaire says athletics is suffering from neglect. Alan Hubbard hears the evidence
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The Independent Online

Twenty-five years ago this month Alan Pascoe gave up lecturing in physical education to enter the then brave new world of sports promotion. His first account was hardly big box-office; the International Bridge Pairs Championships. He was told that if he could sell that, he could sell anything, but he managed to do so – with a little help from a man named Omar Sharif.

Subsequently his personal success story has been well charted – from hard-up hurdler, winner of Olympic silver and Commonwealth Games gold medals, to self-made multi-millionaire. The one-time rebellious shop steward of athletics in the pre-Lottery days of the Seventies has become arguably Britain's most successful sports marketeer, with a Thameside homestead once owned by Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd and a fortune that is closer to £16 million than the £16 he had in the bank when he returned from honeymoon with his athlete wife Della 31 years ago.

Pascoe has spent most of his life reaching for the stars, first as a quality competitor and then bringing together big names and big projects. His most embarrassing moment came in 1974. When celebrating his Commonwealth gold in Christchurch, he twice fell over a hurdle on his lap of honour. He has not taken many tumbles since.

"Alan's a real striver, he never gives up," Pascoe's old hurdling rival David Hemery once said of him. That is why, at 54, he is still striving, and still thriving, as chairman of Fast Track, the company he set up three and a half years ago after selling off API (Alan Pascoe International), which over 15 years had expanded from Alan Pascoe Associates to employ 270 people on four continents with an annual turnover of £43m.

Fast Track is now ostensibly the commercial arm of UK Athletics, formed when the British Athletic Federation went into administration. Pascoe's entrepreneurial skills have helped put the bankrupted sport back on its feet both financially and in terms of achievement, but his involvement in event promotion goes far beyond athletics.

In his earlier days he worked on promoting such diverse events as the National Garden Festivals, Fantasy Football and the World Aids Conference. And not many know that Pascoe's people were largely responsible for organising the mass sponsorship of the British pantomime season by Cadbury's. Oh yes they were. Consequently it is now virtually impossible to go to any panto in the land without having a bar of Fruit and Nut hurled at you by Frank Bruno or Widow Twankey (although thankfully one production resisted the temptation to rename Cinderella's unrequited suitor as Chocolate Buttons).

Talking of pantomimes brings us neatly to the subject of Pascoe's involvement, or more to the point, lack of it, in Britain's great sporting fiasco of 2001: the cynical slaying of the World Athletics Championships. He is probably the most influential figure in British athletics, yet he was not consulted by the Government's hired gun, Patrick Carter; nor was he asked to give evidence to parliament's select committee. He remained a frustrated bystander. It is not this that infuriates him, but the fact that Britain was make to look stupid in the eyes of the world. "We weren't simply bidding for the world's second biggest sports event, we'd actually got it. It was here. It was in Britain. Yet they threw it out. They actually threw it out. Can you believe that?

"Can you imagine the same thing happening had we got the 2006 football World Cup? All the stops would have been pulled out, all the strings pulled to make it work. The fact that we got nowhere near it actually demonstrates the paucity of understanding of the world of sports politics. I find it hard to believe that the sport could be stabbed in the back so cold-bloodedly. The Prime Minister actually committed us to the championships, in writing. Cabinet ministers promised publicly that Britain would deliver. To say it is massively embarrassing is an understatement."

Pascoe estimates that the loss of the championships has cost athletics between £15-20m in revenue, as well as a stadium to call its own. "Yes, the Government has promised compensation, and a figure of around £40m has been mentioned. I just think the country should watch very carefully whether this Government can deliver any of its promises.

"It seemed to me that this whole debate over a national stadium has shown that they haven't grasped what sport is about. What happened wasn't just a case of letting athletics down. It was letting the nation down and in particular our youngsters. As a former teacher I believe passionately that education isn't just about the three Rs. It is about finding something the kids are good at, whether it is chess, drama or sport. And unless we provide kids with the theatre for that, the right facilities, the right coaches, we are really are cheating on them."

Few would argue that over the years athletics has been our most successful and most intelligently presented sport. Yet, says Pascoe, it suffers because of Government neglect and lack of top class facilities.

"The two, unfortunately, are intertwined no matter how you look at it. The real frustration for me is that we don't have a facility where you can stage a quality event, certainly not one the nation deserves. We have the sponsors, we have the media, but not a stadium capable of putting on first-class athletics.

"It must be like competing in a barn with both doors and the roof missing. All our stadiums seem to be built on a hill or a riverside. The former national coach, Tom McNab, once worked out that because of our climate there are only about three days a year when the wind blows in the right direction in this country to break a record legally."

Pascoe feels that athletics suffers from not having a place at the table as far as this, or any previous government, is concerned. "It is very sad. There is great experience within the industry that hasn't been drawn upon. You can't really represent sport unless you've been involved from a competitive, administrative or organisational aspect."

He says he has met the new sports minister, Richard Caborn a couple of times. What does he think of him? Pascoe shrugs: "Let's wait and see whether he has the ability to deliver what he and Tessa Jowell have promised UK Athletics in terms of a legacy to make up for the most disgraceful shambles British sport has ever known."

Despite his desire to see athletics properly housed, Pascoe has never been an advocate of single-purpose stadium or even of installing a permanent visible track at Wembley. "I have always maintained that athletics could never sustain a stadium from it own revenues. So you would need to look at something that would be government-subsidised and shared with other sports.

"Picketts Lock, had it happened, would have been used as an arm of the Institute of Sport as well as the national athletics stadium for competition and training purposes. It is ridiculous that our athletes have to go abroad to train. There should be a decent stadium here where they are protected from the wind and the rain, ideally by a roof. The stadium that was designed for Picketts Lock still needs to be built somewhere, perhaps as part of a future Olympic complex.

"Wembley would have been too big as a permanent athletics venue, though I could never see what was wrong with a retractable track, like the Stade de France. I think the temporary platform might have worked as a short-term solution. Ironic, isn't it, that they have turned full circle on this, and the Football Association are now talking again about putting one in. But we all know this is a a sop from football because they don't want to pay back the £20m."

This year Pascoe hopes to be doing his bit to restore Britain's bruised image by promoting the athletics segment of the Commonwealth Games in Manchester. Fast Track are competing with an Australian company for the rights. If successful they plan to make the event more razzmatazzy, as they did the last world championships in Edmonton and the European Cup, with innovative on-track presentations and crowd involvement. "These past few years athletics has been hanging on by its fingertips in terms of image, with soccer dominating everything. The public needs to be entertained, kept informed and given full value for their money."

He says that while the Games will captivate the nation, there is no way they can compensate for the loss of the World Championships. "It will take more than those 10 days that to erase the stigma, if we ever can. The trouble is that as a nation, especially at political level, we undervalue sport. We do not appreciate its significance or its effect on our lives. Successive governments have missed out on all this, and as result I think Britain is being left behind as a world sports power. If it wasn't for the Lottery, sport would be in a very woeful state."

Pascoe argues that all sports should go down the athletics path by employing marketing companies who would sink or swim on their ability to bring in commercial deals. If that sounds like a sales pitch, it probably is – he has never been backward at coming forward.

Which makes it all the more puzzling that he has never pushed, or been pushed, for high office in sport. The chair of Sport England is up for grabs after the Games but another ex-athlete, Steve Cram, is said to be the Government's unofficial nomination. "I think he'd be great news," says Pascoe, who served as a member of the original Sports Council under Sir Roger Bannister several years ago. "Kate Hoey did make an indirect approach but I told her I'm not one for sitting around on committees. Anyway, I may come across as a bit too abrasive for some people."

One of Pascoe's projects is to get a major corporate sponsorship for school sport. "With the sad changes that have happened in education one of the biggest losses has been the support for sport, which will increasingly show at top international level as it will in the health of the nation. I was averagely bright at school and both my kids were the same. [Lucy, 22, is an acrobat with Cirque du Soleil and son Daniel, 18, teaches scuba diving in the Seychelles]. We've all benefited from the school sports system and I just want to see all kids have the opportunities to do the same."

Meantime his crusade to keep Britain on the fast track of sport goes on. "We have the technology. What is lacking is the will, the understanding and the nous at the top level in acknowledging the importance of sport and how you make sport work." That, as he says, is the hurdle we keep stumbling over. But the man in the striving seat won't give up.

Biography: Alan Pascoe, MBE

Born: 11 October 1947, Portsmouth.

Family: Married athlete Della James in 1970. Daughter Lucy, 22, son Daniel, 18.

Lives: Sunbury-on-Thames, Middlesex.

Educated: Southern Grammar School, Portsmouth, Borough Road PE College.

Track record: Three-time Olympic hurdler, winning relay silver in Munich, Commonwealth and European 400m golds and European 110m silver and bronze.

Business career: Formerly a teacher at Dulwich College (top left), and subsequently a PE lecturer, he became involved in athletics promotion in 1977 on retiring from the sport, and set up APA, later API, which over 15 years became one of the top three sports marketing companies in the world. Formed Fast Track, in 1998.

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