Athletics: Moorcroft's goal to hatch £50m nest egg

Golden opportunity of biggest sponsorship outside football is in gentle hands - but too gentle?
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The Independent Online

Envious glances will be cast in the direction of David Moorcroft when Britain's Olympic sports assemble to hear their funding fate from UK Sport on Tuesday morning. David Moorcroft, the chief executive of UK Athletics, could be excused a smug "We're all right, Gordon" smile on his face, having just negotiated for track and field to be the beneficiary of £50 million from Norwich Union over the next six years.

This is easily the biggest British sports sponsorship outside football and exactly half the sum the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, wants raised from the private sector for London 2012 preparations. As it happens, Moorcroft is too decent to gloat, and will be the first to appreciate that lesser-funded sports will look upon his windfall with lick-lipping envy.

The purpose of Tuesday's gathering of the sporting clans is to apportion some of the extra £200m allocated in the Budget up to Beijing. All Olympic sports, with the exception of loads-a-money football and tennis, rich enough to fend for themselves, will get a share. Some more than others, of course. Even athletics will be in line for a few more quid to add to the fifty mil it is about to bank, and there are those who consider some of its élite competitors rather fortunate in view of recent broadsides at their performances from big guns such as Seb Coe, Michael Johnson, Steve Backley and Roger Black.

This summer, after a world championships in which Britain finished 16th and England's largely disappointing Commonwealth Games, it might have seemed that the sport which once bestrode most others is on its last legs in these isles.

But Moorcroft argues that it retains massive public and TV appeal: "Does anyone really think Norwich Union would be investing £50m in a declining sport which has no future?"

A former world 5,000m record holder, Moorcroft has run UK Athletics for eight years, in which time it has gone from bankruptcy to a now remarkable degree of affluence as the best-funded athletics body in the world. In that time he has been accused of being too soft, not only with arrogant, underachieving athletes but on outing those who have been popping pills.

But getting Norwich Union, who have backed the sport for seven years, to cough up such a mind-boggling sum is a gold-medal-class coup. "It's like a dream come true," says Moorcroft. "It means we are able to invest in every element of the sport, in every area and at all age levels. It is perfect for introducing and developing talent. We now have a brilliant environment, and we have to make it work."

He adds: "People emphasised the things that didn't go well in Melbourne, but a lot did go well, like gold medals for Dean Macey and Kelly Sotherton and outstanding performances from some of the youngsters. It wasn't all about baton foul-ups.

"I felt there was great hope for the future. The talent exists. It is immense. We just have to get hold of it and develop it for 2012, and now we have the wherewithal to do that."

Apart from the now-departed chief executive of the Lawn Tennis Association, John Crowther, few top administrators have taken as much stick as Moorcroft. But the former distance runner is still in there, leading from the front. "If people think I'm soft that's fine. You can be polite but firm, dignified and determined. Whatever I am as a chief executive reflects what I was as an athlete. I remember being knocked out of the Olympics in 1980 and wanting to pack it in. But I came back and broke the world record. My drive and ambition is still strong."

Moorcroft recently told Athletics Weekly that the sport has been living in the past and "marching backwards towards a dark future". Suddenly, it can see the light. "Track and field has changed very little, while other sports and nations have leapt ahead of us," Moorcroft says. "Ours is a really diverse sport. Diversity is OK; it's when it becomes division that you have a problem. This is a sport that will never be completely at peace with itself. You have to tread carefully and keep people on board but you have to bring in change when it is needed. That's been my approach, and there'll certainly be more changes now." Some high-profile butts, he hints, will be kicked. So, no more Mr Nice Guy?

Moorcroft says he and the controversial choice as performance director, the ex-marine "mind bender" Dave Collins, plan some overdue muscle-flexing, and those athletes who don't shape up under the new system of central contracts will be shipped out."Beijing will be a stepping stone, a learning experience for some of our great young talent. London will be the real focus. This investment is about the next six years, not the next two."

Moorcroft is 53 tomorrow. It is hoped there will be many happy returns on that £50m investment. Athletics has its cake; now let's see if it can eat it.

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