Britain's bid to host Olympics gets off to a false start as it is disrupted by banner-waving children

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The Independent Online

A small group of schoolchildren protesting at a lack of inner-city sports facilities yesterday upstaged the unveiling of the woman who will lead London's bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

The American businesswoman Barbara Cassani was being introduced as chairwoman of the campaign when 20 noisy, placard-wielding children and their parents intervened. They refused to move from the promenade outside the Oxo Tower on thesouth bank of the Thames, where Ms Cassani was to meet the media.

Mrs Cassani, 42, will be paid £150,000 a year for working up to three days a week until the Olympic venue is announced by the International Committee in July 2005.

But the local group hijacked the high-profile event in an attempt to pressure Ken Livingstone, the London Mayor, into raising £450,000 for two sports pitches for the Columbo Street Sports and Community Centre in Waterloo.

Jennifer Mosely, a youth worker, said: "It's ironic that the Olympics are being launched here for millions of pounds and we can't raise money for our pitches." She said they had received "great support" from the former sports minister Kate Hoey who has reservations on London's bid.

Embarrassed officials ushered Mrs Cassani to the cramped balcony of the Oxo Tower restaurant where she squeezed alongside the leaders of the bid "stakeholders", Mr Livingstone, Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Craig Reedie, head of the British Olympic Association. Mrs Cassani, sporting a Union Flag lapel pin on her suit, said: "The next step is to put in place a team including a chief executive who know how things work. I've built up an airline from scratch in six months so I am positive I can build an Olympic bid in two years." She founded the no-frills airline Go and pocketed £9.5million last year when it was bought by easyJet.

Asked whether her American background would prove a disadvantage, Mrs Cassani said she was practically an adopted Londoner.

"I live here with my family and have started a successful business here. There's a tremendous amount of talent here and I aim to harness it. I'm here to stay."

A spokeswoman for the Mayor said he had sympathy for the protesters but was confident that the Games would provide sports facilities of benefit to the wider community and especially children, although none were currently planned for the Waterloo area.

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