Moynihan hits out at Lottery fund cuts for Games athletes

The shadow sports minister tells Alan Hubbard that Blair must be more committed to the London bid
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Colin Moynihan loves a good scrap, and has done since the days when he boxed for Oxford, stuffing lead weights in his socks to reach the 8st. 7lb bantamweight limit. He didn't lose many then (only three out of out 30, to be precise) and now that he is back in sport's political ring we can expect to see a few bloody noses as he challenges New Labour's heavyweights in an arena with which he is refreshingly familiar.

Shadow boxing it may be, for the moment, as the Opposition's freshly appointed spokesman on sport, a job he will do from the House of Lords, but no punches will be pulled as Moynihan gets stuck into a government he believes has lost its way in sport, and is letting down those who play it.

It has been 15 years since he was first asked by Margaret Thatcher to raise the nation's sporting profile as her sports minister, a position he held for three turbulent years. A few weeks ago a similar call came from Iain Duncan Smith, anxious to ensure that the Tories had a big hitter to fight their corner as the battle for the 2012 Olympic Games warms up. Little Lord Moynihan couldn't wait to pull the gloves on again.

During his ministry he had to deal with the aftermath of Heysel, the horror of Hillsborough, the subsequent implementation of the Taylor report, all the time needing his ringcraft to duck the Thatcher handbag. He did so more often than not, but it still left a few scars.

But there were highs, too, not least the emotional moment at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 when Moynihan, who had himself won an Olympic rowing silver medal eight years earlier, rushed on to the field to embrace Britain's victorious hockey team. He blubbed before blubbing in moments of triumph became fashionable, even compulsory, and is not ashamed of it. "To me, participating was always better than watching, but this was something special, a great moment. Yes, I was pretty choked. Some of the guys I had known for years, and one of them I had been to school with."

Moynihan had coxed the British eight to win his silver medal in Los Angeles. It was subsequently revealed that the East German winners were very much part of the drugs culture that bedevilled that nation at the time. In retrospect, does he think that he and the team should have been elevated to gold-medal status? "No, though I wrote to [Juan] Samaranch suggesting that while the result should stand, in all cases like this where drug-taking had been identified, the results should be marked with an asterisk in Olympic records. It was never taken up."

After leaving the sports ministry - he was promoted to energy minister, rather fittingly for a someone with an abundance of it - he quit politics in 1992, embarked on a business career (he is now chairman of the burgeoning North Sea Gas group Consort Resources) and fought for another title. It took him five years and most of his inheritance to secure his hereditary peerage following the death of his roguish, bongo-playing half-brother, whose fourth and fifth wives both claimed the title for their respective sons.

But finally the erstwhile "Miniature for Sport", as Denis Howell famously dubbed him, is back with his own first love and finding it "just great". He has already made his voice heard on a number of issues, not least the Olympic bid and the question of compulsory rate relief for voluntary sports clubs. "I have long felt that sports clubs should have the same status as charities, and we shall push that to a vote on 10 September. I think we will win this one."

Like many in sport, he feels the Government erred badly when sacking Kate Hoey, and says of his opposite number, Richard Caborn: "He seems a decent bloke, but it does seem strange that at a time when we really do need a full-time minister, we have one who is not solely focused on sport. I will be on his tail all the time." He plans to institute inquiries into various aspects of sport, including how youngsters are encouraged to get into it. "We need to identify how talent can be unearthed and developed. It was based on luck 20 years ago and it still is today. We have to look at some of the international models.

"Then there's the funding of sport. The Government's attitude seems to be that the Lottery will look after sport, so why worry? We are the only bidding country for the 2012 Games where funding into world-class programmes is decreasing. Here we are heading towards an Olympic bid and asking the athletes to perform, and finding that all the world-class funding programmes have been cut, shelved or haven't got off the ground.

"Clearly, the Olympic bid is going to be very high on the agenda over the next couple of years - hopefully the next nine. That will be at the heart of what I am going to be doing. Persuading IOC delegates to vote for London with some very competitive options will require leadership from the top - that means the Prime Minister. If he and his Government do not lead on this, we will not win it. They prevaricated for months about it, yet there are 20 people or more working on the Paris bid full-time.

"We have, at the moment, Barbara Cassani working out of her front room with a mobile. I have absolute confidence that she will do a first-rate job, but we are very late starters. She has the business acumen and leadership skills, but the question is whether she is really going to get the support from the Government. Take the new Olympic Lottery game. The Government will ask the public to back it - and then pocket the tax.

"I've already challenged them on this, and there's been no answer. All of that money should go straight to the bid. It is a typical New Labour ploy. When this sort of thing happens you really have to question the commitment of ministers to sport, and that's my job. We will force a debate on this."

So is the bid winnable? "I desperately hope so. And I'll do everything I can to make sure it is, but I think we have a very long way to go in a short space of time. Barbara Cassani can do it, but she has to have good people around her. People like Seb Coe, who is an obvious candidate to be right at the heart of it. He isn't yet, and that worries me. It's just like preparing an athlete for an Olympic final. You don't get the gold unless you are the best on the day, and best prepared."

At 47, and now very much a family man with three young sports-mad kids, Charlton fan Moynihan, once known as a pocket Lothario, has always laughed off jokes about his stature, saying size doesn't matter. He is a little man, but he has a big heart and a lot of bottle, as he showed in taking on the death-threatening hoolies, and defying his then leaderene, as did his friend Coe, to go to the Moscow Olympics in 1980.

The comeback kid fighting out of the blue corner may be diminutive but, as Blair's bruisers will soon discover, he is certainly no lightweight.

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