London 2012 will favour rich athletes, warn MPs

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The Independent Online

The Government's plans for the London 2012 Olympics risk favouring middle-class, privileged young athletes over poorer ones and will do little to boost grassroots participation in sport, a spending watchdog claims.

The aim of UK Sport, the state-sponsored development body, to come fourth in the medal table could distract the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport from its core obligations to "ordinary people", warns a report today from the all-party Commons Public Accounts Committee.

The MPs claim there is no evidence to support the widely promoted view that televised British success at big events positively influences the uptake of sport. They state: "There is a risk that the focus on winning medals could distract the department's attention from encouraging ordinary people to participate."

And they warn: "Olympic medallists in certain sports such as rowing and equestrianism do not represent the make-up of the wider population, with a disproportionate number coming from privileged backgrounds."

The MPs are sceptical of UK Sport's belief that "elite athletes can act as role models and inspire young people from all walks of life to take up sport", adding that organisation "holds no data on the background of the 1,400 elite athletes it currently funds and told us it did not consider the information to be relevant".

UK Sports refusal to collect information about its elite athletes was called "unjustified and disturbing" by the MPs, who said: "On the contrary, this information [could help] increase the socio-demographic spread of athletes in some sports."

In a separate report, the committee voices its continuing concern about funding for the £1bn Olympic Village in Stratford, east London. As a result of the credit crunch, Lend Lease, the Australian company which was picked as the preferred bidder to build flats on the site, has so far been unable to find its £450m share of the costs. The MPs noted: "[With] inflationary pressures, there is an increased risk of insolvency among suppliers."

A further source of anxiety is the absence of a firm date by which a deal with Lend Lease will be signed, although the head of the Olympic Delivery Authority said last week that he hoped it would be finalised by Christmas.

The rest of the money for the village, which will house 17,000 athletes and officials during the Games, will be provided by the publicly-funded delivery authority. The Government is the ultimate guarantor of money for the construction, which has already begun.

The credit crunch has had a major impact on the design of the village, with the number of apartments being reduced from 4,200 to 3,300. That means five athletes will have to stay in each flat, rather than four.

Criticism of the lack of focus on grassroots sport is a setback for Lord Coe, the chairman of the Games organising committee, who made it a central theme of his winning bid to the International Olympic Committee in July 2005. In May 2006, he said the Games would be "the single biggest opportunity in our lifetime to transform sport and participation in sport in the UK forever". He added: "We have a unique opportunity that we must not squander, to increase participation in sport at community and grassroots levels as well as elite levels – from the school playground to the winner's podium."

Last night, the Government insisted there was no question of the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport being "distracted" or favouring middle-class sports over those which attract poorer competitors. Reiterating the ministry's goal of getting two million people more active by 2012, a spokesman added: "We want to use the Games as a catalyst for change – changing attitudes and changing lifestyles. We are doing a great deal to make sure London 2012 is unique in its legacy ambitions."

Jordan Huggins, student, 17: 'In Leyton, facilities were Third World'

I have only been running for a year. I entered a school competition and when I did well I was asked to compete at an open meeting. I ran 60m in 6.9sec, the second-fastest in the UK. Since then I have moved on to 100m. My personal best is 10.45sec. I want to win gold in Stratford.

Where I grew up in Leyton, the facilities were Third World. What we need from the Government is money to build new ones. Good sports facilities raise your hopes and make you dream of the future. Sport teaches you self-discipline and keeps you off the streets. Kids need that now more than ever.

Emma Pallant, student, 21: 'I've had some of the best facilities'

I joined Aldershot Athletics Club when I was eight. This year I won bronze in the world junior championships in the 1500m with a time of 4min 17sec – six seconds off my personal best. I have my heart and head set on Stratford, and want to win gold for Britain.

I realise how lucky I am to have had use of some of the best facilities in the world. My club is attached to an Army garrison and Team GB train there, so I have never been far from the influence of top athletes. It is especially useful having a pool and physiotherapists on hand for when you pick up a niggling injury. The track is very good and I have free access to a weights room for resistance training.

Thousands more young athletes deserve facilities like these.

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