Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson was overlooked as the new chair of Sport England yesterday, amid claims that her appointment, which had originally been approved by the selection panel, would have been “too political”.
The job went instead to Nick Bitel, the chief executive of the London Marathon, for whom Lady Grey-Thompson had originally acted as referee.
Lady Grey-Thompson, who won 11 Paralympic gold medals and is now a cross-bench peer, has been heavily critical of the Government’s policy towards disability. Sport England has an annual budget of around £300m, which it is in charge of investing in grass-roots sport.
When the announcement was made by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport yesterday afternoon, Lady Grey-Thompson, whose appointment had been backed by Lord Coe, had still not been officially informed of the decision.
However, she tweeted later: “Congratulations to Nick Bitel as Chair of Sport England. It’s been a pleasure to be on the marathon board and I look forward to the future.”
Mr Bitel, who has been in his post at the London Marathon since 1995, and a board member of Sport England for a number of years, said: “I am delighted to be joining Sport England at what is a very exciting time for the organisation.
“London 2012 has given us a huge opportunity to deliver a real boost for community sport and Sport England is central to achieving this.
“I look forward to working with Jennie Price, her excellent team and Sport England’s stakeholders and partners to encourage greater participation in sport and ensure a lasting, tangible legacy from the Games.”
Mr Bitel denied any involvement in the recruitment process and said it was Lady Grey-Thompson who gave him his reference when applying for the position. But many, including fellow disabled peer Anne Begg, regard the decision as a government “stitch-up”.
“I am very friendly with Tanni. She would make an excellent Sport England chair,” Mr Bitel added. “I already serve on a couple of boards with her – she’s on the board of the London Marathon, we’re in the legacy corporation together.”