Sport in the City: Thompson's cure for yob culture - and it works

Five-time karate world champion needs government help to take scheme countrywide
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The Independent Online

In this age of Asbos and aggro, ending the yob culture is said to be top of the Government's agenda. Pity then that so few politicians turned up last week to hear Geoff Thompson launch a campaign on behalf of the Youth Charter for Sport, which outlines how sport can help provide a solution. One hopes they will at least read the 48-page report entitled "Somewhere to go, something to do, someone to show them..."

The Home Secretary certainly had somewhere else to go and something to do. With hundreds of released criminals apparently roaming the streets, Charles Clarke was doing his bit for society by tucking into a McDonald's football lunch at the Savoy.

Thompson, meanwhile, was suggesting ways and means of keeping at-risk kids from joining in the daylight yobbery.

In the 12 years since the Manchester-based Youth Charter was founded, Thompson, its executive chairman, has seen what can be achieved in deprived areas like Moss Side and Toxteth and now there are ambitious plans to extend to the rest of the country. Thompson is calling on the Government to help provide free weekly access for all young people, particularly those who have been involved in crime or misdemeanours, to sports and leisure in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics.

The eclectic gathering in Westminster's River Room, hosted by Baroness Amos, Labour leader of the House of Lords , included a dame, an ambassador, a clutch of ex-Olympians and Lord "Hello, I'm Jeffrey" Archer, briefly present to give his endorsement, mindful, no doubt, of his own experiences of sporting life on the inside.

They heard Thompson, five times the world karate champion, propose " firm, realistic and achievable recommendations that we believe will go a long way to reducing anti-social behaviour and help combat bullying". These include providing "sport and social coaches with a genuine and ongoing interest in the community" to go into inner cities with programmes that will entice youngsters into clubs and leisure centres.

The idea is based on Thompson's Moss Side Story which began in 1993 when he started the Youth Charter following the gunning down in Manchester of a 15-year-old. "I can accept losing medals but I cannot accept losing lives," he says.

Before the Commonwealth Games in 2002, his organisation helped 1,000 youngsters from deprived communities work as volunteers. "We have delivered this successfully in Manchester and we can do it elsewhere in cities like London, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Glasgow. In all we are targeting 10 cities in which we want to recruit and train 100 youngsters as sports leaders. Sport can be the vaccine for so many social ills. As a kid I was part of the gang culture, potentially one of those destined to spend time at Her Majesty's leisure but it was a leisure centre which changed my life. It was there I took up karate and found a vehicle to channel my anger."

The Rugby Football Union - enlightened in this area - have been quick to back the scheme. Thompson hopes other sports bodies, especially individual football clubs, will follow suit, and he has a number of sponsors on board to help underwrite the costs, which he estimates at £250,000 per community. The Government and its agencies, who have shown little enthusiasm for the Charter, seem to prefer channelling youth funds elsewhere. So does the Lottery. "We have put in our application and heard nothing." But Thompson is used to going it alone.

Big, black and voluble, he has long been viewed as a loose cannon (though he seems to hit the target), and someone who asks too many awkward questions.

Thompson, 48, has always believed sport is an intrinsic part of the rehabilitation process, helping to set up sports programmes in a dozen prisons and young offenders' institutions. He says he finds it hard to see so much potential sporting talent "banged up". "The sad thing is that most do not have the option to get involved further in the sort of sports programmes that inspired them while they were inside. But at least sport gives them a chance. If you use its unifying power in the widest social and cultural sense you start to find some of the answers."

Having watched Thompson at work over the years it is evident he has more street cred than other sports administrators, by a distance. Ironically, he originates from the new Olympic heartland of Hackney but so far 2012 has not formally embraced him. In view of Seb Coe's vision of sport as a legacy for youth and the community, that almost seems a crime in itself.