The dread hand of meddling innocents

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The Independent Online

Building A Fairer Britain was the proud slogan at last week's Labour Party conference at Brighton, but it is not one likely to win them a silver trowel from the nation's sporting fraternity following the latest twist in the great stadium débâcle.

If only our governments could dig foundations with the same efficiency that they dig holes for themselves we would have a far wider selection of arenas worthy of the motherland of most of the world's leading sports.

We do possess some outstanding sporting citadels. Wimbledon is the finest tennis venue to be found anywhere, we can stage The Open or any other major golf event on a selection of the best golf courses on earth, Lord's is the shrine of cricket, our international rugby grounds are excellent and we can just about stage a grand prix without too much embarrassment.

Would that our club football grounds had the accommodation to go with their traditions, but in the 1980s the so-called geniuses who ran our top football clubs made massive underestimates of the capacities they required, although Man-chester United have done some impressive catching up.

The one common denominator in each of the above is that no politician was allowed to stick in his or her hobnailed boots. They were all built or developed by those who knew and loved the sport involved. I am eager to see government take an interest in sport – I mean in its development, not just to be photographed with the winners – and treat it as a vital contribution to the country's wellbeing. But we do not need their botch-prone hands to take too firm a grip on the tiller.

Every time they attempt to do so, no good comes of it, and the losing of the 2005 World Athletics Championships after the Picketts Lock fiasco last week is the latest in a long line of gaffes by people not noticeably well-equipped for the jobs they are allocated.

Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, inherited this brief after the last election and appears to be no more clued up about sport than her predecessor, Chris Smith; less, even, if that's possible. Neither does the Minister for Sport, Richard Caborn, seem comfortable in trying to sweep up a mess that others had prepared for him.

This obvious disadvantage did not prevent the pair of them walking into a meeting with the International Association of Athletics Federations on Friday under the blithe impression that they could persuade them to stage the 2005 World Championships at Sheffield.

I hold no respect for either the IAAF or the International Olympic Committee in the manner they have been conducting the bidding processes for hosting the Olympics and the World Championships. But you have to play their pompous game if you want to stage one of their jamborees.

I would love every country in the world to refuse to take part in these despicable auctions and see where that leaves them. Until that happy day, you have to conform. You wouldn't play football or rugby without a rough idea of the rules, so why do our representatives think they can play sporting politics without knowing the form? Lamine Diack, the president of the IAAF, wasted no time in rejecting their pathetic compromise, knowing that he had cities such as Berlin, Sydney, Budapest and Tokyo dying to replace London.

Diack not only sent them packing but said that they would never again trust a bid from Britain which was based solely on promises. The IAAF would want to see the stadium first. Charming.

It would be less depressing it this latest example was not typical of a few decades of government incompetence in the matter of giving sport help and guidance. They may have a lousy record of building swimming pools where they are most needed but, ironically, they are experts at pushing non-swimmers in at the deep end and then refusing to throw them a lifeline.

Many sports ministers during the last 20 years or so have sunk without trace for lack of proper support and access to resources. They never had a dog's chance of having an effect, whether it was Margaret Thatcher, John Major or Tony Blair who handed them the ticking parcel. The ballad of Picketts Lock was in rehearsal years ago.

Remember John Major's sporting academies, how Lottery money was to be used to set up centres for the furtherance of sporting excellence? One of these would have been a sound base for an athletics stadium, perhaps even at the Don Valley in Sheffield, for which the ratepayers are still forking out. We might have had a splendid facility there from which the World Championships bid could have been launched years ago.

Alas, the promised academies have gone the way of all the other institutes and initiatives that have broken to the surface of the political rants of the past. The present situation has been stewing for years.

Like many, I was against the mid-Nineties intention to build a new Wembley with an athletics track around it. I happen not to like tracks around football pitches. But we did not realise that it was that or nothing. Had that plan gone ahead in one of its guises, Wembley would now be equipped to take athletics and all the football matches now being accommodated at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

How it never came about is a long and tiresome story of too many different organisations caring only for their own priorities and a government who became involved without really understanding that what was required was a touch of statesmanship and the combination to the Treasury's safe, where Lottery funds are being hoarded.

All this Government have done is to throw innocents into a fray they do not understand. No doubt the politicians will attempt to switch the blame elsewhere. The rift between the sporting quangos Sport England and UK Sport is already being cited. But who created them? I doubt if God will be claiming any credit.

Picketts Lock was always a non-runner and it has taken a long time for business- man Patrick Carter to report that fact. Carter has yet to produce his report on Wembley, so we have that pleasure remaining.

The only good to emerge from all this is that £40 million is to be pumped into athletics as a compensation. Some say that this is the price for David Moorcroft, the head of UK Athletics, not adding his voice to the chorus of criticism. If this is so, Moorcroft is to be congratulated for his cool-headedness. He knows how hard it is to squeeze a penny out of the Treasury.

The Government invariably act as if it is their money they are handing out, but we all know that the Lottery was created precisely for this sort of purpose. I believe the public would put the creation of a more successful breed of athletes above the construction of a new stadium, and that is where we should start laying the foundations.

What we need then is a politician with the knowledge, the nous and the Cabinet rank to begin leading sport away from the glaring faults of the recent past. He or she also requires the guts to challenge the Treasury on misappropriation of Lottery funds. Perhaps then something positive might emerge from the disgrace.

Permanent reminder

A fitting tribute to Howard Winstone, the former world featherweight champion who died last year, will be unveiled in the market place in Merthyr Tydfil by his widow, Bronwen, this afternoon. The bronze statue has been crafted by David Petersen, son of Jack Petersen, who was light-heavyweight and heavyweight champion of Britain in the 1930s.

Dowlais Male Voice Choir will sing at the ceremony and a rendition of Winstone's favourite party piece, "Hello Dolly", by baritone Hubert Everson should ensure a lack of dry eyes at this celebration of one of Wales' favourite sons.