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United face for disabled sports bodies

Alliance is good news for handicapped competitors.

Plunging straight into the great Manchester United FA Cup debate was not the only factor which steepened Kate Hoey's early learning curve as Minister for Sport.

Plunging straight into the great Manchester United FA Cup debate was not the only factor which steepened Kate Hoey's early learning curve as Minister for Sport.

Within three weeks of her appointment in July, her desk was thick with letters from what she admits was a bewildering variety of organisations for disabled sport. Help was close at hand, however.

Yesterday in London, at an event supported by numerous well-known sporting figures including Sharron Davies and the athletes Kelly Holmes and Dalton Grant, the minister was able to launch a new charity which seeks to pull together all the disparate strands of disabled sporting activity - the English Federation of Disability Sport.

The organisation's credo, emblazoned on the banner unfurled by Hoey at the Sports Cafe in London's Haymarket, reads: sport is a right, not a privilege, for disabled people.

It follows that the organisers of this new umbrella body want to draw more disabled people of all kinds into sport, and among the main functions of the EFDS is the aim of making more information available to any interested parties. Yes, of course they have their own website.

From the point of view of the Government, and funding organisations such as Sport England, which has already vouchsafed just under £1m for the new charity this financial year, there is now the opportunity to deal with what Hoey described yesterday as a "coherent voice".

Whereas in the past, grant-awarders such as the Sport England chairman, Trevor Brooking, have had to evaluate the respective claims of a clamour of applicants, the theory is that this new body will be able to formulate a clearer strategy.

"We are trying to encourage a wider viewpoint," Brooking said. "If we are able to work with progress plans, hopefully we won't get seven requests all demanding pools in the same area..." Unanimity has not come easily, however. "A lot of people with vested interests have been prepared to ignore that because they see the benefits of co-operation in a way that has never been achieved before," the Federation's president, Bernard Atha, said.

He sees the formation of this new body as another big step towards the ultimate objective of integrating disabled sport fully with able-bodied sport. "We know that is 10 or 15 years away, if that," he said. "But for now we want to change the emphasis. We want people to approach sport through their abilities, rather than their own particular disability."

The new organisation will work closely with a range of disability sports bodies, including the seven main national ones - British Deaf Sport, British Blind Sport, Cerebral Palsy Sport, British Wheelchair Sports Foundation, the British Amputee and Les Autres Sports Association, the English Sports Association for People with Learning Disability and Disability Sport England. "Anyone trying to understand disability sport in this country would need a PhD," Atha said, ruefully.

Chris Holmes, who has collected nine swimming golds at the last two Paralympics and is currently training to pick up at least a couple more in Sydney next year, welcomed the new initiative. "I think it can play a crucial role in educating people about what is involved in disabled sport," he said. Holmes, who was born with restricted sight, was spotted swimming for his local club in Kidderminster, but he believes that merely good fortune. "This new organisation will reduce the uncertainty and the luck-factor, so we don't miss talented individuals at the grass-roots level," he said.

Good news for the disabled sportsmen and women of the future. Good news, too, for the state of the Sports Minister's in-tray.