Interview Craig Reedie: Who do we blame for a national failure?
At the end of Britain's worst Olympics for nearly 50 years, Ian Stafford put some difficult questions to the man who headed the team effort in Atlanta
Monday 05 August 1996
From Colombia and Kenya, Qatar and Bulgaria, they have assembled to enjoy the greatest sporting - and no doubt shopping - spectacle in the world. For most of them, life is always pretty good.
Craig Reedie, meanwhile, finally appears at the hotel looking a little hot and flustered. The chairman of the British Olympic Association and one of two British executive members of the IOC, this down to earth Glaswegian, somewhat different to most of his colleagues, is cursing the Atlanta traffic, which insisted that his short journey from watching some badminton should take 45 minutes. "I've been sitting in a car all that time," he moans. "It would have been quicker if I had walked." Suddenly, the thought of sitting at his financial services office desk in Glasgow tomorrow morning almost seems appealing.
At the end of the Centennial Olympics, Reedie, an IOC member since 1994, has worn two increasingly heavy hats. On the Olympic front he, rather refreshingly, is the first to admit that all has not gone well. And on the home front, as chairman of the BOA, he refuses to sweep our sporting problems under the carpet any more.
Blunt speaking and frank, this man in a suit is anything but an "old fart" enjoying a first-class ticket on the Olympic gravy train.
With Britain recording its worst display since the 1952 Helsinki Games, noises are finally being made about examining our whole sporting system, a system which leaves our predominantly impoverished athletes and coaches trailing in the wake of the exuberant French and Italians, Dutch, Danes and Swiss.
"It's a changing world, all right," he concedes. "When a Pole wins the Finn class in sailing, you know the competition's getting tougher. I said before the Games began that I would be pleased if we would beat the medal tally we obtained in Barcelona. That now appears to have been an optimistic remark. It's been a great matter of disappointment for me, but even more for our athletes, who, clearly, are victims of our system. The preparation of elite athletes has moved on and we're going to have to catch up."
Reedie has, at times, been embarrassed for the British contingent in Atlanta. While much of the rest of the world has prepared professionally, we have appeared as, seemingly, one of the paupers of world sport.
"The Italian Olympic Committee, for example, is also their Sports Council," he explains. "I sit next to their president at IOC meetings. He has a staff of three and a half thousand people. I can hardly count his budget in pounds, let alone in lira. The French, too, have invested wisely, having put a lot of direct money into sport for a number of years. It is scandalous that our oarsmen, for example, each paid pounds 2,000 to represent their country. If we can't handle that out of our lottery revenue, then we don't deserve to be at the races."
So who is to blame, then? The BOA? The Government? The whole British attitude towards sport? Or perhaps a combination of them all?
"Well, we've got to stop being good losers and start getting stuck in," Reedie adds. "We're going to have to convince the paymasters of British sport that the rest of the world takes sport significantly more seriously than we do.
"I keep bumping into foreign sports ministers who hold much more important positions in their governments than ours, who have a whole host of different job briefs. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen the Danish sports minister, for example. He's got a constant smile on his face because his country has done well at the Games."
And what of the BOA? Perhaps his own organisation should enact a serious self- examination of their working. "From a BOA viewpoint, it's been as well resourced an Olympic team as we've ever had," he insists. "I have little doubt that we provided the best chance for our athletes as we could, like the holding camp in Tallahassee, for example, but there is only so much you can do with a system which is now lagging behind the rest of the world."
What is clear is that the likes of Craig Reedie, who this autumn will be seeking re-election as BOA chairman for another four years, recognises that we have now sunk to a low depth. He believes that the process for recovery has already begun, however, and that the blow to national sporting pride experienced in Atlanta can act as the catalyst for a sporting revolution.
"The Sports Council has distributed lottery money well for capital projects, but they only started two years ago, so it was never likely to make a difference in Atlanta. What we're going to have to do now is sit down, sport by sport, and look at the quality of our coaches, and the conditions our athletes are expected to live in. People aren't expecting to become millionaires, but they are entitled to be full-time athletes if they are then asked to compete on an even keel.
"This increased revenue must work in a non-bureaucratic system, where British sport all pulls together instead of remaining apart. The new Academy of Sport will obviously help here, and there's no reason why it should take long to build the necessary facilities. I fully expect the Government finally to sit up and take notice. Certainly, the likes of Virginia Bottomley and Ian Sproat are perfectly aware of our problems.
"If we don't all agree that we must make a serious effort to match the rest of the world, then we may as well put our blazers back on and treat the Olympics as if we are all going off on our holidays, in the hope that one or two naturally talented athletes somehow come through."
The next few months promises, then, to be a busy time for Reedie, the BOA and, they hope, the Department for National Heritage. Perhaps, I ask, as he is an independent financial adviser, he could be hired by the Government to arrange the necessary funding for British sport to haul us out of the Third World.
Reedie smiles at the thought. "Oh, believe me, I would be delighted to provide my services," he says. "Absolutely delighted."
As for the Games themselves, Reedie is refreshingly candid in admitting that the Atlanta organisation has left much to be desired.
"There are three crucial areas which the Olympics have to get right," he says. "On the positive side, the sports have to be good, and I doubt anyone will disagree that much of the sporting action here has been outstanding.
"But it's also important to ensure that our athletes are kept in good conditions and while their village, if a little crowded, has been good, we haven't exactly delivered them to competition as we should. Transport has produced real problems. When you get oarsmen sitting down on strike, then that is a serious worry.
"You also have to get the venues right, and this doesn't just mean the track and the pool but also parking conditions and even signs. Some of the signs have, to say the least, been complicated. The whole transport and delivery infrastructure has been confused. There seems to have been less co-operation between the organising committee and the city, and volunteers have been used who don't know their way around."
Reedie clearly has a great deal to get off his chest here, and it is pretty difficult to get a word in edge ways. One rightly senses that he has barely started. "I was down in Savannah for the sailing," he continues. "Normally, the men and the women in the Lasers and the Europes sail together, but this time they decided to sail them separately. Somehow this message didn't get through to the girl competitors, so they were bobbing and waiting to start. It's an incident you wouldn't want to happen."
I tell him of a few more incidents he wouldn't want to happen, like the British swimming squad being forced to sit on the floor at Hartsfield Airport for the best part of five hours waiting to be accredited. Reedie shakes his head, and repeats his regrets.
We then turn to the over-commercialisation of the Games, and the nationalistic broadcasts the NBC network have supplied America with and also parts of the rest of the world. "There are a lot of associated attractions which are very American in style," he argues. "It's fair to say that the American style is extremely market orientated.
"The quality of the feed NBC provides the international broadcast centre in Atlanta is outstanding. But what's shown to the American audience is very American. It looks for angles all the time rather than the story of the competition. I feel sorry for those countries who have to rely on the same NBC feed as America. I spoke to the secretary-general of one of the Caribbean islands, and he's very irritated because all his country is seeing are Americans finishing seventh. I think the IOC will have to look at ensuring that a more neutral packaged feed is made available."
It all sounds rather negative then. If this were a school report, Atlanta would receive a B- at most, and a "could do much better" comment. Reedie does not hide from the fact that the Olympics had fallen short of the heights experienced in previous Games.
"I've had a definite feeling that the Olympic movement has been on a roll for a number of years. Los Angeles, despite the boycott, was commercially successful, while Calgary, Seoul, Albertville, Barcelona and Lillehammer all did wonderfully well. Are we being naive to expect graphs to only go in one direction. It was all bound to stop sometime. There have been clear difficulties, from an organisational point of view and, of course, the bomb only made things worse."
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