Major snag hits the national flutter

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The Independent Online
To a nation that didn't have a gold medal to scratch its backside with, John Major's breathless arrival on a podium in Downing Street on Wednesday to decree the building of an academy of sport fit to produce the Olympic heroes of the future was joyous news. And when the Prime Minister followed this up by whacking down pounds 100m of Lottery money to pay for it, there were fits of swooning and sobbing to be seen everywhere. Even the strongest shot-putter fought to control her lower lip.

"We are a sports-loving nation and I believe we have undervalued sport for too long," Mr Major said solemny.

Let us pause for a moment. There are two questions that need to be asked immediately. Who are the second "we" he refers to? The first "we" is obviously the nation and, since he correctly identifies us as sports-loving, the second "we" must be a separate bunch of people altogether - and they can be none other than the pasty-faced lot who have ruled us for so long and have professed interest in sport only when there's a chance to be pictured with a superstar or there's a quid or two to be earned from flogging a playing field. It is as well to make this clear in case any ordinary citizen is feeling guilty about his part in the undervaluing.

But there's a second, more serious, question. Since when has the Prime Minister possessed the right to dole out lottery money whenever the fancy takes him?

I am delighted that pounds 100m has been allocated to assist our sportsmen - it won't be enough, though it is a good start - but I was under the impression that independent bodies had been set up to distribute the proceeds of the national flutter in a fair and unbiased way. I'm not sure if we'd dutifully trot along to buy our tickets on a Saturday if we thought we were merely giving Mr Major a chance to play Father Christmas with the money.

What if he wakes up tomorrow morning and decides to buy a couple of aircraft carriers or another batch of Churchill letters? Back in the 80s, when the Lottery was but a pleasant dream, those of us who were badgering the government to set one up had the clearest vision of how the proceeds could be used to further the cultural and sporting life of the nation. The government, under Mrs Thatcher at that time, were reluctant to show even remote interest.

A persistent man called Denis Vaughan, however, organised a formidable lobby. Vaughan, an Australian-born orchestral conductor, had seen the benefits a national lottery had brought to his native country - the Sydney Opera House was built on the proceeds - and couldn't figure out why, with the exception of Albania, the UK was the only country in Europe not to have one.

He recruited the great and the good to his vigorous cause and found many a lofty voice to champion it. When Lord Birkett led a debate in the House of Lords on the subject, objections were made to the raising of funds from gambling. Lord Donaldson replied that he shared the view of the former Arts Council chairman, Lord Goodman, that he would take money from anywhere for the arts, including a brothel.

The foundation of National Knocking Shops Plc may still be a little way off but the lottery is now an integral part of our lives and, although it has brought the odd curse or two, many are its bounties. When the government at last decided to introduce it, Vaughan was brusquely elbowed aside and with him went most of the format he recommended such as that it should be run as a charity by a non-profit-making organisation and that government fingers should be kept far away from the cash.

It is not this column's place to discuss how vital it was to have a firm like Camelot running the Lottery at vast expense nor have we the space to discuss the 12.5 per cent tax the Treasury takes. It hasn't been easy, either, to discern a meaningful pattern in the distribution of the cash. But we can vouch for the fact that what has been hailed as Mr Major's initiative is no more than what the pioneers of the Lottery had in mind 10 years ago. The slight difference is that Denis Vaughan saw the provision of sports and arts facilities in the inner cities as a way of providing opportunity and ridding the young of the aimlessness that bedevils their lives.

Mr Major appears only to see sporting heroes emerging from the production line but, to be fair, he does acknowledge the remedial work that needs to be done in the schools and among the youth whose sporting opportunities have been few. Only time will tell if he realises how much persuasion, and financial persuasion at that, of disaffected teachers will be needed to lay the vital foundations for the top of his pyramid.

The size of the task was demonstrated on the day of Mr Major's announcement when swimmer Paul Palmer, our first medallist in Atlanta, spoke of the trials of preparing to be a champion in Britain, of how he had to train in a pool half the Olympic size and live off his parents. He is proud of the silver medal he gained but it is hardly a prize to which we can feel we have made a contribution. Our sportsmen need help and they need it early in their development.

The building of Mr Major's planned academy will be under way by January and I trust that by then a structure will have been created to ensure that the best will reach it and not just the most fortunate. Neither do we want this academy to be a branch of government, answerable to the politicians, with targets to meet and gold medals to be guaranteed.

The spectre of East Germany still hangs over the Olympics. The power of the state represented in sport; the total concentration of resources, including the scientific use of drugs, into an athletic programme. That was the most gross attempt ever to give a country a feel-good factor through sport. I suspect they forced the population to let the athletes have their meat ration so that every person could feel they had a steak in the Olympic team.

We can take pride in the accomplishments of our sportsmen but we have no right to consider ourselves complimented by their success unless we play a more practical part at all levels. The Lottery has brought us the chance to achieve that and the Prime Minister has at last recognised the fact.

He sees us building a "ladder of opportunity" in sport, stretching down to primary school level. We can all identify with that image and hope that, unlike many other ladders of opportunity in this country, this one is not short of rungs in the bottom half.

Olympic officials are quite right to frown at Linford Christie renting out his eyeballs as an advertising site. It was a blinking cheek but by the time they were able to react the worldwide publicity had already been gained.

It was a bright idea by sponsors Puma, whose logo adorned the blue contact lenses that Christie has been wearing, and they can hardly be accused of compromising the true meaning of the Olympics; the International Olympic Committee did that a long time ago. Puma's only concern was the amount of exposure they could get. I understand that in order to remind Christie to maximise the message they had an electronic instruction implanted inside his eyelids. It read: "Keep your bloody eyes open."