Oakes put out by Lottery 'insult'

Simon Turnbull reports on Britain's frustrated athlete who is sacrificing a record
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The Independent Online
For Judy Oakes, the European Cup in Munich next weekend ought to have been a celebration of her worth to British athletics. Her national service in the competition stretches back two decades - twice as long as Linford Christie's - to the 1977 final in Helsinki, in which Irena Szewinska won the women's 200m and Valeriy Borzov finished third in the men's 100m.

In Munich she would have become the first athlete to reach a double figure of appearances. But instead of putting the shot for Britain, and putting herself into a special place in the record books, Oakes will spend Saturday and Sunday at home in Croydon, frustratedly kicking her heels and lamenting her lot as an undervalued second-class citizen of the British athletics squad.

Like Phylis Smith, who withdrew from the women's 4 x 400m relay squad on Tuesday, Oakes has declined her invitation because of the National Lottery award she has been granted via the British Athletic Federation. Her decision has only been delayed because the letter informing her of her selection did not reach her until Friday, four days after the team was announced. "I will be writing back to turn down the invitation," she said. "It's been a hard decision to make but I've been backed into a corner once too often. Something has got to change."

At 39, Oakes has fought long and hard for the recognition due to an athlete who happens to excel in what, as she concedes, "is not considered to be a glamour event". The scars of that battle have contributed towards her particular Munich declaration. "I'm not happy about the lack of respect I've been given by the BAF and the fact that the number of throws allowed in the European Cup has been cut from six to four," she admitted. The prime cause of her protest, however, is the size of her Lottery grant.

The reigning Commonwealth champion, runner-up in the European Cup last year and 11th in the Olympic final, Oakes has been allocated pounds 2,635. "I'm disgusted," she said. "And it's not just me and Phylis Smith. A lot of athletes below elite level - below the likes of Christie, Edwards, Gunnell and Black - are very unhappy. We're getting less because so much of the lottery money is going to the BAF for coaching and development. I thought television and sponsorship money was supposed to cover that.

"We thought the whole idea of the lottery grants was to help the athletes - to stop the situation where people were losing dole money when competing for their country abroad, and so that others didn't have to work from nine to five and somehow fit their training in on top. I'll still have to do a full day's work and then go up to Crystal Palace to train from 5pm to 10pm every night. When the Russians, the Chinese and Ukrainians heard about it they laughed. They said, 'We'd look after you'. But I love competing for my country. My record shows that."

It does indeed. No athlete has made more appearances for Britain than Oakes. The World Indoor Championships in Paris in March was her 77th. No athlete can match the Croydon Harrier's collection of national titles either: 38 at the last count. Yet the dispersal of Lottery grants has become such a lottery in itself. Oakes has received less than a third of the pounds 10,000 Stephen Hayward, a shot putter outside the British team, has been allocated by the Scottish Sports Council.

"There has got to be a serious revamp," Oakes said. "It's not just a case of an individual bleating. I don't want everything on a platter. I've never had it that way. But I'm ranked in the top 20 in the world and I'm getting under pounds 3,000 from the BAF, whereas Scottish and Welsh athletes on the fringe of the British team are getting pounds 7,000, pounds 8,000, pounds 9,000, pounds 10,000. I feel so strongly about it I'm sacrificing a record appearance in the European Cup. It has to be done. I've had 20 years of, 'Next time it'll be better.' It's my small way of saying that it's got to change, but I don't want to make this a personal thing.

"I'm in a position to do something because I've been around for so long and there's not a lot more they can do to me. But the younger athletes don't want to risk losing their places long term. A good dozen have come up to me and said, 'I don't know what to do. I need the money but it's an insult'. The trouble is the majority of people will be forced to accept it. But that doesn't make it right."

Phylis Smith, of course, has not just refused to accept her place in the European Cup team. She has rejected her grant, pounds 2,000, and threatened to hang up her spikes. Oakes, however, has no plans to make her pointed absence from the shot circle in Munich next weekend a permanent departure from the international ring. "I can understand why Phylis says she's quitting," said the veteran who was a European Cup campaigner 10 years before Linford Christie, "but I won't consider packing in. I love the sport too much. I'll keep going while I'm still British No 1 and still in the world top 20. I love competing for my country but I feel I have to vote with my feet because this Lottery situation is such a complete disaster. I mean, can we afford to lose athletes like Phylis Smith?"

That calculation will be as pertinent as the totting up of team points over two days of reckoning for British athletics in Munich.

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