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OLYMPIC GAMES: Challenge for athletes as UK Sport drops the cash baton

BRITISH ATHLETICS was yesterday coming to terms with a bizarre windfall from its Olympic successes in Athens as UK Sport announced that the number of elite performers receiving Lottery funding for the next four years would be cut by more than half.

UK Athletics will see its financial support reduced from pounds 8.3m to pounds 7.2m, with the total of competitors receiving financial aid dropping from 82 to 40. This will constitute a challenge for Dave Collins, the new performance director of UK Athletics, when he takes up his post in March.

Athletics had set a target of between five and seven medals in Athens. They earned four - a bronze from Kelly Sotherton, and golds from the men's sprint relay team and Kelly Holmes in the 800 and 1500m.

"We are disappointed at receiving less funding," Dave Moorcroft, chief executive of UK Athletics, said, "particularly as one of the stated aims of the British Olympic Association is to get into the top five nations in the world by the time of the Beijing Games, and in Athens we were either third in terms of medals or fifth on points. So we feel we've done our bit, and to be rewarded with less money is disappointing."

UK Sport has announced a pounds 75m funding package for Olympic sports in the build-up to Beijing 2008 - an overall pounds 5m increase - but are now financing fewer medal hopefuls and also targeting sports with the best chances of winning medals in four years' time.

The fact is, however, that more British athletes won gold in Athens than in any previous Games since those in Los Angeles in 1984. And the benefit to the sport of the victories earned by Holmes and the men's relay team have been, in terms of profile, enormous.

"The medals we expected we didn't get, and the medals we didn't expect we got. That is the unpredictable nature of this sport," Moorcroft said, adding that, had the numbers of competitors eligible for Lottery funding been at its new level before the Athens Games, it would have been "quite likely" that Sotherton, who made huge, late improvements after switching from long jump to heptathlon in 2003, would not have been supported.

The other big loser was gymnastics, which saw its funding reduced from pounds 3.6m to pounds 1.8m, and its competitors supported from 14 to eight. The sport had a target of three medals in Athens, but failed to win any.