Olympic Games : Foot soldiers on

As a British swimmer seeks reward for a grim financial fight, basketball's kings are pursuing greater prizes; Guy Hodgson meets an Olympian who has kept afloat with little support
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The Independent Online
The scene was the British Olympic trials in Sheffield and the mood was quiet satisfaction. The medal hopes had come through the first- past-the-post system and the selectors had reason to feel smug that the prophesies of calamity had proved wrong. Then Caroline Foot intruded on the congratulations.

The 31-year-old York swimmer had qualified for Atlanta in the last race, the women's 100 metres butterfly, but had no intention of savouring the achievement quietly. Forgoing a warm-down swim and still dripping with water she also oozed indignation about the funding of British swimming.

"It's a disgrace," she said, her anger reinforced by an 18-month lack of response to her own request for a grant. "The people who really deserve the money are not getting it. There is a hole in the system of support."

Foot would put herself well and truly in that hole. An international since 1981, she was forced to retire four years ago partly through lack of finance. She survives on the money she makes as a swimming teacher, her training expenses a drain that is not blocked by sponsorship.

"I realise there's not a bottomless pit," she said several weeks after her original outburst, "but something's wrong. The elite get money, which I wouldn't argue with, they deserve it, but those just below them get very little. It forces people out of sport and some of them could have been Olympic medallists."

Foot does not put herself in that bracket - "It would take a miracle" - but the fact she clocked a personal best this year of 61.82sec at an age when she ought to be on the decline implies she might have found more in her twenties.

"Just pounds 50 would have been nice a year ago," she said. "Something to say: 'We haven't forgotten you. We know you're there. Keep on training.' I understand the problems people at Sports Aid Foundation are up against. They think someone of 30 and still trying to swim is just having a go. They prefer to give money to younger people. If they do, fine, but it would have been nice if they had written to me."

They did after she made it to Atlanta, enclosing a cheque of pounds 175, something she believes they got in the wrong order. Just as her own timing, career wise, seems slightly awry. She made it to the Seoul Games, retired when she missed Barcelona at what should have been her peak and, on Tuesday, will become the second oldest swimmer to represent Britain in an Olympics after Jean Hill.

"My memories about Seoul are blurred," she said. "I have to take the photographs out. The whole thing was so big and overwhelming, 10,000 people round the pool making an incredible noise. I was just wide-eyed, walking around trying to take everything in. Adrian Moorhouse's gold medal made it very special for the whole team."

It was an experience that demands a repeat fix but when she finished third in the trial in 1992 there seemed little point going on. It was only when she got back in the water for her coaching qualifications that she found her appetite could sustain the 30,000 metres a week training again.

Even then it was only half-hearted until May last year when she was confronted with the belief she might make it to Atlanta. "I did 62.58 in the Grand Prix final which was the best since the previous Olympics trials. That was the turning point, I really felt I could make the team. Before that I was just having fun."

Her qualification has put her in the less-than-glamorous position of being the oldest head among the participants. Sarah Hardcastle made it to Los Angeles in 1984 but is only 27. When it comes to age, Foot is out on her own.

"It gives newspapers some way to describe me," she said, "but I'm just a member of the team. I don't go around thinking I'm the eldest since Jean. Having said that, every Games is a learning experience, it can overwhelm you. If people want to talk they're welcome.

"Being 31 isn't necessarily a barrier, it's an advantage for some people. You have experience behind you, an authority, and you cope with situations better. You know what you want out of swimming, you know whether you should be in it."

The downside, financial and social? "I believe the sacrifices are worth it. You're doing what you want to. If you preferred to be doing something else you'd probably do it.

"I know money's tight in Britain and I can't say I've got the answers but the problem needs looking at. We haven't got so many good medal prospects in this country that we can afford to lose them through neglect."