Man of Steele key to Britain's progress

London 2012: Former rugby player's fight with cancer helps him to keep the political games in perspective
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The Independent Online

You might say John Steele has had an eventful baptism as one of the prime movers and shakers in British sport. When he took up his post on 1 July last year it was quickly apparent that this was an innovative appointment. Here was someone who actually spoke the language of the playing field.

Five days later he was in the Trafalgar Square crowd saluting London's Olympic victory. "I think my hair is still standing on end," he says. The very next day he had to evacuate himself and his staff when one of the four terrorist bombs exploded on a bus in Tavistock Square, around the corner from his office. Five months later, he was diagnosed with throat cancer, returning to his desk only last week after an intensive course of chemo- and radiotherapy.

It was shortly before becoming UK Sport's chief executive, at base camp on a three-week trek up Mount Everest to raise money for Sport Against Racism and a rugby injuries charity that Steele, a non-smoker, first became aware of an uncomfortable "tickle" in his throat. Then, in November, unable to shake off a lingering cold and with a glandular swelling, he learned he had cancer. It is a measure of the impact he had already made that get-well letters from the Prime Minister and Lord Coe were among the first to drop on the doorstep of his Northamptonshire home.

There is another scan to come this week, but he is hopeful he is now in the clear and can get on with the job of driving through vital reforms from the engine room and overseeing the new funding strategy which he believes will make 2012 the most memorable of sporting years.

The former Royal Artillery captain and England A fly-half, who played and coached at Northampton before turning around the financial fortunes of the Saints as executive director, returns at a time when the profile of the Government-backed agency has never been more spotlighted. It now has the prime responsibility for orchestrating Britain's anti-doping programme and procuring world-class events, as well as being the conduit for Lottery funding for top-level sport and distributing the new £3m Olympics-targeted windfall from the Chancellor.

Steele's renewed presence, too, will be instrumental in continuing to repair the relationship with the British Olympic Association, which threatened to impede the path towards 2012.

The Government once harboured hopes that the BOA could be enticed under the umbrella of their favoured sports quango, but even before their ill-starred attempts to block the election of Colin Moynihan as chair this was a non-starter. However, a new harmony has emerged.

"There was a little bit of elbow movement earlier but there is now clearly a mutuality of interests which is working very well," Moynihan said last week. Steele concurs: "This is no time for turf wars. Everyone has to pull together for 2012. We have to make sure we rise above any squabbling."

Steele, 41, adds: "This is probably the most exciting time ever for British sport and my own time away has been useful in one respect because I have been able to take an analytical look and come back with more ideas and a bit more knowledge. We have moved from an organisation which was perhaps more towards the periphery of sport to become far more central, although of course it is the athletes who are of primary importance.

"But we are now in a better position to give them the support they need. Of course, distributing money is easy; what we have to ensure is that with every pound we maximise value."

Steele oversees a staff of 90. "We have some first-class people but we have to improve just as sport has to improve because 2012 is once in a lifetime for all of us. It is no use in 2013 saying 'Oh, we could have done that a bit differently'. "

One of the major criticisms of UK Sport is that by necessity it is beholden to the Government. "Look, we have to face up to the fact that our sponsor body is the Government so our independence is limited. But I believe we are in a position to fight our corner and exert influence when we need to."

He believes, like Moynihan, that finishing fourth in the 2012 medals table is feasible. "Who in sport doesn't want to be ambitious? Let's put pressure on ourselves, and go for gold."

Steele, who has seven-year-old twin daughters with gymnastic aspirations, is clearly a man of some fortitude. Next year he plans to cycle across Vietnam and into Cambodia raising money for the small, Birmingham-based charity Get Ahead, in aid of head and neck cancer. "It is when you come through something like this that you realise how lucky you are to be involved in sport, and with sports people. I doubt if there is any other area of life which is more genuinely supportive."