Games heroes to get 'people's gong'

Government brokers compromise, with revived British Empire Medal to honour Team GB's top athletes at London 2012

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Britain's gold-medal winners will not be ignored by the honours system under a compromise deal struck after the outcry sparked by the revelation that victorious Olympians would not automatically receive a gong from the Queen. The Independent on Sunday understands that those who miss out on major honours, from knighthoods to MBEs, will instead be given the British Empire Medal (BEM), which has been revived by David Cameron after a 10-year absence to coincide with the Queen's Jubilee.

However, there are also moves to "manage expectations" about Jessica Ennis becoming a dame in the New Year's Honours and Sir Chris Hoy being elevated to the House of Lords.

The BEM, known as "the people's gong", is usually given to those whose work benefits charities and local communities. Unlike the award of more distinguished medals, it does not involve a visit to Buckingham Palace, but can be presented by a local dignitary or even be sent through the post.

A sporting precedent for awarding the BEM was set in June when Terry Downes, Britain's oldest surviving former world boxing champion, was given one. The BEM is awarded by local lord-lieutenants, appointed by the Queen to represent the monarch in every county in the UK. They were among those who spoke out against the idea that Olympic medallists should automatically receive an honour.

Awarding the BEM would seek to defuse the row over new rules designed to limit the number of honours available, which require recipients to "give back" to their sport and community. The Government was stung by suggestions that it had "snubbed" Olympians, and insisted that an exception would be made for outstanding performances at the London Games.

Baroness Grey-Thompson, who sits on the sports honours committee chaired by Lord Coe, said: "It seems they [Whitehall] have been trying to cut back on giving civil servants knighthoods and things, and now they have run into a bit of a sticky wicket with sport. I know there are a lot of people saying that Chris Hoy should become a lord and Jess Ennis a dame, but it is time to manage expectations about that." This week the Public Administration Select Committee, which has been looking into the honours system, is expected to call for an end to a "Buggins's turn" approach to the awarding of honours, insisting they should be given on merit, whether to sporting figures, celebrities or civil servants. During the inquiry, Paul Flynn, a Labour MP, criticised what "seems to be a completely arbitrary system". He said: "Many people are worthy of honours; few get them."

The Association of Lord-Lieutenants told the committee: "We regret any knee-jerk award or removal of honour, especially in response to media clamour. In the past, it has been disappointing to see an entire sports team appointed MBE for transient success when those who have, unremunerated, given years of service have much higher hurdles to leap before they can hope [for] an award."

How we broke the story

The row over athletes' honours erupted after The IoS revealed that tough new rules, demanded by David Cameron, had blocked a repeat of the honours windfall after Beijing. Quotas published in November allow for one sporting knighthood or damehood, four CBEs, 20 OBEs and 38 MBEs. But No 10 insisted there were no quotas, and sources said the Prime Minister wanted to see every gold medallist recognised.