Oxley overcomes those initial misgivings

The convoluted alphabet of British sport is about to be radically rewritten. Alan Hubbard reports
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The Independent Online
EVEN THE most avid student of sports politics can be forgiven for stifling a yawn when examining the government of the games we play. Never the most titillating of topics, it has become convoluted by a mouthful of acronyms and rarely attracts the public gaze unless, of course, a juicy spot of sleaze of Olympian proportions is exposed.

The main problem is that no one can really fathom out who does what for whom - and who actually is blowing the whistle. It certainly is not that cheeky chappie the Minister for Sport, much as he would like to be. He may talk a good fight but he has no real clout. Unlike most European counterparts he is not even in the Cabinet. Tony Banks admits he presides over a system of sports government that is confusing, unwieldy, anachronistic, fragmented and virtually unworkable. But, in his own words, he can do sod all about it because he does not possess a pair of scissors large enough or sharp enough to cut through the swathe of red tape.

The so-called corridors of power of British sport are, in fact, an overcrowded labyrinth without, it seems, clear directions showing the way forward. Apart from the ruling bodies of individual sports such as the FA, the RFU, the ECB, the BBB of C, the PFA and the LTA, there are no fewer than five separate Sports Councils. In ruling sport, it invariably takes more than two to quango.

Some have been tarted up with new labels, new logos and new images, as well as new head honchos. But essentially they remain shackled by bureaucracy, cursed with public indifference and the dreaded word "worthy" when they want to be, in popular terms, sexy. Only when it comes to grabbing a fistful of Lottery loot does anyone seem to care about them.

It does not help that sports government has swallowed a huge mouthful of alphabet soup. There is the UKSC (United Kingdom Sports Council), the ESC (English Sports Council plus their Scottish, Welsh and Ulster counterparts), the BOA (British Olympic Association), the CCPR (Central Council of Physical Recreation), the BST (British Sports Trust), the ISS (Institute of Sports Sponsorship) and the PSA (Professional Sports Association), together with a host of others including the SAF (Sports Aid Foundation), FSA (Foundation of Sport and the Arts) - and not forgetting the recently launched CBS (Confederation of British Sport). Even the Government has got into the act with the DCMS (Department of Culture, Media and Sport). You don't have to be dyslexic to feel dazed. Even those in the business say the body that gives rise to most confusion is the CCPR, founded in the mid- 30s and sounding as if it is a branch office of the old Soviet Union. It is Britain's oldest multi-sports organisation and claims to be the biggest of its kind in the world, a "parliament" for some 285 governing bodies.

Though now financed largely by the ESC it has maintained a significant degree of independence and has always been sport's most effective ginger group. But a year ago it was almost sunk in its own Salt Lake by the biggest financial fiddle in the history of our sporting administration.

Its high-profile, long-serving general secretary Peter Lawson was jailed for 18 months following a massive fraud which also involved his son Christopher, a CCPR employee who received two years. The Lawsons had been under investigation since 1995.

Peter Lawson was the complete antithesis of most sports administrators - innovative, media-friendly and openly ambitious in a world largely populated by grey tracksuits and blue blazers. A brilliant lobbyist and self-publicist, he turned out to be not only hands on but also hands in the till, much to the embarrassment of his chum and confidante Prince Philip, the CCPR president. Some pounds 300,000 disappeared from the CCPR's coffers and the Lawsons also siphoned off money raised at an 80th birthday testimonial dinner for Sir Stanley Matthews.

The scandal almost bankrupted the CCPR, who, in addition to the missing money, also faced pounds 350,000 in legal costs. It has taken an equally charismatic figure to put it back on its feet. The fact that it has regained solvency and respectability is very much due to the new chairman, David Oxley, the Oxford-educated rugger bugger who switched codes to help sweep away the cap-and-clogs image of rugby league as the game's chief executive.

The 62-year-old Yorkshireman is a charmer of the old school who sweet- talked CCPR members into reform. The executive committee of 22 is to be cut to a nine-strong board of directors and pressure will be stepped up on the government to keep its promises to sport, from the playing fields upwards.

The CCPR has always remained tight-lipped over the Lawson affair, but Oxley now admits: "It brought us to our knees, but we have picked up the pieces and survived our most difficult period. It was all highly embarrassing but we are now back on a level financial footing and know where we are going. British sport needs a strong, vigorous body like the CCPR to be an independent voice. Others have to be wary of the government, but we don't. We can be aggressive when necessary and we have an open line to Parliament.

"The important thing is that we all work together because I believe we complement each other. Sport has never had a more important profile. It is high on the agenda of a populist government. We need to achieve an effective, consolidated lobby."

Oxley sees a leaner, fitter CCPR leading the campaign for such solidarity. His organisation, which represents a range of interests from pigeon-racing to football, embracing 150,000 clubs and 30 million participants has always staged a controversial annual conference which, of late, has given the Minister for Sport a platform for slagging off his betes noires. Last year it was the CCPR itself because of a dearth of female and ethnic minority representation.

This is something that Oxley is at present addressing and this year's conference, in November, will be devoted to the question of social exclusion in sport. By then the CCPR will not only have a new image but possibly a new name. Oxley agrees that the 64-year-old label is outdated. "It has served us well as one of our main areas is recreation but not having sport in the title is a bit of a drawback. It is something which is exercising our minds."

So the days of the CCPR seem numbered. However, if finding a suitable alternative proves not quite as simple as ABC it can always add Scrabble to its list of sporting protectorates.