The State Secretary denied the charge that, 14 months after deciding to site the UK Sports Institute in Sheffield, the Government and national sporting bodies had come up with a body with no head. Sheffield, he said, would have a central function in the network, providing "quality control" for the whole operation and specialising in sports science, medicine, research and administration.
It will also have a wide range of top-class sporting facilities, but in this respect it will be no different to the other named regional sites: Gateshead, Manchester, Holme Pierrepont near Nottingham, Loughborough University, Bedford, Bisham Abbey, Crystal Palace, Bath University and Southampton University.
The official guiding principle in all this is "taking service to the athletes, not the other way round". In short, the exact opposite of John Major's original vision of a brand new, super-duper centre on the lines of the Australian Sports Institute in Canberra.
Smith rejected the idea that the new structure had been taken in another direction by the Labour Government for political reasons. "This is sport driven, not politics driven," he said. "We have spent a lot of time talking to the governing bodies of sport in this country and asking them exactly what they want. But I think John Major did a very great service by introducing the idea in the first place and ensuring that Lottery funding was flowing into the sport to enable this to happen. I believe this new network will be a real benefit to our athletes so they can go out and beat the world."
The World Class Performance programme, the elite end of national Lottery funding for British competitors, is geared to getting Britain into the top 10 of the medals table at the 2004 Athens Olympics, which is likely to require at least seven gold medals. The relative failure of Britain's performance at the 1996 Olympics - where only Steven Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent won gold and the country finished 36th in the medals table - added impetus to Major's project, and this new set-up, coupled with substantial Lottery funding for individual athletes, appears to be creating the ideal conditions for success.
Among those endorsing the new initiatives yesterday were the European 100 metres champion Darren Campbell and David Tanner, performance director for British rowing. "We wouldn't have been able to come on a trip like this before Lottery funding," Tanner said. "It has made an absolutely fantastic difference. And the new structure will make it all sustainable. We still need more facilities, but the will is there, and at last we have the money to do it."
Smith confirmed that the Government was committed to funding the new network of centres for at least 8 to 10 years, which means that the selected sites, many of which have been chosen because they already have substantial facilities already, will be able to push on with their plans to upgrade and improve what they have.
The centre at Bath University will now submit plans for another pounds 10m of Lottery funding for an indoor running track and multi-purpose sports hall, along with new synthetic pitches and tennis courts.
Steve Baddeley, chief executive of the Badminton Association of England, spoke for many organisations with his reaction to the announcement. "There's a sense of relief," he said. "This is long overdue."