The forgotten what, where and why

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The Independent Online
The British Sports Academy has been part of our lives for so long now that if you narrow your eyes and peer really hard you can see it rising resplendent amid verdant acres of tracks and pitches, pools and courts. Four ivy-clad towers, each topped with a replica Wembley dome, stand square at each corner of the proud edifice from whose cloisters ring the strident voices of sporting specimens fit to make the world quake...

Actually, I can't see a thing but, then, I'm not a vision-driven politician. They can not only see it, feel it and smell the NHS embrocation but they can have bitter arguments about the curriculum. Not only that; they can persuade the entire country to join in.

The fact that the BSA, if I may term it thus, is slowly transforming itself from a vision into an hallucination did not stop the Government announcing last weekend that they were scrapping the previous administration's plans - which had hardly progressed beyond the head-scratching phase - and were going to produce a set of criteria of their own.

Cynics might say that this was just a delaying ploy to stick the idea on the back burner and quietly turn off the gas. But before they shuffled it out of sight they couldn't resist the haughty comment to the effect that our main team games had the wherewithal to fend for themselves and that the pounds 100m academy would concentrate more on individual sports so that buckets of gold medals could be brought back from future Olympic Games.

The force of reaction was staggering and resounded way beyond the boundaries of sport. After allowing for the fact that we are deep into the silly season and that political pundits are close-fielding for any government slip-ups, the outcry was still extraordinary and, with John Major thundering in from the pavilion end, the controversy spread to the front pages and the leader columns.

Chris Smith, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, was swift to do a little back-tracking in order to restore team games to their rightful place in the scheme of things. He had said at the beginning of the week: "We inherited a bit of a shambles." The exchange of one shambles for another did nothing to placate the pack.

Not even in those happy days when roasting the England football manager was such a popular pastime did we have occasions when the entire nation felt so free to join in and I can't recall when British sport was ever so severely pilloried for its inadequacies. Stories of apparent greater importance took second place to an exhibition of sport- bashing and it was the England cricket team's misfortune that their hapless batsmen walked into the wake of this fusillade of crap.

It may have been my imagination but on BBC TV on Thursday night the newscaster's voice registered a graver tone when he was reporting on the England innings than when he announced that hospital waiting lists had become the longest in history. It would not have been at odds with the national mood.

No one who has for many years championed the cause of sport and lobbied persistently for it be properly respected for the contribution it can make to the lives and well-being of the nation ought to complain about the subject occupying the centre stage. But the tenor of the debate was concerned more with the red-herring this academy has become than with the far more straightforward solutions available.

If it wasn't for the Lottery it is unlikely we would ever had heard of the proposed academy in the first place. The very name springs from John Major's love of cricket and first surfaced when Shane Warne began his lifetime mission to destroy English cricket. Warne is a product of the Australian Cricket Academy and, thought the then Prime Minister, it would be beneficial for us to have such an establishment - particularly as the Lottery profits were burning holes in a few pockets and there were few creative ideas about how to be seen helping sport without the obvious and therefore unglamorous act of giving it to the sports and sportsmen who needed it.

The academy idea was then broadened and when our Olympic Games team returned from Atlanta last year without much gold for Downing Street to show off, it was proposed to build a centre of excellence that would ensure an endless supply of sporting heroes. Tenders for the siting and operation of this dream establishment were invited but so vague was the briefing that they were no nearer selection when Chris Smith uprooted the goalposts last week.

Now we're back to where we started and the Millennium Dome will be starting to rust before the academy gets off the drawing board. We don't know where it is going to be, what it is going to be and, more importantly, why it is going to be.

The sadness is that British sport has no voice to protest with. The chairman of the Sports Council once had that role but the strength of that body has been so diffused that we are starved of someone who could stop the Government blundering any further along this path. Quite simply, the main reason we are in this era of low sporting achievement is that we've lost the full harvest of at least two generations of school-children and that our sporting facilities are in the Third World class.

How can a man charged with ministerial responsibility for sport at Cabinet level talk blithely about some academy in the sky when he knows that, as from last week, south-east England has neither a running track nor a swimming pool of Olympic standard?

Smith claimed on Friday that the Government's aim was to ensure that the opportunities and facilities are there for all our children and young people to develop their talents. That's why, he says, they are reversing the policy of selling off school playing fields. The reverse of selling is buying - I look forward to news of the first school playing fields to be purchased. I also await the release of over pounds 2bn allocated to sport by the lottery but tied up by Treasury bureaucracy.

These are immediate and effective ways in which the Government can help sport, whose organisational bodies are perfectly capable of improving the situation without any interference. An academy that offers specialist skills in coaching, facilities, sports medicine, nutrition and research would be fine; but it is still a vague proposition that is not likely to produce results for a decade or more.

The nation has always had better sporting success than it deserves for the practical contribution it makes. What did we ever do for Seb Coe, Linford Christie and all our heroes of the past? Precious little; but at least they had their interests aroused while they were at school.

Nothing has been done to restore school sport to its former strength. Sad to think that the only positive step that Smith's department has taken so far is to set up the Football Task Force a body charged with looking after the interests of that sport's fans. And even the impact of that was diluted by the appointment of David Mellor as its chairman. Tony Banks gets the blame but it is not entirely his fault. He thought his boss said "Tusk Force".

God save sport from politicians.

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