Tories' story fails to convince: Stephen Goodwin on disquiet in the Commons over the state of disarray which typifies British sport

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THE OCCASION seemed ripe for a Sebastian Coe comeback - the first Commons debate on sport volunteered by a Conservative government, and the party having in its ranks an Olympian whose status helped him win the none-too-safe seat of Falmouth and Camborne.

But the runner and former vice- chairman of the Sports Council turned MP was not present for yesterday's day-long debate. A spokesman said Coe was 'away on parliamentary business'.

It being Friday, most other MPs were away too. When the sports minister, Robert Key, opened the debate it would not have been possible to field many more than five a side. Peter Brooke, who replaced David Mellor as Cabinet's sport's voice, did not put in an appearance.

Key praised everybody with any connection with sport, appealed for young blood to join administrative bodies, denounced doping and renewed the Government's pledge of support for Manchester's Olympic bid.

Bryan Davies, Labour, offered a blunt appraisal of Britain's under- performance in most sports. Wimbledon was the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world yet the country was no nearer achieving tennis excellence than 30 years ago, he said.

'There is no area of national sport, and certainly not major team games, where we can be satisfied with our overall performance,' Davies went on. 'There are anxieties about the technical excellence of the English football team, and about the Scottish side; our Test cricket performances have fallen considerably below standard, and although England reigns supreme in the home championships in rugby, the moment we clash with teams from the southern hemisphere we are obliged to give way.

'One cannot pretend that the nation regards the achievement overall of the British Olympic team as being remarkably outstanding, ' he added.

Davies saw part of the answer in enabling youngsters to pursue sporting excellence in university or college, alongside their education, but stopped short of the quasi-professional approach of American universities.

Other MPs rode their own hobby-horses, most drove a whole team. The Maastricht rebel John Carlisle, MP for Luton North, urged John Major to use his new MCC membership to protest at the 'rather foolish and silly' omission of David Gower, while a succession of MPs complained of the difficulties their local football clubs faced in moving to all-seat stadiums.