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House of Commons

Friday 10 November 2000

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

9.34 am

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Chris Smith): There is a tendency in this country to exaggerate the significance for our sport of the last set of results. We win a test match, and the press writes up our cricketers as world beaters. We lose at football, and the mood swings to the other extreme. It is good to be able to report that we are holding the debate at a time when there is more considered and justified optimism about the future of British sport than there has been for a long time past.

That hopeful outlook has, of course, in part been brought about by the excellent performance of our Olympic and Paralympic teams in Sydney. Britain won 28 Olympic medals, including 11 gold medals. It was our best performance since 1920, and better even than the "Chariots of Fire" Olympic games in Paris in 1924. Our Paralympic team won 131 medals, including 41 gold, to finish second in the global medal table. I am sure that the House will wish to join me in congratulating all our Olympic and Paralympic competitors. The medal winners deserve particular praise, but we should also acknowledge all those who posted new personal best performances in Sydney or beat other sporting records. We should not forget the coaches and the performance directors, who prepared our athletes to produce their peak performance at exactly the right time.

I want also to congratulate the British Olympic Association and the British Paralympic Association. Winning performances in competition need strong administrative support behind the scenes. There has been widespread and justified praise for the efficient and professional way in which they organised their teams. The support that our competitors received was much envied by other countries taking part.

We have done well in Sydney, and there have been other good sporting performances this year. Winning the test series against the West Indies was a highlight, as was Lennox Lewis's world heavyweight boxing title. In other sports, Yvonne McGregor became women's cycling pursuit world champion, Cassie Campion the women's squash world open champion, Yvette Baker was world orienteering champion, and we gained honours in the rowing world championships in the men's eights and the women's lightweight coxless pairs. However, we cannot be complacent. British sport can do better.

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Make no mistake about it: sporting success is important. It lifts morale and brings the country together. Most important, it captures the imagination of our young people and encourages them to swap playstations for playing fields.

Let us look to the future. Our competitors surpassed our expectations in Sydney, and we want them to do even better at the Commonwealth games in 2002 and at the next Olympics and Paralympics in Athens. That is a tall order. As I have said, our Paralympians were second in the medal table, and there is only one way to improve on that. Our Olympic team will have its work cut out to improve on its impressive 10th place in the table. However, that must be one of our aims over the next 10 years.

Our main hope for the future is the young talent that is now emerging. One fine example among many is Lloyd Upsdell, who at 17 won two gold medals and one silver medal at the Paralympic games, and is a great prospect for the future. A number of other young competitors did not win medals this time round but did exceptionally well and have demonstrated rich potential for future championships across a range of sports. Examples might be Christian Malcolm, who was fifth in the 200 metres at the Sydney Olympics and who is only 21; Joe Glanfield, who also is only 21, and Nick Rogers, who is 23, who came fourth in the 470 class in sailing; and Stuart Bowman, who is 25 and came fourth in the canoe slalom.

There are many young athletes who did not go this time but hold real hope for the future. There is the exceptional Mark Lewis-Francis, the 18-year-old sprinter who qualified for Sydney but chose not to go this time in order to concentrate on the world junior championships in Chile. He and his advisers felt that that was best for his long-term development. It paid off in the short term too, as he won two gold medals at the world juniors, in the 100 metres and in the 4 x 100 metres relay.

All of these emerging sports stars benefit from funding from the national lottery through programmes such as the world class performance programme. In total, in the three years leading up to Sydney, our Olympic and Paralympic sportsmen and sportswomen have received more than £60 million in lottery awards from the UK programme. In addition, the home country sports councils also provide lottery support to our top athletes in home country-based sports through the Sport England world class programme, Wales's elite Cymru, and Scotland's and Northern Ireland's talented athlete programmes.

Our medal winners and others have acknowledged the enormous difference that funding has made to them. They can concentrate on training, instead of having to spend time fundraising. Many are now able to be full-time athletes and do not have to fit in their preparation around another job. Teams were able to train in conditions similar to those in which they would compete at Sydney: for example, our highly successful sailing squad derived enormous benefit from being able to train in Sydney harbour.

It is clear that the support we have provided through the world class programmes must continue if we are to build on the success at Sydney; that is why I have guaranteed that the funding will at least be maintained through the next Olympic cycle. We shall continue to invest in the success of our top competitors. That was confirmed by the sports cabinet on 6 October, at which it

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was agreed to continue the world class performance programme at least at its current level of funding. That will provide UK sport with £100 million over the next four years for the UK element of the programme, and provide the long-term assurance that sports have been seeking to enable them to plan with more confidence about the overall budget available over the period.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Everyone will endorse and applaud the Secretary of State's comments, but can I make a specific proposal on how to bring forward young talents and ensure that they can benefit from the regime? The other day, I spoke to a young boxer in my constituency, Matthew Thirlwall, who is an Amateur Boxing Association finalist. Just as we invite people to put forward names for honours and peerages, could we not invite people, through the press, to nominate people of every age--or invite people to nominate themselves--who have the potential to be champions or world-class athletes and swimmers; those who come through the system would be examined to see whether they qualified for the support, financial backing and professional encouragement that they need. It strikes me that such a general appeal would be likely to reach even more talent than the current system reaches.

Mr. Smith: That is an interesting idea and I shall certainly follow it up. Later, I shall make a proposal about the way in which sports governing bodies can and should work to identify new talent as it emerges. I hope that our work on school sport and specialist sports colleges will also help to identify potential stars of the future. However, an open invitation nomination process might well be a useful addition to the mix.

Successful as we have been, it is not enough simply to carry on as before. The world moves on, and a standard of performance that would have put us well up the medal table in Barcelona would have left us among the also-rans in Sydney. That is one reason why the achievement of our teams was so admirable, but we have to develop the programme. We have to make sure that world class funding reaches the right people, that it is efficiently administered and equitably distributed and that it gives the maximum benefit in terms of enhancing the performance of our leading competitors.

That is why the Prime Minister and I have asked our right hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) to lead a review of the world class programme's structure and funding and the relationship with the developments taking place with the UK Sports Institute. My right hon. Friend will be helped by a small group of top athletes and other experts to report back by mid-2001. I hope to be in a position to provide further details of the review and of the membership of the group soon. My right hon. Friend has asked me to convey his apologies for the fact that he is unable to attend today's debate.

The establishment of the United Kingdom Sports Institute, with its network of centres throughout the country, will provide much needed first-class training facilities, together with medical and other services, to provide our top performers with the sort of support that they have never had before. It will sit alongside the world

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class performance support for individual athletes. The facilities will be of value not only to Olympic and Paralympic sports, but to sports such as cricket, football and rugby, which are interested in supporting the development of the institute and foresee themselves becoming major users.

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