Tom Richmond: Olympic chance that must not go to waste

Great Britain's Alistair Brownlee greets the fans as he crosses the line to win during the Dextro Energy Triathlon ITU World Championship Series in Hyde Park, London. PA
Great Britain's Alistair Brownlee greets the fans as he crosses the line to win during the Dextro Energy Triathlon ITU World Championship Series in Hyde Park, London. PA
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WITH wry humour, Alistair Brownlee shrugged off his nonsensical omission from tonight’s 10-strong shortlist for the BBC Sports Personality of the Year accolade.

“No SPOTY nomination but, on a positive note, I am the 39th most influential northerner and only five behind Ed Miliband,” the world champion triathlete from Leeds tweeted.

Britain’s pre-eminent endurance competitor, Brownlee – and his younger brother Jonny – will use the shameful oversight to spur them towards Olympic gold next year. Actions, they know, speak louder than words.

And if, as they hope, these proud brothers cross the line together, draped in the white rose of Yorkshire that they have carried with such pride this year, it will be an image that comes to define the 2012 Games.

The marketing men already know this – the Brownlee brothers, fiercely competitive but remarkably level-headed, already star in BT’s television adverts alongside Paralympic hero Oscar Pistorious, South Africa’s “blade runner”.

Yet, while I intend to be on the streets of London to watch the Brownlees seize the moment against the best triathletes in the world, just what is being done to capitalise on the euphoria that will follow British success next year?

Not a lot.

For the past two weeks, Gerry Sutcliffe, the Bradford MP and Sports Minister under Gordon Brown, has been admonishing the coalition for dismantling school sport with its spending cuts.

This anger – Sutcliffe’s Tory successor Hugh Robertson says Labour’s legacy is financially unsustainable – is compounded by an extra £40m being found so the opening and closing ceremonies of both the Olympics and Paralympics are more lavish: in other words, more money will go up in smoke on fancy fireworks.

Step forward Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, who says critics like Sutcliffe are misguided, because this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to showcase the capital to a global audience. In other words, the capital comes first – again.

I disagree. Out of a budget that is already in excess of £9bn, there should already be ample funding to pay for sufficient Morris dancers and so forth.

What I want to know is how much money is going to be made available so that local leisure centres, and community sports facilities can open for free during the summer holidays – and pay for coaches to help all those inspired by the Brownlee brothers, Sheffield heptathlete Jess Ennis, North Yorkshire rower Andy Hodge and others.

Why? Fast forward to next August and the likely news agenda. Britons, like the aforementioned heroes from these parts, perform to their optimum and trigger a gold rush.

Youngsters become caught up in the euphoria, and blanket TV coverage. They descend upon their local leisure centre – where they either cannot afford the admission, or find the facility is already over-run with sports-mad youngsters. It’s an embarrassment.

What happens next? The Government sets up a task force to look at sports participation, a few medal-winners are invited to take tea with David Cameron and listen to the PM promise a report by the end of 2012.

And then what? The children resume watching TV and playing computer games to fill time until they return to school in September and return to their couch-potato ways.

Unfortunately, the wheels of the Department of Culture don’t move as swiftly as the Brownlee boys. Responsibility should not just fall on local authorities – there should also be an onus on each sporting club accredited to a national governing body to consider how they can exploit the Olympics in their community.

This was perfectly summed up by one-time British Steel joiner Peter Elliott, the great middle-distance runner from Rotherham, whose work ethic was rewarded with a silver medal in the 1,500 metres at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He said: “During Wimbledon fortnight, everyone wants to play tennis. The London Marathon is run on a Sunday morning, and everyone goes out in the afternoon for a run.

“It’s that short-term fix, and it’s a matter of being able to nurture that. It’s about grabbing the kids after the Olympics and channelling that energy and pushing them in the right direction, at clubs and at coaches and trying to find future generations of Olympians and Paralympians.”

Where I would digress, and only marginally, is whether the Olympics should be about identifying the next generation of elite competitors – or promoting the merits of regular exercise and the life lessons that can be gained from sport.

Both deserve equal prominence, as Elliott’s great rival Sebastian Coe made clear when he successfully persuaded the IOC in 2005 to award the 2012 Games to Britain.

Yet how will this happen, when the Government and Olympic organisers are now pre-occupied with the frivolity of opening ceremonies rather than the legacy of the Games?

Of course, every child should be able to swim, cycle and run – the three skills that define the triathlon. These should be part of every youngster’s rites of passage, but are not for many because of a lack of parental interest or money or both.

Even Alistair and Jonny Brownlee, though talented, would be the first to admit that they are the beneficiaries of great coaches who harnessed their enthusiasm.

The challenge, therefore, is making sure that the next generation are equally fortunate and that the Government seizes the moment before the Olympic flame is extinguished.

And if Ministers fail, then I hope each and every gold medal-winning athlete will shame the Government into action.