Alan Hubbard: Is gymnastics the new cycling?

Duncan Mackay

Almost buried beneath the plethora of words allocated to the goals, gripes and groin strains from the overheated footy front last weekend was news of  arguably the greatest British sporting achievement of the year so far. Sensational is not too strong an adjective to describe the success of the nation’s gymnasts in the European Artistic Championships in Birmingham.

The GB team amassed an unprecedented  total of 15 medals  (senior boys: team silver, individual gold, silver and bronze; junior boys: team gold, four individual golds, a silver and two bronze; senior girls: team silver, two individual golds). 

So what has happened to make Britain potential world beaters, now  ahead of the once-prolific Russians and Romanians? Could it be that gymnastics is the new cycling?

The redoubtable Beth Tweddle, the best gymnast Britain has ever produced, who came away with two individual golds and a team silver, puts it  down to "a new belief, particularly among the younger gymnasts,  hard work, the right coaching  and lottery funding all coming together at once."

The 25-year-old Tweddle has become the sport’s talisman - or should we say say talisperson? - having made her international debut in 2001 and winning Commonwealth, European and world titles.

She has now topped the European podium five times and  has been world champion in the uneven bars in 2006 and on the floor last October at London's O2 : "A lot of people have asked me 'why do you keep going?' “ she says. "The motivation is still there and I have one dream - to win a medal in 2012. Any colour will do. I am very hopeful about our chances in the Olympics because there is now a great strength in depth, particularly among the women. And we have a great team behind us."

The same can be said for the men’s team where Daniel Keating won  gold on then pommel horse where his friend Louis Smith, whose bronze in Beijing was Britain’s first Olympic medal for a century, took silver. Together with four individual golds and team gold for the junior boys  (watch out for the brilliant teenage all-rounder Sam Oldham in 2012) this was easily the most successful  performance yet by a nation literally coming on in leaps and bounds. 

"Suddenly, in the last four years, we've developed men's and women's teams that have taken Europe by storm," says Trevor Low, who chairs the British men's technical committee. "But it has been a long, slow process, in particular building up the clubs and coaches. What was missing was the infrastructure, the tradition, the strength in our clubs and facilities. But now we've got some of finest facilities in Europe.

"Many of the team were amazed at the facilities they' saw in Birmingham and around the training halls. They ask how we did it. Well, it's what we've been doing for the last 20 years: building the resources to make this all possible."

It is almost 40 years since the Russian elfin Olga Korbut enticed the world to switch on to gymnastics, and despite the limited television exposure it has received in this country, outside the Olympics it has retained its allure, though the borderline between sport and showbiz is frequently obliterated, especially when floor exercises are performed to music.

Such is the theatrical potential of the sport that Simon Cowell is now giving an approving nod to souped-up gymnastic acts in ‘Britain’s Got Talent.’ Indeed it has – on the floor, the bars the beams and the pommel and vaulting horse.

In the Olympics, while the titans of track, pool and boxing ring may grab the headlines, gymnastics draws the crowds –and the TV viewers.

In recent years the sport has undergone something of a revolution. The days of gaunt-faced, anorexic pixies are no more. The crowds packing Birmingham’s NIA were witnessing the new shape of gymnastics today, and it is decidedly more Sporty Spice than Posh Spice.

Amanda Kirby, the most successful club coach in the country - Tweddle (pictured) is among her City of Liverpool pupils - explains that now there is more emphasis on strength and athleticism. "The sport hasn't really changed, neither have the skills required. But the training workload has. The time when young gymnasts were all skin and bone has passed. Now you need all-round fitness and a bit more muscle."

Also the emphasis has shifted away from pre-pubescent youngsters who were over the hill at 16 to more mature and experienced performers like Tweddle. Kirby, who has coached her since 1997, says of her: "The great thing about Beth is her mental strength, She is not exceptionally talented physically but she works tremendously hard. Her determination and dedication are phenomenal."

Dedication is certainly the name of her game. The line between perfection and pain is as delicately balanced as a pair of feet on the beam, and she has had to bounce back after a number of injuries.

A useful sprinter and long jumper before gymnastics totally took over her sporting life, her talent for athletics has helped her to become a better gymnast because she can more easily absorb the vigorous training schedules devised by her coach. "Gymnastics is a much tougher sport than it seems," says Tweddle. "It may all look very pretty but it is about hard graft. The strength and the different skills you have to apply are as demanding as any other sport, probably more than most."

She will defend her floor title at the World Championships in Holland in October after successfully defending floor and uneven bars European titles in Birmingham. Victory there surely will put her in pole position to be Sportswoman of the Year - if she isn’t already.

British gymnastics is now swinging on a star. And remember, 2012 will be a Leap Year.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics.

Mike Moran: USOC move to Colorado Springs heralded meeting that saved Olympics

Duncan Mackay

Yesterday's low-key ribbon-cutting ceremony at the splendid new United States Olympic Committee (USOC) headquarters in downtown Colorado Springs is still a quantum leap from the opening of the first USOC Olympic House in the summer of 1978 on the grounds of the unoccupied ENT Air Force Base in mid-town, a 34-acre complex filled with run-down buildings and presented to the USOC for lease at one dollar a year.

But yesterday's modest news media event was hardly more significant than the August 1, 1978, first day at the old building at Boulder and Union and its place in the history of the USOC and the Olympic Movement.

We had just concluded the USOC’s inaugural National Sports Festival on July 30, a  national multi-sport event for some 3,000 American athletes in 25 sports who came to the city from across the nation to be part of a fledgling event created to showcase our Olympic hopefuls and give our elite and rising athletes something to do in the summer.

But on that Sunday, August 1, Olympic House officially opened without a ribbon-cutting on a hot day with Executive Director F. Don Miller, President Robert J. Kane, Director of Special Events Baaron Pittenger and a handful of reporters still hanging around from the Sports Festival - Neil Amdur of the New York Times, Kenneth Reich of the Los Angeles Times, Joe Concannon of the Boston Globe and Mike Kelly of the Omaha World-Herald, among others.

Pittenger had arrived in Colorado Springs in January, charged with the task of staging the first Sports Festival and readying the building that would become Olympic House for the arrival of Miller and his small staff in the summer. The building had once housed the office of the Commanding General at ENT and his staff, and it underwent a massive overhaul under the direction of Pittenger, who had been hired by the USOC from his position in the athletic department at Harvard in 1977.

He skillfully got both projects done, but not without headaches. "I almost forgot to have a phone system put in at Olympic House," said Pittenger yesterday morning. "We were just six weeks from opening before I remembered that, and I was working with our designer, Marshall Morin, on stuff like the wallpaper and colours in Olympic House, which originally were a lot of black and gold, and working with the city and our volunteer organizsng committee to put on the Sports Festival. I won’t ever forget that summer."

Only ten people made up that first USOC staff, all packing up and moving from 57 Park Avenue in New York City to head West and create a new beginning for an organisation thrust into the limelight in 1978 by Congress and the Amateur Sports Act, and charged with control of the Olympic Movement in the United States in the aftermath of a decade of problems and showdowns between the old AAU and the NCAA over athlete rights and who was in charge.

Miller’s small cast that first day at Olympic House included his secretary, Marty Duncan, Pittenger, chief financial officer Bill Bachert, office manager Jim McHugh, attorney Doug Dunlop, marketing chief Arthur I. Kuman, operations director Jerry Lace and his assistant, Larry McCollum, and press chief and tireless historian C. Robert Paul, Jr.

Duncan, Bachert and McHugh were there only for a short time, not wanting to make the move to Colorado Springs on a permanent basis, and they returned to the more comfortable, predictable noise of Manhattan within a few months. Miller and Pittenger brought me on board in late December, hiring me away from my role as Sports Information Director at the University of Colorado, after I had helped Pittenger by volunteering to run press operations and publicity for the Sports Festival.

I had turned them down on an earlier offer about the job because CU had just hired Chuck Fairbanks away from the New England Patriots as its new football coach, the man who had led Oklahoma to a pair of national titles, and I wanted to be part of that Boulder gridiron renaissance, or so I thought.

When I changed my mind and joined the USOC, I was not sure I had made the right decision, but two years into Fairbanks' reign at CU, I realised I had basically missed the Titanic at the dock. I intended to stay about five years, but it turned into a quarter-of-a-century.

Miller, a decorated Army officer, liked to have his staff quiet and in the background, but I guess he liked me and I broke that mould. But the day before Olympic House opened, July 30, a secret meeting in Miller’s office at Olympic House, almost now forgotten, created history, and had it not taken place, yesterday morning’s nice ribbon-cutting downtown might never have happened.

Miller, Kane and USOC treasurer William E. Simon hosted Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and John C. Argue, head of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Organising Committee (LAOOC) to seek resolution to keep the Games in Los Angeles after the citizens of Los Angeles were back-pedaling on a commitment of funding, leaving the event in jeopardy.

The IOC had given the LAOOC and the USOC until August 31 to come up with a guarantee, or else the Games were going elsewhere. While the Sports Festival wound down on its final day, the Olympic leaders hatched a bold plan in which a group of prominent LA business leaders and the USOC would create a private entity to assure the Games' finances.

The USOC guaranteed $25 million (£16 million), which it did not have, the LA moguls pitched in another $25 million (£16 million) to indemnify the city against a shortfall, and the USOC gave the IOC a $300,000 (£197,000) deposit in good faith, allowing the Lausanne officials to wink and keep the Games in Los Angeles. Since only Tehran had bid for the Games against Los Angeles, it’s anyone’s guess now where they would have moved the Games if Los Angeles, like Denver in 1973, had given them back
In February, 1979, the IOC made it official and LA used a USOC loan to hire Peter Ueberroth. The Games were a huge success, earned a nice $225 million ($148 million) surplus, gave the USOC back almost $111 million (£73 million)  for its gamble, and probably saved the Olympic Games for the future.

It was fitting that USOC President Emeritus Bill Hybl took part in yesterday's ceremony, because it was in the winter of 1977 that Hybl, then the Vice President of the El Pomar Foundation,  presented Miller with a check for $1,000,000 (£659,000) on behalf of the legendary Thayer Tutt to seal the deal and the USOC’s relocation from New York to Colorado Springs when nobody else really wanted the organisation, by today’s standards a relative mom-and-pop outfit.

It has been Hybl and El Pomar, again, that have played a major role in making sure the new building downtown became reality, along with a long term commitment for the USOC to keep calling our city it’s hometown. There are likely no pictures in the new digs downtown of Miller, Kane, Simon, Pittenger and Hybl, but there should be. These men, and others not as well-known, saved the USOC and helped preserve the Olympic Games when they were in danger of extinction.

The 225 USOC employees who have moved downtown have never heard this story, and most won’t notice. But it’s important, and it’s the genesis of USOC history in Colorado Springs. CEO Scott Blackmun and his staffers will no doubt witness moments of historic significance in their new offices over the years, but they should understand, that but for the bold actions of a few, they might now have very different lives, as would the more than 300,000 athletes who have come and gone from Colorado Springs and the Olympic facilities, chasing their dreams.

Mike Moran was the chief communications officer of the USOC for nearly 25 years before retiring in 2003. In 2002 he was awarded with the USOC's highest award, the General Douglas MacArthur Award. He worked on New York's unsuccessful bid to host the 2012 Olympics and is now director of communications for the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation.

Richard Fox: Dream it, believe it, achieve it

Duncan Mackay

I’ve been training so hard recently that I feel like a prize greyhound!  I’m currently training six days out of seven. I work for BT in the daytime in their technical support division and, as a company, they’ve been incredibly supportive of my efforts with the England and GB cerebral palsy football teams. 

When I first started at BT I didn’t think to mention my football but once they found out they really wanted to support me. To be added to their BT Ambassador programme was a real honour.

The England seven-a-side football team only gets to meet up about once a month so the coaches have stressed the importance of the individual training. They have started to put in place a strict training regime and have given us all heart monitors so that we can maximise the effectiveness of the exercise that we do. 

Every Sunday we have to report back to our strength and conditioning coach online. He takes our results, assesses them and then monitors our progress. At the moment, we might not be the most technical team but our coaches decided that we should try and strive to be one of the fittest. I think I can speak for the whole team when I say that we’re all feeling the benefits.

As I’ve always had cerebral palsy, it’s not something I really think about in terms of how I manage it through my training. I’m having to make sacrifices to fit the training into daily life but it’s definitely worth it. I tend to train before and after work, I also play or train with a local team two or three times a week. With work in the daytime and training before and after, I soon realised that I need at least seven hours sleep every night so I barely drink and have curbed my social life in order to really commit to the team.

As a team, whilst we need to focus on more immediate challenges, we’ve all got an eye on London 2012. I was lucky enough to compete at the Paralympics in Beijing 2008 for Team GB and that was an incredible experience. Many people have said it, but when you’re at an Olympic or Paralympic Games, you feel like you’re in a bubble and it’s only when you come out that you realise what an amazing and surreal experience it is. I totally underestimated the size of the event and it was an absolute privilege to be there. 

In terms of progress since Beijing, I think the team has dramatically improved. We’re fitter and we’re also stronger - some of the lads that were younger have grown up a bit now and so physically we’re more of a threat to the opposition. We have also begun to work better as a team on the pitch; we keep our shape better during games and when we break and attack we’re much more dangerous. However, there are always areas that we can develop. One of the main areas to work on is communication but I’m sure that, as the squad spend more time together, this will naturally improve.

A real test for us will be this year’s BT Paralympic World Cup. It’s fantastic that seven-a-side football has been added to the event and I’m really excited to be part of the GB team. It’s even more exciting that it’s an event that BT is the title sponsor of and, as a BT Ambassador, it’s great that I’ll be competing there. 

Of the teams that we’ll get to play, Holland and Ireland are ranked above us - we’ve beaten them before in friendly matches but we seem to fall down against them in competitive games so this tournament gives us a fresh opportunity to pit our wits against them.

In the meantime, I’ll just keep training and pushing myself as hard as I can. Our coach has a saying that he has instilled in us as a team – "dream it, believe it, achieve it".  So far, we’re two thirds of the way there and I really hope that, with all our extra effort, we can achieve as a team at the highest level.

Richard Fox has been a member of Britian's Paralympic football team for four years and scored one of the goals that helped them qualify for the 2008 Beijing Games. He now is part of a technical support helpdesk working in BT Global Services and is a BT ambassador. BT is the official communications services partner for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and title sponsor of the BT Paralympic World Cup.  For more information click here

Mike Rowbottom: Gemma Spofforth is a rare talent - in and out of the pool

Duncan Mackay

Writing in his Observer column this week, Portsmouth’s keeper David James insists that while his financially beleaguered and relegated club may be down, they are far from out.

What prompts the England goalkeeper to this observation is not so much the imminence of the FA Cup final, where Portsmouth will meet Chelsea with a view to annexing the hallowed pot for the second time in three years, but the healthy relationship between the club and its local community.

"Having players visit a local hospital every Christmas is a nice gesture, but what about sustained relationships with the local community, and the mutual benefits they might bring?," James writes.

"The game appears to have forgotten its community roots, lost in a glitzy world of superstars and big transfer fees. But what might be the result of a more holistic focus?"

Holistic focuses. You don’t get too many footballers writing about them.

But James - who goes on to extol the local links Portsmouth have created with literacy schemes and support organisations for those with learning difficulties - patently cares about this connection between sport and the wider world.

His attitude is rare in top level sport, where being self-centred is not so much an advantage as a prerequisite.

Should James maintain the form he has shown between the sticks in recent weeks, the England team will have this shining light of idealism in its ranks during the World Cup in South Africa.

But at least one other England team will contain a similarly-minded sporting figure this year now that Gemma Spofforth has been confirmed as a swimming selection for the Commonwealth Games.

Although Spofforth, the world 100 metres backstroke champion, was beaten by her domestic rival Lizzie Simmonds at last month’s British trials, she was still feeling the physical and emotional effects of leading the University of Florida, where she is doing a psychology degree, to the coveted national collegiate championship.

The 22-year-old from Shoreham-on-Sea has lived in Gainesville, Florida for the last four years, and it is there over the last five months that she has regularly undertaken four-hour shifts, at all times of the day and night, in the Alachua County Crisis Centre.

Spofforth’s counselling work mostly involves speaking on the phone to those in emotional distress, but so effective has she been in this role that she has been asked to become an associate of the unit, which means she will be available during the night hours to visit callers contemplating suicide.

She believes her own difficult experiences in recent years have made her a more empathetic listener - she was effectively put out of sporting action in 2005 and 2006 because of pancreatitis that was so bad she contemplated giving up swimming, and in 2007 her mother, Lesley, died of breast cancer aged 49.

You will not find many world champions with such a sense of commitment to their community.

"I do have a very busy life," Spofforth accepts. "But I have had experience of some quite difficult things in my life so far - my sickness in 2005, and my mum dying in 2007 - so it is something I wanted to do to help other people feel they didn’t have to be alone when they had a crisis. People need someone to listen to them when that happens.

"I work regular four hour shifts - sometimes they are from four in the afternoon, sometimes from midnight until four in the morning.

"It’s important to act quickly when people come with questions about things like getting their food stamps in a hurry, because if those issues don’t get resolved then the people involved can quickly become distressed.

"With the callers, we divide them into two main categories. There are the chronics - people who are in so much distress that they call during every shift because basically we are the only ones who will listen to them every day.

"We also deal with suicidal people."

You do wonder if such interaction doesn't play on Spofforth’s mind as she ploughs through the training hours at the nearby University pool. Have we also got a world champion compartmentaliser here?

"What we try and do is to have all the phone calls in the same room, and to leave all the stress and anxiety related to them when we leave the room," she replies.

"But everyone that works in the crisis centre experiences the same kind of things, and many of the regular callers are widely known, so sometimes if you have had a really difficult call you can discuss it with the other people at work. It’s almost as big a family for me as I’ve got with the Florida team.

"Suicide calls are one of the things we are trained to deal with. One of the most important things when you are talking to someone in that state of mind is that you stay with them in their pain, just so they know they are not alone.

"We use the metaphor of jumping into the well with them. It’s not a case of shouting down to them and then saying you are going off to get help - you have to be with them, and to let them know it’s OK for them to feel what they feel.

"But when it’s someone that is really suicidal the only way you can end the call is if you are confident that they will be OK.

"When that happens we post up details on a board, and follow-up calls are made to ensure that the callers are in a better state of mind.

"It is a very rewarding feeling to think you may have helped someone at a time of real need."

Gemma Spofforth. A world champion with the ambition of earning more gold medals, ideally at the 2012 London Olympics. And with the ambition also of becoming a fully-qualified counsellor. A rare talent indeed.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames

Alan Hubbard: Dave Bedford deserves a gong for the London Marathon

Duncan Mackay

Let’s all agree: The London Marathon is the greatest and best organised mass participation event in the world, something of which Britain can be truly proud. Simply magnificent. I say this as an observer, not a participant, but the taking part bit was brought home to me last weekend when my daughter Clare ran it for the first time.

A 42-year-old mother of two, and quite fit as a former black belt in judo and now a coach, but never a runner, she got round in something under six hours and proclaimed afterwards, between gasps and grimaces that next to childbirth it was the most agonising yet uplifting experience of her life.

She kept going, tired and emotional in the nicest sense, cheered on by family and friends despite a badly strained back because, she said, you simply have to. She also says "Never again" but then most first-timers do. My guess is that she will be back next year.

She and her friend Gina, who ran with her, raised some £4,000 for Sense, the charity which supports deaf and blind adults and children - and personal thanks here to boxing promoter Frank Warren who generously donated ringside seats for all of his promotions this year for their pre-race auction. Also to boxers Amir Khan and James DeGale and those Tottenham and Chelsea players who signed gloves and shirts. Who says sport doesn’t have a heart?

Forgive those few lines of personal indulgence, but it gives me the opportunity to make a couple of points about the marathon. The first is that brilliantly as it is staged and managed by Dave Bedford and his team - and more of his part later - there is another aspect which is not quite as worthy of our applause. Magnificent is hardly the adjective to apply to the transportation arrangements for the thousands who lined the streets. Horrendous is more like it, with dangerously overcrowded tube platforms along the route, cancelled trains, surly and unhelpful station staff and the majority of escalators either not working  or closed – no doubt for ‘elf’n’ safety reasons. At one stage an anguished Aussie voice was heard to yell: "Bloody hell, and this is where they’re going to hold the Olympics!?"

Indeed it is, and that’s what concerns me. I have no doubt that Seb Coe and co will deliver a spectacular, memorable ,athlete-friendly dream Games, but getting to and from them  could be a nightmare. I am not alone in being far from convinced that Transport for London is as much on the ball as they would have us believe. Last Sunday provided worrying evidence of this. Presentation could be London’s glory; transportation its nemesis.

And so to "Bootsie" as he used to be known in his wilder days.

Around 35 years ago he was up there with George Best as one of sport's incorrigible hell-raisers. The hairy monster of athletics whose name was on everybody's lips, not least his own. Dave Bedford revelled in being the bearded braggart of sport, giving the V-sign to officialdom, filling the stadiums wherever he ran and dallying with the dolly birds. Bedford dismantled the world 10,000 metres record in 27min. 30.80sec.

He may have no Olympic medal to show for it but he was one of the finest distance runners Britain has ever produced, holding at one time or another every UK record from 2,000 to 10,000 metres, including the steeplechase. He also won a world cross-country title, running, as always, from the front.Those were the days when EPO was just a tinkle in a chemist's test-tube. To Bedford, the only performance-enhancing substances which mattered were Guinness and gumption. 

There has never been a bigger name in British athletics in terms of selling tickets. So it seems appropriate that, almost four decades later, Bedford, now 60, should still be in the business of pulling them in, and sports audiences don't come any bigger than that which annually lines the streets of London for what Bedford rightly considers is the greatest pro-am free show on earth.  He’s become the real Marathon Man, and as poacher-gamekeeper conversions go, his is definitely in the gold-medal class.

Bedford is not only the international race director but is also responsible for marketing and promoting the entire event. It is a remarkable transition for someone whose running battles with the blazers were legendary.  Respectability is the Bedford by-word these days. He's been beavering away on the marathon's behalf for the past dozen years and his selling of the marathon to punters, sponsors and television has helped make it the greatest one- day fundraising event in the UK.

He has always said apart from having sex for the first time, running the marathon will be the most exciting thing people do in their entire lives. After a lifetime in sport, old Bootsie is still clearly in love with it. "Sure there are loads of wankers, but there's an awful lot of nice people too," he says. "As long as you know the difference, you can make it work."

The way Bedford managed to get every international elite competitor to the starting line this year amid the volcanic ash crisis was a masterpiece of planning and organisation.

So here is my question: Why has he never received a gong? Many lesser (but less rebellious) athletes have been honoured, but not Bedford.  I hope that whoever is Sports Minister by this time next week will push his case, and also consider why the likes of him, the Youth Charter leader Geoff Thompson and Tessa Sanderson, (to whom we send best wishes on her marriage to British judo chief Densign White this weekend) are consistently snubbed by those who select candidates for sport’s quangos.

It is time some of our more street-wise personalities were brought into play in the administration of British sport: and as we have seen for the past 12 years, they don’t come any wiser than Dave Bedford in the streets if London.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics.

Ben Ainslie: A busy year is ahead as I chase my twin dreams

Duncan Mackay

It was really pleasing to finally get a result in the two-and-half year America's Cup saga in Valencia in February.

I was fortunate to be in Spain for the Deed of Gift match between defenders Alinghi and challengers BMW Oracle as I was there Finn training for a week.

It was an amazing spectacle, the boats were incredible feats of design and engineering and it was a fascinating learning experience seeing some of the technology involved up close. As a competition BMW Oracle's use of the 'wing' technology meant it was something of a mismatch but it was just such a relief to finally see the event staged and now we can start looking forward to what BMW Oracle, as the new defenders, will propose as the format for the 34th America's Cup.

There's inevitably a lot of rumour and speculation already doing the rounds about where and when the Cup will be held and what the rules regarding the boats will be. One of the more interesting suggestions is that t he Cup won't now happen until 2014 and if that is the case then it certainly leaves all of the teams with a lot of time to prepare their teams and design a new boat to new Americas Cup class rule.

I'm still managing to strike a suitable balance between progressing my 2012 Finn campaign and my desire to win the America's Cup with TEAMORIGIN.

The week I spent in Valencia training with my coach David Howlett working on some of the technical aspects of the boat development. We had Simon Holloway from PI Research, who incidentally does a lot of work helping with the data collection and analysis for F1, down to help with collecting some performance data which we can then pass on to Juan Guaray our Argentinean sail designer. The whole process is fascinating and the technology we are using, whilst on a small scale, is similar to what we will use in the Americas Cup future.

Because my schedule is pretty full on I'm completely reliant on my coach David Howlett set ting the tone of the training camps and making sure the boat is ready for me to just step into and sail. The camps and practices have to be really well structured with very clear objectives to make sure I get the most out of the limited time I have to sail the Finn. David's ongoing role in this is vital.

Since first getting back in the Finn, after 18 months out of the boat, last December we've made some really pleasing progress. Despite the break the boat hasn't ever felt alien to me, which was a pleasant surprise, and we know where we're going in terms of the technical side and what work we want to do with our sail designers. I go back to Valencia later this month to keep things ticking along on that front.

I'm still hoping to compete at the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta at Weymouth and Portland in August as I want to gather as much information as possible about the conditions and venue. But the real focus will shift back to my Finn campaign in the winter 2010 when I plan to head to the Southern Hemisphere for three or four months' serious training and boat tuning. This will be when I start getting my body weight back up and really working on the boat and sail design to go into the 2011 season fully competitive.

There's an awful lot of sailing to be done before then, however, with the Audi Medcup TP52 Circuit starting in Cascais, Portugal on May 11 plus a number of World Match Racing Tour events and the next WSTA Louis Vuitton Trophy event in Italy in May that TEAMORIGIN will be competing in.

In many ways we've punched below our weight in terms of our WTSA LV Trophy event results so far and the last event in Auckland was especially disappointing as again it was silly mistakes which cost us. The hard stuff we're getting right but we need to iron out the small errors to start getting the results.

We had a great weekend racing Charles Dunstone's TP52 Rio at the RORC Easter Regatta. Some of the team are relatively inexperienced in TP52s so getting quality racing time together in often tricky Solent conditions was really invaluable. By the last day our communication and teamwork at the back of the boat particularly was much crisper and we're looking forward to the Audi MedCup now.

Just last week we competed in the first of the World Match Racing Tour Regattas in Marseille. We finished second to local hero Mathieu Richard but it was a good result for us especially as we had not raced in the J80 class of boat before. I was racing with Matt Cornwell, Iain Percy and Christian Kamp. We make a good team and importantly we really enjoy sailing together.

Also I'm looking forward to the 2010 J.P. Morgan Asset Management Round the Island Race on June 19. This is always such a fantastic spectacle; so many different types of boat and people take part it's really enjoyable. It also gets lots of media attention and whereas sailing often gets a bad rap for being difficult to follow, t he RTIR course is very easy to understand, which is good for the sport's profile.

Ben Ainslie is Britain's most successful Olympic sailor of all time, in total he has won three gold medals and one silver. He is also a nine times World champion, eight times European Champion and three times ISAF world sailor of the year. Ainslie's next aspiration is to win the Americas Cup with TEAMORIGIN before bringing back a historic fourth gold in the London 2012 Olympics

Liz Johnson: Moving to Bath forced me out of my comfort zone

Duncan Mackay

When you’re a full-time athlete, you obviously have to get used to training occupying a lot of your time. It’s particularly nice when you see that training pay off and, when I broke my own world record a few weeks ago, this was certainly the case.

I train six days a week - on most days this involves four hours in the pool (an early morning session and an afternoon session). On three days I also build in a one hour session in the gym. As a Paralympic swimmer, it’s important to monitor the effects that training has on my body but I’ve always found that swimming has been more of a help with my cerebral palsy. 

When I was younger, and receiving treatment through a children’s centre, they commented that the swimming seemed to benefit my condition and so my mum actively encouraged me to swim more.  I’m always swimming now so it’s easy to underestimate the benefits that it has for me. Occasionally intense training can make it more difficult for me out of the pool but my coach and I can keep an eye on that and adjust what we do accordingly.

I train at the University of Bath, as part of Team Bath. My coach had never worked with anyone with my condition before and that’s actually helped my progress. Sometimes he’ll ask me to try something that might push me out of my comfort zone but that’s what is really helping my development. We’re currently working on changing my stroke and the training can be slightly trial and error but that makes it very rewarding. 

Forcing myself to move out of my comfort zone was the main reason behind my move to Bath from my original training base in Swansea. I studied and trained at Swansea for years but, once I had finished my degree, a lot of my friends moved away. Then I won the gold medal at the Paralympics in Beijing 2008, under very difficult circumstances both personally and physically, and afterward it seemed like one chapter of my life was over and I needed to start another one. It was hard to leave Swansea but being at Bath has helped me gain a fresh impetus and open myself up to new challenges.

I’m always looking ahead to London 2012 and the way to make sure I compete, and medal, at the Paralympics will be to stay motivated throughout the whole build-up. Being at Bath really helps with this - I’m surrounded by top athletes, from rugby players to modern pentathletes. There’s a real sense of camaraderie and if someone is having a tough day at training the other athletes will help push them through. This training environment breeds a much better interaction between athletes from different sports and we can all use that to our benefit.

In terms of my preparation ahead of London 2012, there are a number of competitions that I’ll be focusing on. The IPC World Swimming Championships in Eindhoven this year and the IPC European Swimming Championships in Berlin in 2011 will be key events for me. 

However, my next competition will be the BT Paralympic World Cup in Manchester. The competition is the only annual, international, multi-sport disability event in the world and is therefore an excellent chance for me to pit myself against athletes that I rarely get the chance to race. We hardly ever get to race against the Americans as it costs so much to travel to the US to compete, so getting that international race experience is really important.  It’s not just swimming that benefits as the event runs for seven days and also includes track and field athletics, wheelchair basketball and seven-a-side football. 

This year will also be the first year I have competed at the BT Paralympic World Cup since becoming a BT Ambassador. It makes a difference when you feel that a company like BT is willing to support you and work with you because they have faith in your ability. 

It’s also great to see BT supporting sport and being one of their Ambassadors has really benefitted me on a personal level as I’m able to share my experiences to help inspire BT customers and employees. On a practical level they have also made my life much easier by setting me up with mobile broadband, which really helps me stay in touch with family and friends when I’m away competing and stuck in a hotel!

I think anybody in an Olympic or Paralympic sport has one eye on London 2012, whether they admit it or not!  It’d be amazing to walk out in front of a home crowd knowing that they are really cheering for me, rather than walking out in front of a crowd and having to pretend that the cheering is for me!  It won’t just be people that compete at London 2012 that get something out of it, it’s an event that the whole nation will be able to share in.  

In terms of competing at the Paralympics, I feel like I’m on course, although you can’t take anything for granted. People discuss how the attention around London 2012 is putting pressure on athletes to perform. As far as I’m concerned, no one could put more pressure on me than myself!

Liz Johnson is a BT Ambassador.  BT is the official communications services partner for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and title sponsor of the BT Paralympic World Cup.  For more information visit

Mike Rowbottom: LaShawn Merritt is stretching something, probably the truth...

Duncan Mackay
What are we to make of the latest justification for a high profile positive doping test?

Of course, we will have to wait for the Olympic 400 metres champion’s case to be properly heard before we can judge whether LaShawn Merritt should henceforth be known as LaShawn DeMerritt.

His excuse this week that his three positive tests between October and January for the banned steroid DHEA were down to him taking an over-the-counter product to enhance his male part may turn out to be true, rather than a cock-and-bull story. Or a load of b****cks.

But aside from the question of whether Merritt is stretching the truth - or whatever else it may be - there is always going to be a problem about his statement on the matter: "To know that I’ve tested positive as a result of the product that I used for personal reasons is extremely difficult to wrap my hands around."

"Wrap my hands around..."

In the circumstances, that is an unfortunate image. Did he mean "Get my head around?" Did someone mention Freud?

Aside from the doubtless unwitting but sadly imperishable resonance of that phrase - which is, sadly, likely to accompany Merritt beyond the span of his athletics career - you have to ask: Which lunatic suggested that he released such a statement?

However it turns out, Merritt’s bizarre claim takes its place at a respectable height in the list of Ludicrous Excuses for Positive Doping Tests.

To refresh your memory...

Merritt’s area of exculpation is roughly in the same territory as that cited by the US sprinter Dennis Mitchell after he tested positive for testosterone in 1998. Mitchell claimed his manly levels had been raised to excessive levels the night before his test because he had consumed five beers and made love to his wife four times.

You picture him working out the figures like someone filling in their expenses sheet. Would 10xbeers and 15xSex be too much?

Yes. How about five and four?. Hmm. Looks more convincing...

Mitchell’s story was believed by USA Track and Field - but sadly for him, not by the international athletics federation, which banned him for two years.

Race walker Daniel Plaza also brought in the S-word to his defence, explaining his positive test for the banned steroid nandrolone by saying he had had prolonged oral sex with his pregnant wife, a defence based on the suggestion that pregnant women can produce nandrolone naturally.

Plaza too received a two-year ban, although he was later exonerated.

Sex is not the only excuse-rich zone. There’s also food.

Tennis player Petr Korda, who tested positive for steroids, claimed his levels had been contaminated by eating steroid-fed veal. His defence was undone when experts testified that, to achieve the levels he had, he would have had to have eaten 40 calves a day for 20 years.

Britain’s former sprinter Lenny Paul also used the food line when he tested positive for steroids as a member of the bobsleigh team, claiming that he had eaten contaminated spaghetti bolognaise.

Justin Gatlin (pictured), the 2004 Olympic 100m champion who was subsequently banned for testosterone, maintained that his positive test had come as a result of a masseuse with a grudge who had deliberately used a cream on him that contained banned substances.

The outside interference line was also taken by Ben Johnson - remember him? - in the wake of the 1988 Olympic 100m final which saw him stripped of his gold medal after testing positive for the banned steroid stanozolol. That bad thing, he maintained, had been a result of someone spiking the sarsparilla and ginseng energy drink he took before his race.

Dieter Baumann, Germany’s 1992 Olympic 5000m champion, claimed a positive nandrolone finding in 1999 had come as a result of someone spiking his toothpaste.

But I’m saving the best to last.

In 2004, US cyclist Tyler Hamilton, charged with illegal blood doping, countered that he was a chimera – a person with abnormal genetic cells. "I have a twin that was never born," he said. "That’s why my blood contains a different blood-type than my own."

Back in the 1992, a not particularly well-known British discus thrower and shot putter, Neal Brunning, tested positive for testosterone at the National Indoor Championships in Birmingham. "Don’t bother to test the B sample," the burly Londoner apparently said. "I know what’s in it."

I spoke to Brunning a couple of years later. He was candid. "I did it because I felt others in my event were doing it," he said. "I thought ‘If they can do it and get away with it, then let’s have a go.’"

I am struggling to think of any other track and field athlete, or indeed any other athlete, who has held their hand up as being guilty following a positive test.

Dwain Chambers? You can’t help but like him, but his full confession was partly precipitated by a slip of the tongue he made while giving an interview to the BBC, from which it transpired that he had been taking drugs earlier than the period which led to him incurring his two-year ban. 

As I say, Merritt’s merits have yet to be fully judged. But if things go against him, he might do well to ponder on the words of a South London discus thrower who never remotely reached the world and Olympic levels of performance that he did: "If you are caught you put your hand up," said Brunning. "There’s no point in doing anything else. It just makes you look like a fool."

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames

Alan Hubbard: For a Tory, Hugh Robertson is not a bad bloke

Duncan Mackay

Whoever wins the election on May 6, sport can expect some fundamental changes in the way it is governed.

I understand both Labour and Conservative parties have plans to shake up the system - and particularly the FA and Premier League’s administration of professional football - which go beyond the sketchy proposals made in their respective manifestos.

Government-backed organisations such as UK Sport, Sport England and the Youth Sports Trust can also expect some serious reform, as can their overlords, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, particularly if the Tories gain power.

A strong Labour influence in these bodies has been of some concern to the Shadow Sports Minister, Hugh Robertson, who also pledges to restore Lottery funding for sport to its original level of 20 per cent. This has fallen from £460 million ($707 million) to £217 million ($334 million).

The election will pose fresh questions about the role of the sports ministry. Labour undoubtedly would retain Tessa Jowell as Olympics Minister to finish the job she has tackled so zealously. There is no doubt Jowell would be gutted not to be associated with a project which  she force-fed Tony Blair into backing when London’s bid was initially orchestrated.  

So should the Conservatives win. it is likely that LOCOG chairman Lord Coe, a Tory peer with whom she has forged a harmonious working relationship, would offer her some sort of ambassadorial role with 2012, though the Tories would insist this has to be strictly non-political.

If Labour are returned to office, some feel that the likeable but low-key Sports Minister Gerry Sutcliffe will have to raise not so much his game but his profile to keep riding shotgun with Jowell through to 2012. There are plenty of wannabes waiting on Labour’s subs’ bench who covet his job, seen as a plum junior ministerial post with of one of the best seats in the house at any major sporting event.

In any Conservative Government Robertson. who has twice turned down offers from David Cameron of promotion to higher office on the Opposition front bench, would want to combine the jobs of Olympics and Sports Minister, which he has been effectively
shadowing for five years. At 47, Robertson is understandably politically ambitious, and overseeing the delivery of the 2012 Games should surely make this a Cabinet position.

All three main parties, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrats, pledge support for the bid to stage to stage football’s 2018 World Cup and a Tory victory would see David Cameron undertaking a Blair-like glad-handing role.     

As a lifelong, but currently rather disaffected Labour supporter (the lying over Iraq and the return of lying Mandelson et al), I would not be unhappy at seeing Robertson (pictured above left) as Sports Minister. For a Tory he’s not a bad bloke - one of the most decent and fair-minded politicians I have encountered. The ex-Army major who saw active service in Northern Ireland, the Gulf War and Bosnia, has a good grasp of what sport is about at all levels and he certainly would not be kicked around by the footy fraternity.

Of course there is now a Third Man to consider. Nick Clegg turned the opinion polls upside down with his virtuoso performance in the party leaders' TV debate, at least enough to concentrate our minds on a hung parliament, bringing the strong possibility of a Lab-Lib coalition. One of Clegg’s bargaining chips could be that his sports spokesman Don Foster, who the party consider the Vince Cable of sport, is given the job. While Foster didn’t exactly do a Clegg in the recent tri-party debate between sports spokesman organised by the Sports Journalists' Association, he was engaging, profound and well-informed.

Sport has never been particularly high on the political agenda - and it certainly isn’t in the party manifestos - but in the forthcoming election surely it should be with all the international events ahead here including a possible football World Cup and, of course, the Olympics where security and finance will be of paramount political importance. 

So what of the nitty-gritty? We know that Government funding for sport is likely to be cut whichever political party is in power.  As Robertson said: "Personally I wouldn’t cut exchequer funding for sport but none of us know what expenditure cuts there will be."

Both Foster and Robertson are in favour of a reformation of how lottery money is taxed and distributed, Foster describing it as "ridiculous" the way £120 million ($184 million) a year is taken out of the lottery through taxation. 

The Conservatives are anxious not only to reduce the left-wing influence on the current quangos but to curb some of the high salaries paid to executives.  

In the three party manifestos, Labour devotes more space to sport than its rivals, 550 words or some 1.8 per cent of the entire content. The Tories have just 123 words and the Lib-Dems 96. In fairness to the Tories and Lib-Dems, much of the Labour sports coverage is devoted to what they have done in the past and how the present Government is responsible for investing in sport to an unprecedented degree. Labour pledges to invest in a new national network of school sports coaches and give every child the opportunity to do at least five hours of sport every week. 

They also promise to work with the governing authorities to ensure that "professional clubs" (ie. football clubs) are accountable to their stakeholders and are run transparently on sound financial principles with greater involvement of communities, supporter representation and the development of proposals to enable supporters to buy shares in their clubs. However, these are somewhat watered-down from pledges on club ownership given in the pre-election leaflet. One suspects Robertson will have the bottle to impose tougher regulations.

What the Lib-Dems manifesto promises is merely to "use cash in dominant betting accounts to set up a capital fund in improving local sports facilities and supporting sports clubs, and closing loop-holes that allow playing fields to be build upon without going through the normal planning procedures." And, er, that’s it,more or less.

Although the Tory manifesto takes up little more than of a quarter of one page of it’s 131 pages, it does place emphasis on Olympic legacy, the restoration of the Lottery to its original four pillars and the promotion of a new national Olympic-style school competition which presumably would replace the UK School Games, one of Gordon Brown’s personal pet projects.

So who has the X-factor in this party game of sports politics? A question worth considering alongside the issues real politics before dropping the voting form into the ballot box in a fortnight’s time. 

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics

Simon Morton: Travel ban sharpens the UK’s focus ahead of London 2012

Duncan Mackay

As Head of Events for UK Sport, my team is responsible for helping to bring major international sporting events to the UK. This year we have worked with sporting and regional partners to bring 23 key events to the UK, with around 60 taking place between now and the start of the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

We believe this is the most extensive events programme ever assembled by a host country leading into a Games, and has been developed to help the UK get 'match fit' ahead of 2012.

The benefits of bringing such events to towns and cities across the country are enormous. They provide British athletes with valuable experience in competing on home soil ahead of London 2012, give volunteers and officials the opportunity to hone the necessary skills that are required to deliver world-level competition, provide local economies with a boost, and give spectators the opportunity to see World and Olympic champions competing live on their own doorstep.

Who could have predicted that a volcano in Iceland would highlight another vital benefit that bringing major sporting events to the UK has?

This weekend, three UK Sport funded international sporting events were due to take place across the country. The Diving World Series in Sheffield, European Gymnastics Championships in Birmingham and the Mountain Biking World Cup in Dalby Forest. The response from the organisers of these three events has been outstanding.  Each has acted quickly, clearly and decisively.

Of course, the best events have well-prepared contingency and crisis management plans, but it’s only when you get these off the shelf and use them that you are able to see how professional and capable your event-staging system is. Absolutely crucial preparation before London hosts the Games in 2012.

And whilst the travel chaos of recent days has taken its toll on a number of events, the response has shown that the quality of major event organisation in the UK is second to none, and that the UK’s programme of major events leading into the Games is already helping to ensure that we’ll be the best prepared host country ever.

Cancelling or postponing a major international sporting event is an arduous task which tests even the most experienced of organising committees. Unfortunately we have had to lose the FINA Diving World Series in Sheffield, after most of the competitors found themselves stranded in Mexico, but we’re hopeful the event will return to the UK ahead of 2012.

On the positive side, both of the other events will be going ahead and whilst some of the teams may be unable to make it, I’m confident that most of the top international athletes will be present at both Dalby Forest and Birmingham over the coming days. Tickets are still available for both and I’d encourage everyone to head along and support our British 2012 hopefuls.

Major sporting events are now regularly multi-million pound enterprises with large operational structures and complex networks of contractual obligations, and there is none bigger than the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Ensuring that crises such as the one we have experienced this week have minimal impact on every stakeholder is vital for any country hoping to host such an event.

We can never predict every unexpected eventuality, but we can ensure we are best prepared and best practiced ahead of 2012. With a major sporting event planned for every two weeks from now until the flame is lit, I am confident that the UK will be ready to host the greatest show on earth in just over two years time.

Simon Morton is Head of Events for UK Sport, the UK’s high performance sports agency

Daniel Keatings: Looking forward to making my mark in Birmingham

Duncan Mackay

British Gymnastics have announced the team for the European Artistic Gymnastics Championships, which start in Birmingham today after a day's delay because of the disruption caused by the volcanco errupting in Iceland, and I have been selected to represent Team GB.

I will be performing alongside fellow Huntingdon gymnast Louis Smith, Kristian Thomas, Daniel Purvis, Sam Hunter and Ruslan Pantelemonov.

So far 2010 has been a really good year with some confident results coming from competitions such as the London Open and the Tyson American Cup, but the preparations have been tough.

Having trained hard in Mexico for the European Championships the whole team is hopeful to get a place on the podium for the first time as a team at a major championship.

After my recent success at the London Open I am feeling confident. The British Team Championships also went well despite me dislocating two fingers in training before hand; putting my position within the team at risk. 

At the British Team Championships "Team Huntingdon" were again favourites to defend the title. We have won for the last three years and were really looking forward to making it a fourth. The Championships were also the final qualifier for selection onto the European team, so it was important to perform well.

The team has worked really hard to prepare for the championships, with all day sessions perfecting our routines; we were keen to retain our title as the number one British team. But in the end it just wasn’t enough.  Despite some strong performances on the apparatus, South Essex beat us to the top spot leaving Huntingdon in a respectable second place, ahead of Hinckley who had a very strong team.

So now it’s all about the Europeans. The selected gymnasts for Team GB are training really hard to perform the best they can and everyone is I am really looking forward to competing on home ground.

Daniel Keatings, who is powered by Opus Energy, made history last October when he became the first British gymnast to win a medal in the All-Around event at the World Gymnastics Championships. To find out more about his sponsorship deal with Opus Energy click here. 

Mike Moran: My encounter with Juan Antonio Samaranch

Duncan Mackay
Journalists have swiftly moved today to record the dramatic contributions of Juan Antonio Samaranch to the Olympic Games and the triumphs of the former IOC President who passed away this morning in Barcelona.

The enigmatic Spanish leader now stands with American Avery Brundage as an icon in global Olympic history, hailed for notable achievements - bringing life to the Games after three successive, damaging boycotts, bringing the sham of Olympic amateurism to an end and allowing professional athletes into the Games,  bringing much needed diversity to what had been for decades an all-white, old boys club, and creating a financial colossus like nothing else in sport.
At the same time, critics will recall the tarnished events like the 1998 Olympic bid scandals that rocked Lausanne to its foundation and led to the ouster of IOC Members and a complete revamping of how cities bid for, and win the Games.

But, make no mistake, he was the most powerful figure in Olympic lore, and his uncanny ability to take the creaky, blue-blood organization where he wanted it to go was remarkable to observe.

Samaranch visited Colorado Springs twice during my 25 years with the United States Olympic Committee as its chief spokesman, and his first appearance in the city used to be marked by a plaque, long gone now, on the wall in the entry to the old Olympic House. He also held court one day with former USOC President Bill Hybl at Penrose House for two hours with a room full of fascinated men and women, and the wristwatch he gave me that day still keeps on ticking.

I was summoned to his suite during the Olympic Winter Games in Albertville one morning in 1992, and the two hours I spent with him alone remains one of my most cherished experiences in my Olympic journey. He wanted to chat about media relations, the difficulty of the IOC’s attempts to deal with PR and getting out information, particularly in the United States, and how I might help.

He was clad in slacks and a simple red sweater and as casual as my next door neighbour. He took notes, asked questions, and let me go with another watch and an appointment to the IOC Press Commission. He called me "Mike"  and spent the last 15 minutes inquiring about baseball, my family and American food.

My memories of his time are spread across the depth and breadth of Games from Seoul to Salt Lake, and his impact on one of sport’s most compelling and controversial moments. Games’ organisers waited anxiously at Closing Ceremonies to hear him say “These are the best Games ever,” and if he did not, there was despair. He willed the world, 161 nations, to come to the Games in Seoul after the damage of the Moscow and Los Angeles Games boycotts, and he created an environment of joy, and cities suddenly falling over themselves to bid and gain the Games, and he welcomed women into the inner circles and oak-paneled rooms of the IOC.

He crated funding for the National Olympic Committees, to share in the riches garnered from the Games, and he used the power of his office to rebuild the ravaged facilities in Sarajevo, destroyed by the Balkans War in the 1984 Winter Games host city, for instance. And despite a somewhat tardy beginning, he ramped up anti-doping efforts to begin cleansing the IOC from the abhorrent legacy of the drug-enhanced East German and Soviet machines and their unforgiveable damage to athletes and sportsmanship.

When he began as IOC President in 1980, there were serious doubts about the future of the Games, but he built upon the success of the Los Angeles Games and the wealth of financial opportunities to restore the vitality of the Olympic movement.  When he left, the IOC had some $350,000,000 in available resources, and the Games were worth billions.

He was embarrassed at a Congressional hearing in Washington related to the bidding scandals, but kept his composure  The effects of this incident remain today as part of the uncomfortable relationship between the IOC and the USOC, now being aggressively addressed by Larry Probst and Scott Blackmun.

But he also was aware of the ability of the United States to present Games that enhanced the Olympic movement, and the financial clout of the USOC and American corporations and television. While he was a small man, he became a goliath in his world, a hard-to-define human being with flaws, but with skills that now will become intensely apparent to those who follow him in Lausanne, now burdened with sustaining what he built from the rubble of those boycotted Games.

Mike Moran was the chief communications officer of the USOC for nearly 25 years before retiring in 2003. In 2002 he was awarded with the USOC's highest award, the General Douglas MacArthur Award. He worked on New York's unsuccessful bid to host the 2012 Olympics and is now director of communications for the Colorado Springs Sports Corporation.

Karim Bashir: Conservatives offer best hope for sport in General Election

Duncan Mackay

We’re half-way into the major political parties jousting for top position in the polls and let’s face it, it’s closer than anyone thought it would be. As I write this the polls suggest that the Conservatives are leading the way but by an ever narrowing margin. Like the last election this is going to be a tight one which will come down to personality and a few key issues.

All the manifestos have been released and whilst education, health, the economy, the environment, home and foreign affairs will top the bill as always I believe the policies on the future of sport in this country should and will play a role. 

So for fun I thought I’d set myself the challenge of answering this simple question:  if all else was equal which of the party’s sports policy would I vote for?

I wanted to ensure fairness here so I decided to look back on some of the key decisions made over the last few year’s. The most significant was the decision by John Major to set up the National Lottery. Without the grants into all levels of sport who knows where we’d be now? Another major sporting milestone came in 2006 when the IOC announced London as the host city for the 2012 Olympics and Paralympic Games. This came on Toby Blair’s watch but with a cross-party bid team led by Lord Coe.

Since this announcement the Labour Government cut funding into sport from £397 million down to £209 million in 2006. In March 2006, Gordon Brown, then Chancellor, announced £600 million would be spent on elite sport for the London Olympic cycle. UK Sport’s grant allocation was quite rightly based on this figure however no organisation picked up the baton on looking for the £100 million portion which was to come from the private sector. 

The fallout from this error has meant that some sports have had severe cuts from what they were promised and ultimately some athletes had no choice but to give up their Olympic dream.  If that wasn’t bad enough I know that at least one major sponsor walked away from providing a significant cash investment into elite sport as a result of this blunder. 

Add to this reports of rising child obesity, 7-10 per cent of children not getting the minimum two  hours of PE per week at their school and high dropout rates from sport once children leave school and you could say that the Labour Government haven’t "competed" well in this area.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. In recognising the failure to deliver £100 million of private sector funding, the Department for Media, Culture and Sport invested a further £50 million to halve the funding gap; a brave move in the current economic climate. 

There has also been the adoption of a new strategy for elite sport which has undoubtedly contributed to the success that TeamGB had in Beijing and since. The restructuring of Sport England has also proved to be a success. So a mixed bag all in all.

So what’s the difference in the major party’s policies moving forward? My intention was to compare the three major parties. 

Unfortunately there simply isn’t enough detail in the LibDem’s sports policy compared to the two other major parties so they wont be getting my vote - in this hypothetical election.

Both Labour and the Conservatives recognise the value of sport at grassroots level and are targeting increased participation. They also both promise to deliver a successful Games in 2012, on time and on budget. Surprise surprise!  Finally they both seems to agree on the fact that healthy competition needs to be re-instilled in school sport…whoever decided that wasn’t the case was having a bad day!  The lessons learned from competitive school sport (and I mean winning and losing) are impossible to replace later in life.

The differences?  Labour, under Prime Minister Gordon Brown (pictured) seem to me to be focussing on what has already been achieved. "Our ambition is clear to be the first nation to create a world class sports system on the back of a home Olympics…….We have already delivered an increase of around 600,000, more adults participating in sport, and have set ourselves a clear and ambitious target of a million more people doing sport regularly by 2012."

There is the mention of their aim to reform club and community sport to help reduce the sport dropout level for school leavers which is a good policy.

The Conservatives seem to be taking a much more radical approach. Whilst they commit to leaving things as they are until after 2012 (sensibly) they have taken a leaf out of Labour’s book having recognised the value of the reform to Sport England.  The ambitious task they are setting themselves is to bring Sport England, UK Sport and the Youth Sports Trust "under one roof". Their other major goal is to create a Cabinet Office cross departmental sports body. 

I’ve not gone into great depth here but I believe I’ve covered the major issues on which the leading parties are basing their sport’s campaigns. On the one hand Labour are presenting a safe bet which aims to continue the good work they’ve done in re-structuring the administration of sport in the UK.  This is much needed work and no one can argue with that.  On the other hand the Conservatives are taking the much riskier path which will result in a major overhaul, has the potential to upset a lot of National Governing Bodies (NGBs) and will undoubtedly result in job losses in public sector sports administration. However given the affect that sport has on multiple Government departments there is a growing argument for this approach.

So where does that leave me?  Honestly, this is a tough one. 

As a sportsman the safer Labour approach is attractive. NGBs wont be asked to make another set of radical changes to their approach to their sport’s infrastructure and the “slow and steady” approach wont attract huge resistance. The businessman in me asks the simple question; if I was in charge of the administration of sport in this country what would I do? 

The current set-up has grown organically and every organisation delivers against its target in the way it has been asked. Through no fault of their own though, these organisations aren’t "joined up" enough. This means their messages get diluted; the good work they do is overlapped by the good work of other sporting bodies and has generally led to a very confused stakeholder market. When I talk to potential sponsors some walk away from sport purely because they cannot understand how all of these organisations fit together. 

The answer: get through the Olympics, hopefully with even more success than we had in Beijing and then overhaul the entire setup of sport from Central Government to rural grassroots community sport.  If it just came down to sporting policies, the Conservative party would get my vote.  If only it were that simple.

Karim Bashir is a former British international fencer who won a silver medal at the 1998 Commonwealth Games. He is the founder and managing director of Catch Sport, an online sponsorship brokering service which is free to use for athletes from all sports.

Jonathan Brownlee: Moving up and setting my sights on my brother

Duncan Mackay

It’s nice to see a change in the weather and that the snow, as nice as it was, has finally melted up here in Leeds. Being a duathlete and triathlete, I spend a lot of my time out on the moors either running or cycling and so this long winter has been a bit of a nightmare. 

We had a week-long winter training camp in Spain where we thought we’d get a respite from the weather but it rained the whole time and then we arrived back and the UK was covered in snow!

For at least two months it was too risky to train on my road bike so I switched to mountain biking and also had to increase my turbo training and do more indoor training and swimming. 

The mountain biking was actually good fun and a nice change - it’s amazing how quickly you can become an expert at judging which snow to ride through and which patches you need to avoid.

As there are multiple disciplines within duathlon and triathlon, my training is very varied and takes up a lot of my time. I’m usually swimming from 7am for an hour-and-a-half and then I do two or three hours on the bike and a one hour run later in the evening. 

In between those commitments I’ll sometimes have extra gym or physio time. On top of all that, I have to find time to study for my history degree. Thankfully, my course isn’t too intensive in terms of lecture and seminar time so I can fit all the independent study around my schedule. It’s not always easy though and it doesn’t leave much time for a social life - it’s a good job that a lot of my friends are also people that I train with and I certainly find that cycling is quite a social sport.

I’m also very lucky that I get to train with my older brother and fellow BT Ambassador, Alistair, who is the current ITU Triathlon World champion. We’re great mates, and also share coaches, so we do nearly all our training together. It’s good to have someone to train with and, as Alistair is a few years ahead of me and has had extra experience of training and competing, he’s been able to help in my development as a triathlete. 

He is a particularly good judge of when we should push ourselves harder or take things a bit easier and I’ve also learnt a lot more about the technical side of the bikes from him. It’s invaluable to have so much time with him and to learn from his experiences and it’s even useful outside of competition - sometimes the travel or pre-race nerves can be a bit daunting and he’s fantastic to have as a travel buddy if we’re away competing together.

All the competitions can add up to a lot of travelling and that’s one of the reason it’s great that BT have signed both Alistair and myself up as two of their Ambassadors for their London 2012  programme. As well as providing us with phones and broadband access at home, they’ve also given us mobiles and roaming internet access so we have peace of mind that, whenever we’re away from home, we know we can stay in touch with people and also keep up with our studying commitments without having to worry.

Last year was a really strong year for me as I silver medalled at the ITU Junior World Championship and won the ETU European Junior Triathlon Championship and British Duathlon Junior Championship. That’s why, for the new season, I’ll be moving up to compete at under-23 level. 

It’s a big step, as the distances increase, but it’s one that I’m prepared for as I’ve already entered senior level competitions, including my first ITU World Championship Series races, where I feel I made some real progress and got very encouraging finishing places. 

When you compete at junior level, you tend to stay in it for two or three years, whereas under-23 level is a category that you look to move out of, into senior, as quickly as possible.

Like a lot of athletes my age, I’ve always got one eye on London 2012. To compete for Great Britain in triathlon on home turf, with my country’s crowd cheering me on, would be an incredible experience. I definitely recognise it as a once in a lifetime opportunity. As I’m still developing in my sport, it doesn’t feel like London 2012 is adding any extra pressure on me. 

It’s also great when London 2012 Partners such as BT want to support you and it certainly helps encourage me and keeps my mind focused towards the ultimate prize – winning an Olympic medal.

Jonathan Brownlee is a BT Ambassador. BT is the official communications services partner for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games and title sponsor of the BT Paralympic World Cup.  For more information click here

Sue Mott: British hockey emerges with credit from China test

Duncan Mackay

It was tough assignment. GB women’s hockey chose a series of matches against the Olympic silver medalists, China, to launch their assault on a competitive season that will include hosting The Champions Trophy in Nottingham and playing the World Cup in Argentina.

But having fielded a young, partially experimental, GB team at Bisham Abbey against the Chinese they emerged with credit, winning the first warm-up game and then losing two closely-contested Test matches by a narrow margin of goals. They lost the first test 2-1, China scoring from their only two penalty corners of the game, and the second 3-1 after the home side failed to convert a series of corners and chances.

Danny Kerry, the GB women’s coach, was quietly impressed by his team’s ability to dominate the possession, but did admit to a nagging frustration at the failure to convert their chances. "But this is all about preparation for the major tournaments this year. The big thing, as a group, is that we’re making massive gains and it fills me with a lot of optimism," he said.

Among the relative newcomers to combat were debutant Ashleigh Ball, forward Charlotte Craddock, defender Nat Seymour and goalkeeper, Kirsty Mackay, from Blackpool who once bumped into David Beckham in the Disney Store at the Trafford Shopping Centre in Manchester and has his autograph to prove it.

The second Test also marked the 50th cap of defender Crista Cullen, who was returning to the team after a long injury lay-off following a serious operation on her wrist. Since her idea of recuperation was to drive a land cruiser down the East Coast of Africa with a friend, involving at least one swollen river, a home-made raft and a crowd of on-looking hippos, her successful reinstatement in the team was not a forgone conclusion.

Her coach described her as a "rumbustious" character, both "hugely strong and hugely athletic". Born in England and brought up in Kenya, Cullen has an elder brother, Gray, who is currently auditioning for the Kenya rugby sevens squad to play at the Commonwealth Games in India this autumn. It could make a good Trivial Pursuit question one day: "Name the brother and sister who played in two different sport for two different countries at the 2010 Commonwealth Games."

The preparation for this year’s World Cup now moves on to matches against Germany in May and Australia in June. It has not yet been decided which of the matches will be granted Test status but according to Kerry it makes little difference. "We don’t play friendlies against Australia anyway."

Possibly restored to the side by then could be a number of players from Scotland and Wales. Laura Bartlett, Emily McGuire and goalkeeper Abi Walker were all missing from the Test series against China because they were due fly to Chile on Sunday - volcanic dust permitting - for Scotland’s World Cup qualifying matches. Although lowest ranked of all the team in the group which includes Australia and Ireland, Walker was adamant that the Scots intend to "take more points off the teams than they take off us."

Walker was taking a short leave of absence from her day job to compete. She is a surgeon at St George’s Hospital in London, having recently completed a stint in brain surgery.

When people ask footballers about being brain surgeons, it is a fair bet they are only joking. When it comes to women’s hockey, it happens to be absolutely true. 

Award-winning sports columnist, feature writer and chief interviewer at the Daily Telegraph for 12 years, Sue Mott is now much in demand in her new freelance capacity. A major contributor to television and radio - all terrestrial channels, Sky, ESPN and Radio 5Live - she has covered all the major sporting events including World Cups, Olympics, Wimbledon, Commonwealth Games, Athletic World Championships, FA Cup Finals and several Test series.

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