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Alan Hubbard: Rugby understands that success can't be delivered overnight

Alan_Hubbard_Nov_11You might say John Steele has had an eventful baptism as the man charged with picking up the badly scuffed oval ball after Bloodgate, the scandal which got Twickers in a twist.

But the new chief executive of the Rugby Football Union is as resolute as his name suggests, and is determined not only to refurbish the game's image but ensure it flourishes both at grass roots and international levels. Not least now that it has joined the Olympic family.

I have been an admirer of Steele's qualities as one of the prime movers and shakers in British sport since he swapped the rugby field for the chief executive's office at UK Sport in 2005. That was an inspired appointment which ended this summer when he was made the proverbial offer he couldn't refuse to take over from Francis Baron as head honcho at Twickenham.

He says it was a wrench to leave UK Sport at a critical time with the London Olympics pulse quickening.

"It was incredibly exciting to be breaking new ground with the Olympics so when I was approached about this role I did have to think hard, really hard," he told me over breakfast at rugby's HQ this week. "But actually this is my sport, a sport I am passionate about, in which I've spent my life either playing, coaching or being involved.

"It really was absolutely the right job for me but I'm looking across at the Olympic environment with a lot of interest. Slightly vested interest in a way because I spent so much time on it and I want it to be a success which I am sure it will be.

"It is good that I will continue to be in touch with the Olympics because of the involvement of rugby sevens. For me, being in Beijing was a real eye opener about the power of Olympic sport and how it reaches further than just the competition. It crosses all cultures and has a global influence.

"I think sevens will have a big impact as an Olympic sport both for men and women. You will get countries that haven't been associated with any type of rugby now getting involved - countries like China. If there's a medal available they'll bring in coaches, organise talent profiles and hothouse people in the attempt to get one."

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The former Royal Artillery captain and England A fly-half, 46, who played and coached at Northampton before turning around the financial fortunes of the Saints as executive director, has returned to rugby at a time when the profile of the sport has never been higher.

He says: "This is probably the most exciting time ever for British sport with the 2012 Olympics coming up. Rugby is a sport that is always looking to extend its boundaries and this is a prime opportunity. Ok, it's sevens and not 15s, but it's a foothold in the game for a lot of countries."

Could the Olympics ever embrace the full-blown game?

"I think sevens is perfectly suited to the Olympics. It is very user friendly, there's a great atmosphere, it's quick, it's punchy. Some aspects of 15-a-side rugby can be quite complex. Sevens you can explain to someone in five minutes, even if they have never watched it before."

In his five-year stewardship of UK Sport Steele had overall responsibility for orchestrating Britain's anti-doping programme and procuring world-class events, as well as the organisation being the conduit for Lottery funding for elite sport.

It will stand him in good stead at Twickenham where, he says "there is a lot going on".

"Since I started I've been out on the road talking to people at the goalposts of the game - players, volunteers, referees, coaches. I've been down to Cornwall, Somerset, Wiltshire, Yorkshire, Hertfordshire, Bucks, all over meeting all the constituent bodies.

"It has been a very positive first impression for me. We've got a thriving game at minis and youth level, the base of the pyramid which is very healthy. There are a lot of kids coming into and enjoying the game. Probably where we start experiencing issues is among the 16 to 24-year-olds where there is a retention problem.

"That is not specific to rugby. This probably reflects a different culture, change in attitudes from youngsters who are at a period of their lives when they are mobile, leaving the community they've been in to go into further education or employment.

"That's something we have to look at. We have to ensure we are forward thinking in terms of the different formats of rugby. It is not just about 15-a-side, three o'clock on a Saturday. There's tag, there's touch, there's sevens, women's rugby, all these different areas which we have to be aware of and develop. I think the game is in a good place at the moment but there's lots of work to be done on how we develop players, referees, coaches and volunteers.

"Getting young players into the game is a challenge for all sports but rugby does have a unique culture with the way the game is played and the camaraderie on and off the pitch. The values of the game are very strong - we can never be complacent about that, we need to preserve and develop them.

"One of the things the RFU is involved with is training police officers to become coaches who then go into the schools and the kids then see them as their coach rather than a policeman which creates a trust and is a way of using sport to break down any barriers (there are 600 of these coaches). It has been a phenomenal success."

Like all sports, rugby will be hit by a decrease in Government funding but is in a better financial position than some to absorb this.

"It is something we have to stand up and cope with, as will all sports. I think [Sports Minister] Hugh Robertson has done a very good job at managing the difficult balance between sport playing its part in what is a national issue and making sure we keep on the right path in developing Olympic and non-Olympic sports. If it had been handled differently, it would have been disastrous for sport."

While the RFU is not as dysfunctional as the body governing the round ball game, there have been problems to sort out at Twickenham, where Steele is engaged in a comprehensive review of its entire workings. No area will escape scrutiny, including the management of the England team.

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But he insists Martin Johnson (pictured) will be given time, and that rugby fans are not as impatient as those in football demanding the head of under-achieving Fabio Capello.

"The England team is our shop window but as with any sport at any one moment you can't have instant success. Rugby fans have actually been very patient and they understand the need to develop sides.

"If you look at the success of 2003 [when Sir Clive Woodward's team won the World Cup], and work back from there, '99 was a pretty difficult World Cup for England. But they learned from that and the squad was then better able to deliver at key times and that resulted in the success of 2003.

"There have been some difficult years after that huge high but since 2007 a lot of players involved in 2003 exited the scene and we have a new group of players under Martin. I think, after last week they showed they are starting to gel. Things are looking positive but success can't be delivered overnight and I think the rugby fraternity do understand that.

"But what they do expect is absolute commitment when the players run out on to the pitch and I think we have that at the moment. Last Saturday against the All Blacks we had five guys who had never played at Twickenham before so I think it's developing well.

"I have a good rapport with Martin. My job is to support him - whatever he needs, I am there to help him. He is very focused and committed to creating a successful England team. But, like everyone else, including me and some of the players, he is developing in the job.

"The signs are all there that we have a good young squad and he is blooding these youngsters in a shrewd way. It's not going to be easy and you could not ask for a bigger test at the moment with the three big international games we are playing against the best countries in the world.

"We have a vibrant Premiership but internationally are ranked sixth in the world and obviously we want to be higher. No one is happy with a loss but on Saturday we showed we can compete with the world's number one team.

"I would like to see us going into next year's World Cup [in New Zealand] with the ability to compete with the rest of the world. I think this autumn should give us a good indicator as to whether this is possible."

In 2015 Steele will be doing what his opposite number at the FA would love to be doing and organising a home World Cup.

"All our business plans and hopes will be driven by us staging the World Cup. Yes it's a tournament but it's also a catalyst for change as London has shown with the Olympics. If we don't drive the business forward, we won't have the resources to further the game at grass-roots, community and international level.

"We are looking at 2015 to underpin and help us attain all of our goals."

Steele, who has 12-year-old twin daughters with athletic aspirations, is clearly a man of some fortitude, having trekked up Everest and cycled across Vietnam and Cambodia raising money for anti-racism and cancer charities. He has himself beaten throat cancer.

That oval ball seems to have landed in a safe pair of hands.

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, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.

Liz Nicholl: World class conference a success as British sport takes courage

Liz_NichollI am extremely proud and privileged to be chief executive of UK Sport and even more so to be a part of the wider Olympic and Paralympic family who have joined us in St Andrews over the past three days at our annual World Class Performance Conference.

The aim of the conference is to reflect on and learn from collective experiences of the high quality individuals across different sports and environments, in order to share best practice and prepare for the challenges ahead.

The theme this year has been "Courage" - highlighting the need for tough and brave decisions, conversations and actions at this vital time in the Olympic cycle.

In advance of arriving, making the move up here to St Andrews for our tenth, and my ninth, conference was a brave decision.

But it was the right one.

These past three days more than 300 coaches, performance directors and support staff from over 30 Olympic and Paralympic sports have been able to lock themselves away, discuss key issues, and listen to different ways of thinking in a very suitable environment.

There has been a real feeling of togetherness and readiness to take on any challenges that are coming our way.

Key partners such as the BOA, BPA, the four sports institutes, Sports Coach UK were all here and helping to ensure that no stone is left unturned in our collective pursuit of excellence in the coming years.

The speakers and sessions were once again outstanding.

Truly world class.

But, for me, the most important aspect of the conference was the sharing that delegates were able to do.

The teamwork that inevitably comes from being shut away together for three days.

The discussion over coffee between two different head coaches, from two completely different sports, about a similar problem.

The dinner conversations between two performance directors, with similar goals but slightly different methods in place for getting there.

Working together has never been more important and has never been more on show than it was this week.

One thing that has been undeniably evident this week has been the feeling of excitement that is building ahead of 2012.

Olympic and Paralympic sport has had an incredible year in 2010 and we have never been better placed two years out from a Games, thanks to the hard work and determination of all our athletes, coaches and support staff.

The conference gives everyone the opportunity to share these experiences from 2010, take time out, reflect and learn.

But that doesn't mean stop, or sit still, or wait.

And I know that won't happen.

The people involved in this joint dream won't let it and there is a definite feeling here at the conference that the time is coming to deliver and we are ready for it.

I have also noticed another important feeling beginning to grow and take hold.

That is the feeling that things are in fact only just beginning.

That although we are about to start the final assent to the top of one mountain, we can also see the next peak, the next challenge.

Sochi and Glasgow 2014 are in sight and Rio 2016 is already firmly in our minds.

What we all do now will make it easier or harder for those dedicated to making those events a success in performance terms.

We have the support and will to make sure it is easier.

The road ahead is as clear as it has ever been.

We have the resources following the recent Comprehensive Spending Review, we can see the journey through to London and beyond and we now must all do everything we can to make the nation proud.

There is no reason why we can't and, having spent the last three days here in St Andrews, I can see no reason why we won't.

Liz Nicholl is the chief executive of UK Sport, the nation's high performance sports agency. For more information on UK Sport click here

Andy Hunt: Fireworks on the rowing lake

Andy_Hunt_with_BOA_logo_behind_himWhile many of us throughout the UK gathered around bonfires to celebrate Guy Fawkes this past weekend, Great Britain's rowers were busy producing fireworks of their own at the World Championships on Lake Karapiro in New Zealand.

The achievement of four gold, four silver and one bronze medal, won in nine of the 14 Olympic classes, saw GB top the medal table and is Britain's best ever medal haul from a World Championships.

No less than 34 British rowers will return to the UK as World Championship medallists - a fantastic achievement and a huge boost to the athletes, with less than two years until the greatest sporting show on earth hits Dorney Lake in 2012.

Among the many outstanding performances, it was excellent to see our women rowers win two gold medals for the first time, led by the irrepressible Katherine Grainger (pictured below left) who claimed her fifth World title in the pair. It was also impressive and a remarkable feat that 38-year-old Greg Searle won his first World Championship medal since 1997.

What a story it would be if Katherine, three times an Olympic silver medallist and a member of the British Olympic Association (BOA) Athletes' Commission, is able to achieve that elusive Olympic gold in 2012; and if Greg is able to replicate his Olympic medal winning feat 20 years on from Barcelona 1992, when he first stood on top of the Olympic podium.

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Greg and Katherine are examples of what can be achieved with the commitment, dedication and sheer desire to be the best that you can be, combined with the unique attraction of competing at an Olympic Games on home water.

These results serve as another demonstration of what is possible when you bring together a well managed and well funded National Governing Body, with a world class high-performance plan and coaches together with talented, determined athletes.

Last weekend also saw the first edition of track cycling's European Championships in Poland, where GB cyclists claimed seven medals, including three golds.

Jason Kenny was one of the stars for GB, completing a hat-trick of podium finishes with gold in the keirin and bronze in both the individual and team sprint. This represents a solid start to the London 2012 qualification campaign. It's a long road, and it's all about peaking at the right time, but it was also important to start well.

British Cycling Performance Director Dave Brailsford spent the beginning of last week at the 2012 Team Leaders summit we hosted at Loughborough University. During the meeting we shared our blueprint for Team GB success in 2012 and discussed the high performance, operations and logistics plans to support Team GB prior to, and during, the London Olympics.

One of the greatest outcomes of the meeting was the spirit of cooperation and collaboration among all the sports, and the willingness of consistently successful Olympic sports such as cycling, sailing and rowing to share their knowledge, best practice and Olympic experience with the sports in the room who are new to the Olympic environment, for the wider benefit of the single, unified Team GB in London in 2012.

For their part, the Team Leaders expressed their support and confidence in our planning and preparation for 2012 and welcomed our collective determination to challenge the status quo. They were particularly pleased with the introduction of the newly created Sports Engagement Managers, who will act as the first point of contact between the BOA and sports.

A busy week for the BOA continued with a meeting of the Advisory Board, followed by a National Olympic Committee meeting (NOC) on Wednesday, which was attended by Hugh Robertson, Minister for Sport and Olympics, who updated NOC members on the comprehensive spending review and implications for elite sport in the run up to London 2012 and shared his vision for the future sporting landscape post 2012.

Yesterday the BOA's headquarters in Charlotte Street were host to the second meeting of the BOA Athletes' Commission. Sarah Winckless and her colleagues, who among  them can draw upon the combined experience from 33 summer and winter Olympic Games, debated how best to optimise engagement with and dissemination of information to athletes and followed on from the Team Leaders discussion of topics such as social media guidance.

On the sporting front, Liverpool will this weekend host a landmark occasion for GB boxing as the first GB Amateur Boxing Championships begin, and the women's titles will be contested at the same Championships as the men. Britain boasts exciting talent across both genders so competition is expected to be intense in the fight for a place on Team GB in 2012.

Andy Hunt is the chief executive of the British Olympic Association and Team GB Chef de Mission for London 2012

Tom Degun: Why I'm backing Kazakhstan to be a major player in world sport

Tom_Degun_for_Kazakhstan_blogWhen I mention Kazakhstan, a strangely familiar yet completely ludicrous figure will probably pop into your head and it is likely to be that of Borat Sagdiyev - better known simply as Borat.

Borat is the name (and indeed the film title) of a fictional Kazakhstani character outrageously portrayed by Sacha Baron Cohen.

Cohen,well-known for his equally ridiculous roles as "Ali G" and "Bruno", shows Borat to be a vulgar Kazakhstani journalist devoid of any apparent intelligence.

When I tell you that the plot involves him travelling to America to marry Pamela Anderson after watching a rerun of Baywatch and then getting involved in a naked wrestling match with another man in the middle of a luxury hotel, it's pretty much all you need to know.

The film obviously didn't provide an accurate portrayal of people from the ninth largest country in the world but other than Cohen's infamous character and the fact that the Kazakhstani football team appear to play England in major championship qualifiers on a surprisingly regular basis - and are one of England's very few "guaranteed" easy games - not too much is known of the nation in these parts.

If I told you that Kazakhstan was a currently sporting powerhouse, I would probably get as many laughs as Borat, but very soon all that could change as the country has slowly but surely began to make its move in becoming a major player.

I found this out first-hand when I recently visited the delightful city of Almaty - the former capital of Kazakhstan before Astana took over - for the 2010 International Boxing Association Congress.

I headed there without hearing one positive comment about the transcontinental country located in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, but as I landed in Almaty I soon realised that none of those I had spoken to were particularly well informed about the place.

I was immediately greeted on the ground by volunteers who were equally as friendly and fluent in English as those I had encountered at the Delhi Commonwealth Games and the Singapore Youth Olympics not too long ago.

And upon arriving at probably the nicest hotel I have ever stayed in, I was rather taken aback when I pulled apart my bedroom curtains to see the most picturesque of mountain ranges surrounding the elegant buildings of Almaty.

It is actually these very same snow-topped mountains that are key to Kazakhstan's future plans as it is in winter sport that the country is hoping to make its mark.

Those with a decent memory may recall the fact that Almaty actually put together a bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics and Paralympics. It was a solid attempt to host the Games and International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Jacque Rogge even went as far as to say that it was a very good bid, but it was implied that Almaty was not as feasibly up-to-par as the three cities eventually shortlisted - Sochi, Pyeongchang and Salzburg.

Borat_in_swimming_customThe Russian city of Scohi won the bid, while Korea's Pyeongchang is again one of the three candidate cities selected by the IOC Executive Board to host the 2018 Winter Games. They currently face stiff competition from Annecy and Munich for the honour.

Almaty though, was well-beaten in its campaign to host the 2014 Games and it was feared by some that the dream of hosting major sporting competition was over before it had even properly begun.

That scenario though, is apparently not the case as Almaty, alongside Kazakhstan's new capital Astana, has secured the right to host the 2011 Asian Winter Games.

Although neither the summer nor winter version of the Asian Games are overly publicised by the majority of the Western media, make no doubt about the scale or grandeur of them.

The Asian Summer Games, which take place in Guangzhou, China later this month, will feature 45 nations competing in 476 events across 42 sports with many of the venues larger than those at the Beijing 2008 Olympics.

Meanwhile the VII Winter Games in Almaty and Astana, which begin next January, will boast around 2,500 athletes competing in 69 events across 11 sports.

On top of the Government of Kazakhstan has invested $ 726 million (£450 million) in the event to go towards building state-of-the-art venues, including the fantastic multipurpose Almaty Sports Palace, where I had the great privilege of watching the first ever World Series of Boxing (WSB) contest during my trip.

A Ski Resort Centre and the Athletes' Village will absorb $480 million (£297.65 million) with transport and infrastructure also taking a large chunk. Private investors are also set to plough in over $300 million (£1.86 million) in the project meaning that overall Kazakhstan is spending over $1 billion (£620 million) as it looks to show it can host a major sporting event to a high standard.

Granted, the Asian Winter Games is no Winter Olympics, but few can deny that it is a damn good springboard to such an event.

One only need look at how the widely acclaimed Manchester 2002 Commonwealth Games paved the way for a successful London 2012 Olympic bid to realise how successfully staging one major multi-sport event leads inevitably to hosting another, bigger one.

So in a nutshell, the Asian Winter Games will be an invaluable experience in hosting for the cities of Almaty and Astana and, should all go well, one that could well open the door for a bright future.

During my stay in Kazakhstan, I briefly managed to speak to the former Almaty Mayor, Imangali Tasmagambetov, a charming fellow who is a huge sports fan.

Tasmagambetov believes that Kazakhstan hosting events such as the Asian Winter Games and the 2010 International Boxing Association Congress shows it is ready to be considered a serious contender for the bigger events.

"Almaty hosting the 7th Asian Winter Games, first of all, is indicative of the growing role of Kazakhstan in the world community as an independent country," Tasmagambetov explained.

"Kazakhstan is becoming more and more recognisable owing to vast backing by our president Nursultan Nazarbayev.

"I am earnestly convinced that the next Asian Games due in Almaty will demonstrate all the sporting might of Kazakhstan and allow others to see our polyethnic country and also enjoy our rich culture and history.

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"We will do our best to make the Opening and Closing Ceremonies not merely memorable performances, but also striking, breathtaking and ingenious with a broad range of topics covered.

"We will also strike everyone with our sporting achievements.

"Our preparations for these Asian Games will be comprehensive."

A bold statement indeed, but you get the feeling it carries more than a hint of truth.

Kazakhstan are successful in a number of sports, not least in boxing where they boast the likes of high profile Olympic champion Bakhyt Sarsekbayev and where their WSB franchise the Astana Arlans, which is led by Sarsekbayev, one of the big hitters at the business end of the competition.

However, I feel certain it is in the winter sports that Kazakhstan will make its mark on the global stage and prove to the Western world that there is a whole lot more to it than just Borat.

So Kazakhstan to host the 2022 Winter Olympics?

That's pretty unlikely.

But Kazakhstan to host the Winter Olympics before 2042?

I'd definitely put a few quid on that.

Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames

Gordon Tietjens: Dubai is another major building block on the road to Rio 2016

Gordon_Tietjens_head_and_shouldersI always look forward to a new IRB Sevens World Series and this year it's no different. Obviously I have had a lot of enjoyment over the years being involved - it's eight good tournaments, all of them really enjoyable, and I am really looking forward to it.

The pools were announced recently for the first event on December 3-4 in Dubai, which has to be one of my favourite places to visit, and I often get asked what I make of our pool. The truth is that you just don't know, you are going into the unknown.

I don't know what Argentina are going to be like, I don't know what the USA are going to be like and I certainly don't know how Zimbabwe are going to shape up.

It's the very first tournament where everyone is feeling out what everyone has got until you get out on the track. And I will have a new team as well so it is going to be different for all the teams, particularly on day one. After that we'll sit down and have a look at the DVDs, but we won't really know much until day two.

I'm excited too that my boys will be defending our title in Dubai. It was a great performance first up last year, one that made me really proud, and winning the Commonwealth Games has upped the ante for us.

People might see us as the team to beat and clearly we'll be going all out to win in Dubai and win the World Series, but I think the sleeping giant is Fiji this year. They weren't at the Commonwealth Games, which was a real shame for them, but they'll go quietly about their business - they play Sevens week in and week out in Fiji and I think they will bring a very good side.

Defending Series champions Samoa will be strong too, England will be good and Ben Ryan has already said to me that he'll have the same side that he took to Delhi, and then of course you mustn't forget Australia. They got better and better with every tournament last season, ended up winning one in London and made the final in Edinburgh. They also pushed us very close in Delhi, so they're also a threat, a very good team.

I get asked a lot what the secret is to winning Commonwealth Games and to be honest it's just a lot of hard work, and knowing how special the prize is if you do win. The most memorable moments in my rugby coaching career have been seeing a player being presented with a gold medal to the raising of the flag and listening to your anthem – there is nothing better than that.

It is quite sentimental but you are not just representing rugby, you are representing New Zealand at all sports. There is a little bit of added pressure, particularly after you have won the first three gold medals at the Games - Kuala Lumpur in 98, Manchester 2002 and Melbourne 2006 - and the expectation within the NZ sports team was right up there, and I had a pretty good side.

I still thought we may have to battle to win it because obviously the game of Sevens has closed dramatically over the last few years and everyone was going there with ambitions to win the gold medal, but we managed to do it, which was really pleasing.

I turned up with four former All Blacks, using Sevens perhaps to get back into the main side, which two of them did - Liam Messam and Hosea Gear (pictured) got themselves back in the All Blacks through good performances at the Games. But the other two players, Ben Smith and Zac Guildford, had never really played much Sevens outside of club level and one had played at provincial Sevens, so that was that. But they are good rugby players.

Hosea_Gear

We had to work particularly hard, especially in Dubai before we went to Delhi. I had to smash them for a couple of days there because we hadn't been playing in any tournaments whatsoever. Some of the other teams had played in Darwin the week before - Australia and Samoa - so I felt we were behind the 8-ball. We worked particularly hard in 40 degrees in Dubai and I think those two days we had there was the winning of the tournament.

And the Commonwealth Games are becoming more and more relevant to us all. I was told the other day that we're now less than 70 months until the Olympics in Rio and when you put it like that you start to realise that it's not too far away in terms of a player's lifecycle.

We've had some meetings in New Zealand looking at where the players are going to come from that will play in the Olympic Games in Rio in 2016. Those players are basically coming through the secondary schools now so we've got to identify them and encourage them to come into Sevens. We're also fortunate to have players like Zac Guilford and Ben Smith, who will be around in six years' time very much pushing for that Olympic team.

There's a lot of research and work to do in the next two years though. We've seen how successful Sevens is at a multisport games in the Commonwealths, not just because we've been winning but just the support, the crowd, the excitement and it's only going to get better going to Rio.

Six years isn't a long time at all and you can see the interest even now that there is in China and Asia, and it's not just men it's women too.

There's no doubt, it's all very exciting working towards the Olympics but in many respects the work's only just beginning, and Dubai is another major building block.

Gordon Tietjens has been coach of the New Zealand Sevens team for the past 17 years

David Owen: How Gareth Bale holds the key to fielding a British football team at London 2012

David Owen small(2)Gareth Bale is Superman.

Such is the inescapable conclusion from the footballer's two blistering displays against European champions Internazionale of Milan in recent weeks and the media hype that has accompanied them.

But Bale is also Welsh.

This means that, like Ryan Giggs and Northern Ireland's George Best before him, Bale is likely to miss out on the final stages of most big international football tournaments during his career - events like the World Cup and European Championships.

And the Olympic Games.

Or is he?

My hope is that the 21-year-old's spectacular emergence since the start of the season can force the hand of those who are threatening to spoil a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and ensure that we have a proper British football team at London 2012.

I know that I have a bee in my bonnet about this.

But it truly would be one of the out-and-out highlights of these 2012 Games if a genuinely British men's football squad could take part on a one-off basis.

The obvious point of comparison - though it is far from guaranteed that their on-field performance would merit the accolade - is with the so-called US "Dream Team" which strolled to gold in the 1992 Olympic men's basketball competition in Barcelona.

At the moment - though I am far from the only one reluctant to give up on the idea - we look like being deprived of this spectacle.

The most likely scenario would see Britain represented by an all-English team - a recipe, I fear, for a low-octane tournament and more dreary goalless draws against Algeria.

The British Olympic Association (BOA) told me this week it was looking to have matters such as selection criteria resolved by early next year.

Asked in September whether he was confident there would be non-English players in the Olympic football squads, Andy Hunt, the BOA's chief executive, told me: "I would hope for all of our home nations to be represented and given the opportunity to be potentially selected, but selection will always be on merit won't it?"

Gareth_Bale_blogOn current form, Bale is probably the only non-Englishman who would indisputably grace a Great Britain First Eleven.

Scotland and Manchester United's Darren Fletcher (and even Scotland and Tottenham's Alan Hutton) might also be in the frame.

But Bale is the only certainty.

I would like him now to step back into his Superman call-box, speak out and say that, if selected, of course he would be delighted to play for a Great Britain team in the 2012 Olympics.

That might seem like a big ask for a young man of impeccable manners still in the early stages of his international football career.

But how could Welsh football administrators react?

Surely they would not drop the young winger who, pending a full recovery by Aaron Ramsey, is their only remotely world-class player and prime marketing asset?

And if they did?

Well, Wikipedia tells me that Bale was eligible, through his grandmother, to play for England.

I'm no tactical genius, but I'd say that he and Ashley Cole would make a more than presentable left-sided combination.

And would the presence of a genuinely British Great Britain team at the London Olympics really jeopardise the international futures of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as has been claimed?

I don't seriously think so, provided the team was a one-off to augment the sense of occasion for the 2012 Games.

And if it did start rumblings within FIFA, well the British countries would be able to draw on some powerful allies.

I don't suppose, for example, that UEFA boss Michel Platini, would be all that enthusiastic about Europe's voting strength in world football being potentially diluted by three.

OK, the Olympic football competition, which has an age limit of 23 with three over-age players permitted, is not on the level of a World Cup, or even, most would say, a European Championship.

But, I repeat, this might well be the only opportunity Bale gets to win some respectable silverware while representing his country.

He might even end up playing for the club manager under whom he has blossomed - the irrepressible Harry Redknapp.

Let's, please, not deprive him - and ourselves - of this unique opportunity.

David Owen is a specialist sports journalist who worked for 20 years for the Financial Times in the United States, Canada, France and the UK. He ended his FT career as sports editor after the 2006 World Cup and is now freelancing, including covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 World Cup. Owen's Twitter feed can be accessed at www.twitter.com/dodo938

Alan Hubbard: Someone ring the bell - Prince Naseem is back in business

ALAN HUBBARD PLEASE USE THIS ONE(1)Half time was approaching in the Arsenal-West Ham game at the Emirates last Saturday when into Frank Warren's hospitality box bounded a familiar figure, if somewhat podgier than in his fighting days.

Naseem Hamed, no less. The boxer formerly known as Prince had in tow the new Commonwealth Games light-heavyweight champion, Callum Johnson.

Blithely he announced he is to become a manager and that the 25-year-old big-hitter who won gold for Scotland is his first signing. "You can tell everyone that Naz is back in boxing," declared the former world featherweight champion.

It is eight years since the inimitable Naz last strutted his imperious stuff in the ring, from which he has never officially announced his retirement.

Has he missed boxing: "Not as much as it has missed me," he retorted with a flash of that once-familiar arrogance.

He does seem to have mellowed somewhat these days, aided no doubt by a spell in jail following a serious motoring offence and the fact that he has left his old stamping ground in Sheffield and now resides, with his family (wife and three sons) cushioned by the millions he made from boxing, on the edge of Wentworth golf course, where he plays regularly. "Boxing has lost its glamour and excitement," he tells us. "I'm going to bring it back."

Well, he has yet to get his manager's licence, but there's no doubt he will, especially as once again he has Warren in his corner as his promoter. They famously fell out in the nineties after Warren had steered him, as he did other subsequent 'deserters' Ricky Hatton, Joe Calzaghe and Amir Khan, to their world titles and riches.

But Hamed has been popping up at the ringside at Warren shows of late and on Saturday it was evident that they are bosom buddies again.

I have to say that of all the boxers I have known Naz was one of the most talented but least likeable, often supercilious and demeaning of opponents and we in the media. But now he could not be friendlier, though I declined to remind him of the occasion when, in his penultimate fight, he was humiliatingly humbled in Las Vegas by the formidable Mexican Marco Antonio Barrera- his only defeat in 37 contests.

The smirks on the faces of British scribes at the painful conclusion of that 12-round drubbing indicated that the feeling of dislike was mutual. "Allah is great," he had intoned repeatedly during the build-up to the fight in March 2001. "Allah is in my corner, Allah says I cannot be beaten." As he walked into the press conference after the fight one of our number glanced up and asked: "Allah's night off was it Naz?"

He may not have heard, though if he did he was too chastened to respond. But at least he had taken his licking like a man.

Naseem_Hamed_Nov_4_2
And now he is is our midst again, some three stones heavier and considerably more mature. But his presence may spell danger for amateur boxing. For signing Johnson is just the start, he says. He is also likely to bag for his new stable at least one of the three Indian boxers who won gold in Delhi and you can be bet he will be eyeing the talent on view in the inaugural GB Championships in Liverpool on Friday and Saturday week.

For the moment though, he will concentrate on coaching and managing Johnson, who hails from Lincolnshire and is Scottish on his mother's side. "When I watched him on television in the Commonwealth Games and saw him knock out a guy with his left hook I leapt out of my chair," said Hamed, who predicts "he will win his first 10 fights by KO".

We will soon have a chance to see if Johnson is as good as Naz says for he makes his pro debut on Warren's bill in Glasgow on December 4, when another Scot, Ricky Burns, defends the world featherweight title Hamed himself once held for four years, successfully defending it 15 times after becoming Britain's youngest-ever world champion at 21.

It will be a blow to Rob McCracken's Team GB to lose Johnson (pictured below), who had been a member of the podium squad and looked set for a 2012 berth after his display in Delhi. But he explained: "I am 25 now and have always intended to turn professional. While I was happy with the GB set-up and have a high regard for Rob I think 2012, when I will be 27, is too old to become a professional. In any case the opportunity of being trained and managed by Naz, who is a legend to so many of us in boxing, was too good to turn down."

Someone who doesn't feel the same way – yet – is Liverpool's 26-year-old Tom Stalker, who captained England in Delhi where he too won a gold medal to add to his European silver. Last week he was awarded the Amateur Boxer of the Year trophy by the Boxing Writers' Club and admits there was a temptation to follow Johnson's route. But he has elected to stay with the amateurs until after the Games because "winning an Olympic gold medal is my dream. It would be the best feeling in the world and I'd hate to miss out on that chance".

"The Commonwealth Games and Europeans were just a taster for that. Yes, I want to turn pro but only after 2012. I'll be 28 then and at my peak. The way boxing is these days I reckon I could have seven good years as a pro."

Stalker was given a rousing reception recently at Goodison Park before the Everton-Liverpool derby. "Perhaps the Everton supporters didn't realise I am a Liverpool fan," he chuckles.

Stalker is set to star in a tournament designed to show that British amateur boxing has got talent. It will be televised by the BBC who, for the first time, will screen women's boxing as several of Britain's ladies who punch will be on show, including world championships silver medallists Nicola Adams and Savannah Marshall. It should be a tasty fistic treat at the Echo Arena, with the semi-finals on Friday and finals on Saturday (tickets available online at www.echoarena.com or 0844 8000400).

This is an intriguing and vital tournament for all 2012 contenders, plus those wanting to force their way in into head coach McCracken's reckoning. Among them is the former European featherweight champion Luke Campbell, now boxing at bantamweight, who, though not selected for Delhi, has been unbeaten this year, with impressive wins in overseas competitions. He must fend off stiff competition from current Euro silver medallist Iain Weaver and Commonwealth Games winner Sean McGoldrick.

Stalker faces a possible lively return bout with Scot Josh Taylor, who was less than pleased at losing to him in the Delhi final. Londoner Martin Ward, from Repton's production line of top class amateurs, also a likely 2012 prospect, is alongside them in the lightweight mix.

Callum_Johnson_2
With former amateur pals turned best of enemies David Haye and Audley Harrison (also ex-Repton) hogging the world heavyweight limelight across Lancashire in Manchester on the Saturday night, it will be fascinating to see if England's new Commonwealth Games heavyweight champion Simon Vallily and super-heavyweight Anthony Joshua have what it takes to fill their boxing boots at some time in the future.

The tournament comes at a time when amateur boxing seems to have as many punch-ups outside the ring as in it. Last week saw the suspension of England women's coaches Mick Gannon and Chris Bessey by the ABA, believed to follow an incident involving an alleged drinking session during a training camp in Portsmouth.

The relationship between the ABA of England and the new umbrella body the British Amateur Boxing Association is whispered to be less than harmonious and there is the curious and convoluted ongoing spat between the ABA's chief executive, Paul King, and the head honcho of AIBA, Dr C KWu, returned to office "by acclamation" during the AIBA get-together in Almaty, Kazakhstan, for the launch of the new World Boxing Series in which BABA and the ABA have decided to play no part, wisely in my view.

King, who unsuccessfully challenged Dr Wu for the AIBA Presidency, boycotted the event in Almaty, where scores of nations were absent because of unpaid sanction fees, as insidethegames reported.

One suspects that Paul King would have needed the muscle of Don King to dislodge the ambitious Dr Wu, who some say eyes the IOC Presidency eventually. The WSB is his baby, partially designed to offer young amateurs an alternative to turning pro by performing without vests and headguards and earning prize money.

Whether even Dr Wu, all mighty in Almaty, has enough clout to fend off the raiding party about to be launched by the back-in-business Naseem Hamed is an intriguing question. Somebody ring the bell.

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, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.

Daniel Keatings: Best seat in the house for my BBC commentating debut

Daniel_Keatings_blog_Nov_4The current crop of GB gymnasts has just returned from the World Championships in Rotterdam and, after finishing fifth in the overall medal table, can lay claim to being the most successful British gymnastics team ever.

Never before have we had such huge success at a major championships and our sport really is in good shape coming up to an Olympic year.

On top of all of this I had the privilege of supporting Team GB from the commentary box in Rotterdam courtesy of the BBC, replacing regular presenter Matt Baker. In my first ever BBC assignment,

I got to watch all the proceedings as they unfolded live sitting next to Gabby Logan in the best seat in the house.

I caught an early Thursday morning plane and landed in Rotterdam at 11.30am when I was whisked away to my first assignment. British Gymnastics and Glasgow City Council were presenting their bid to host the 2015 Gymnastics World Championships to the FIG (Federation of International Gymnastics) at midday.

As soon as the presentation finished I was chauffeured to the Ahoy Arena for the Men's Team Final. I was really excited as the team had qualified in an unprecedented fourth position, and was in with a real chance of a medal for the first time ever.

It got better – instead of commentating from the press box I was given an access-all-areas pass. My objective was to give a running commentary from the actual podium in among Team GB as they fought for a medal!

The boys put in an absolutely awesome display but they just couldn't quite match the performance from the qualification rounds and finished the competition in seventh. This is something we had only ever dreamed of before but now it was reality. The boys have certainly put the Great into Great Britain and cemented our position as one of the top gymnastics nations.

The Men's and Women's All Around Finals took place on Friday, and I was alongside Gabby Logan in the commentary box. Again Team GB put in a stellar performance, with two gymnasts qualifying for both the Men's and Women's All Around Finals.

Daniel Purvis put in an awesome display with real maturity and was chasing the leading gymnasts all the way, only to just miss out on a medal and finish fifth. Sam Hunter also proved himself a top All Around gymnast by finishing ninth at his first attempt.

Hannah Whelan and Nicole Hibbert also showed some excellent gymnastics in their All Around final, finishing 16th and 22nd respectively.

Saturday was an absolutely amazing day for British Gymnastics.

It started with the Men's Floor competition. The outstanding Daniel Purvis, who was having the competition of his life, secured his first ever world medal by taking bronze on floor - I am so proud of him.

Imogen Cairns finished eighth in the Women's Vault final, an amazing achievement as she has had a difficult time with injury since Beijing.

Next up, Louis Smith claimed silver in the Pommel Horse final, narrowly missing the gold - an awesome performance, especially after his disappointment last year. This left everyone in the commentary box asking the dreaded question – could we really get the full set of gold, silver and bronze?

Beth_Tweddle_Rotterdam_Octoebr_2010

You bet we could! Beth Tweddle, the queen of British Gymnastics, had only gone and won the A-bars gold for the second time! Beth is now a Triple World Champion - just how many people can say that?

With no one representing Team GB in the finals on Sunday it gave me and Gabby the opportunity to interview our record-breaking gymnasts as we watched and commentated on the remaining finals. There was still some very exciting gymnastics, especially in the Men's High Bar, which saw the local hero Epke Zonderland finish with silver after Zhang Chenglong took the title at the last minute.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone at the BBC for making my first foray into commentating a really enjoyable one, especially the talented Gabby Logan. It was a real pleasure.

Well done to everyone in Team GB. I am so honoured to have been a part of it even if it was only in commentary.

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.

Andy Pink: Volleyball players Poles apart from the Rooneys of this world

Andy_Pink_Nov_3Greetings from 'the coldest city in Poland'!

Upon my immediate arrival into Warsaw's Chopin Airport in the late August warmth, I was let in on a little secret: Suwalki - the city where I would be living for the next eight months - had hit the balmy heights of -29C last winter.

Let me repeat that: -29C. That wasn't included in the contract I signed! I'll admit my first thought was, "What have I got myself into now?"

Funnily enough, that question would be asked of me many times in the first few weeks in Poland by journalists eager to find out what the "first British volleyball player in Polish League history" was doing in Suwalki? Good question!

To get to Suwalki, arrive in Warsaw and go east. For four to five hours. Suwalki is nestled in the north east corner of Poland, very near to Lithuania and Belarus. Suwalki itself is a charming mix of beautiful lakes and hills, slightly depressing communist architecture standing alongside more modern buildings in fantastically wild colours.

The Poles are a very proud, friendly people who enjoy all the latest gadgets, but I do not get the feeling that they are rushing to buy anything American or British like some of the other 'newer' countries of Europe. They do enjoy football from our shores, however, as they claim their league in Poland is horrific.

I can confirm that it's not the best football I've ever seen. Then again it's hard to compete with the boys down at Stamford Bridge!

One of the possible reasons for the decline of Polish football is the rise of volleyball. This is probably the first country I've played in professionally where I can confidently say that volleyball is the national sport, with a little competition from strong man competitions and a weird penchant for competitive arm wrestling.

The coverage of volleyball compares to that of the Premiership in England. The top division in Poland now attracts some of the world's best players and is widely regarded as one of the top three or four best leagues in the world. It was with this knowledge (and little else!) that I accepted an offer to play for a team in the Polish second division who would be pushing for promotion this season.

Poland is my seventh different country in seven seasons. I always laugh when I read those idiotic pieces about how a footballer has to live close to his mum's house. The life of a British volleyball player is a constant battle with new people, places, faces and languages.

I fancy myself to be a bit of an amateur linguist and, having spent a lot of time in the half-Polish city of Chicago in my youth, I felt I was prepared for Polish. Let me cut a long story short - this is going to take a little while.

Their alphabet has something like four Zs. Granted, on the first day I was taught all the 'adult' words by my new team-mates, but to speak Polish itself will be a challenge. I had better get studying, as my first coach doesn't speak a word of English, neither do half the players on the team.

Within the first week I was in Poland I did about 25 interviews. Why I chose to come to Poland? How do I like Polish women? (no comment!) and what words in Polish do I know? (um...). The guys on the team took great pleasure in winding me up about it, or at least I think that's what they were doing!

I was being rolled out as some sort of Victorian side show, but once I played a few pre-season matches with the team and the supporters saw that I'm not just here for the money (ha!), most of the press attention has relaxed.

There have been many bizarre encounters for me around town. I walk into a shop and the person behind the desk says "Hello Andrew Pink". So it's been slightly odd but it's not a big city (70,000) so I guess that's to be expected.

Women love athletes here and the volleyball players are THE superstars. The guys from the Polish national team would struggle to walk down the street I reckon.

The club, Slepsk Suwalki, have made a rapid rise up the Polish volleyball pyramid having been formed only in 2004. After five league matches we are undefeated and have only dropped one point in a 3-2 victory. We have also progressed to the fifth round of the Polish cup competition. The danger is pushing too hard for the first division too fast and then bankrupting the club, which in volleyball happens a lot more frequently than you'd think.

Whichever way you look, money is such an issue in sport. Personally, I'm certainly not doing it for the money, but for the lure of the Olympic dream. Many Olympic athletes earn very little money from their sport and will end their career with nothing in the bank and no assets.

They're lucky if they have some sort of education to fall back on. It's all very well and good when you are young but the lack of professional sporting opportunities for volleyball in the UK will have a major say in what happens after London.

I'll be 29 then and how much longer can I really sacrifice the future security of a potential family to make a pittance to play this sport? It really is disgusting what those footballers make. One week of Mr Rooney's salary is probably more than most will earn in a career in volleyball.

But that's a discussion for another time. For now I'll be stocking up on warm clothes in preparation for the harsh winter which is closing in faster and faster every day. It's a good thing Poland is a tea drinking country (Twinings has just moved its entire operation to Poland) otherwise I'd freeze out here, so spare a thought for me when you're complaining about how cold London is!


Andy Pink, who plays for Slepsk Suwalki in Poland, is Britain's vice-captain

British Volleyball is represented by davidwelchmanagement.com


Ben Ainslie: Danger of taking away the essence of true sporting challenge

Ben_Ainslie_for_blogThe decision to pull TEAM ORIGIN out of entering and competing for the Americas Cup was obviously extremely disappointing. For some of us it has been three years of work, getting the team to a position where we had a strong core group to move forward, with enough talent and experience to have a realistic shot at winning.

Personally, the biggest disappointment is losing the opportunity to work with such a strong group of people and despite the relative failure it has been a huge learning experience. The Cup is still a huge ambition of mine and the lessons learnt from this period will definitely be of use in future campaigns.

It was a bold move by BMW Oracle to move the America's Cup into the realm of multihulls with wing sails. I believe a large part of this decision was to do with the ongoing commercialisation in the sport. This is something that sailing, like other sports, is going through and while I fully accept the need to make our sport more spectator friendly and commercially viable, there is also a danger of taking away the essence of the true sporting challenge.

There is a very fine balance between the two and I honestly hope the 34th America's Cup manages to develop great racing which encapsulates the media and sailing audience. It will be a new era for the cup, so it's vital that the teams involved are properly supported to give the event the credibility that it badly needs.

Obviously, not challenging for the America's Cup has made my life a lot simpler with regard to my goal of racing in the 2012 Olympics. Before we knew what the plans for the next cup were, I had tentatively talked about Finn training in Southern Europe during this winter with the Miami Olympic Classes Regatta in late January probably my next event. However, the unexpected change means I'm now heading to Australia next week to train and compete at the Perth International Regatta in November as well as at Sail Melbourne in December.

It's great to be back Finn training. I have always really enjoyed going back into the Olympic environment and trying to be successful in 2012 is very much my focus now. With my coach David Howlett and Mark Andrews we've had a few days' Finn training at Weymouth and Portland, which has been great.

We've been trying out new bits of kit and just getting used to the boat again as I've not been in a Finn since the Sail for Gold Regatta in early August. There is genuinely always something a bit special about sailing at Weymouth, knowing that every time you get out on the water you are picking up as much information as you can about the conditions and what is going on around you.

Ben_Ainsley

Weymouth's always a difficult place to sail so the more time you can spend there the better. Saying that, it is getting pretty cold now and I need to get out on the water as much as possible, so being able to spend a couple of months in the breeze in Australia is going to be the best way for me to get my hiking legs and sailing fitness back up to where it needs to be for the Finn.

My British teammates Ed Wright and Giles Scott have both sailed really well this season, with Ed winning the world title and Giles winning Skandia Sail for Gold. These two guys in particular are going to be really tough to beat but competition of that level gives you an extra focus.

I have some hard yards ahead of me to get to the required levels of sailing and fitness but there is something satisfying about pushing yourself harder with an end goal in sight. I'm fortunate to have a great coach in David Howlett and some fantastic sponsors like J P Morgan Asset Management behind me - support like that makes a huge difference.

It was nice to go out to the World Match Racing Tour event in Bermuda and retain our Argo Gold Cup. The team was Iain Percy, Christian Kamp, James Stagg and myself. The regatta started just days after the TEAM ORIGIN announcement, which was pretty tough as we were all still pretty disappointed. I was really pleased with how we dealt with the frustration and although we didn't sail brilliantly in the early rounds we saved our best sailing for the final.

That victory also means we can still win this year's World Match Racing Tour. The final event is in Malaysia at the start of December and we will go there sitting third in the standings. We have an outside chance of coming out on top and will be pushing hard for a good result at our final event under the TEAM ORIGIN colours.

Ben Ainslie is Britain's most successful Olympic sailor of all time, winning three gold medals and a silver.

Main picture: Mark Lloyd

Victor Conte: Marion Jones must come clean over use of drugs

Victor_ConteMarion Jones is a talented and charismatic person who is on a mission with a positive message for young people and adults.

However, I believe it's important to more closely examine her Take A Break programne and recently published book On The Right Track and put them into proper perspective.

The Take A Break website says it's "a programme that Marion Jones has created to enable her to give back and coach all people to live a better life and avoid mistakes that cause too big a price".

The reality is that her programne was more likely born as a result of 800 hours of community service being ordered by the court as punishment for lying to federal agents. US District Court Judge Kenneth Karas has openly criticised her for deceiving fans about her use of banned substances, calling the denial of use by many athletes "a worldwide lie" at her sentencing hearing.

She claimed to the court that she believed it was "flaxseed oil" she was taking at the time.

"I am troubled by that statement," Karas told Jones. "That's a very difficult thing to believe, that a top-notch athlete, knowing that a razor-thin margin makes the difference, would not be keenly aware and very careful about what he or she put in her body, and the effects."

At the core of Marion's programme is the message that it's important to "do the right thing". However, she continues to publicly claim that she "unknowingly" used drugs and this is simply not the case. I've openly acknowledged that I personally educated her about the use of growth hormone and watched her inject the drug right in front of me.



In response to me being truthful about my direct knowledge of her drug use, she filed a $25 million dollar defamation lawsuit against me.

In my opinion, this abuse of the federal judicial system was nothing more than an attempt to further promote her lies. The case was dismissed and I've continued to tell the truth about her drug use.

I am hopeful that Marion's message will help some people to avoid the kinds of mistakes she has made in the past.

I've also made serious mistakes in my life, so I know how damaging bad choices can be to a person's family and friends.

If she will come completely clean about her past use of drugs, I believe it will significantly increase the value of her message.

Marion should follow her own advice and do the right thing because the world deserves to know the truth.

Victor Conte is the founder and owner of the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative, the California company behind the biggest drugs scandal in sports history. This article was first published in the New York Daily News

Jim Cowan: The public funding of sport and a legacy from 2012

One of my recent blogs which looked at the likely cut in the public funding to sport following the Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) drew some interesting comments.

Many of these comments caught me a little off guard as they centred on a school of thought which, I will be honest, had never occurred to me; sport should not be funded from the public purse at all. Interestingly, this thought came from people involved in sport not a gang of anti-sporting couch potatoes!

I don’t intend to discuss whether sport should or should not be publically funded in this blog. Instead what I would like to do is suggest to those involved in sport but not supporting public funding of sport that they are confusing public funding of sport with Government funding of sport and to further suggest that without public funding, sport as we know it in the UK would very rapidly disappear.

Sport at its most basic level relies heavily on public funding. Imagine Sunday morning football without the local park football would suffer greatly without public funding authority making space available, marking out and looking after pitches up and down the country. Imagine taking the family for a swim without access to a publically funded, local authority swimming pool.

From athletics tracks to general use sports halls, grass roots sport in this country simply could not happen without funding provided by local authorities to build, manage, maintain and staff facilities. I would go as far as to suggest that without public funding of sport we would have very little meaningful sport at all in this country. And before anyone tries to distance elite sport from grass roots sport, less sport at the bottom end will inevitably lead to a lessening of people coming through to the elite end.

To me, the important question that arises from the comments mentioned above is not whether we fund sport but how we fund sport?

The previous Government, its Quangos and many employees of Quango funded bodies have, for the last decade, banded around the word "sustainable" in association with funding to the point it has almost lost all meaning. Funding was channelled towards using sport as a tool to achieve political objectives with a seemingly endless stream of initiatives coming and going; every single one of them apparently ‘"sustainable".

However, it is perhaps worth reminding ourselves that despite the millions "invested" by Government in sport of the last few years, the nation’s biggest investor in sport remains the local authorities who are also the nation’s biggest provider of sporting facilities.



Yet, unlike many European countries, there is no statutory requirement for local authorities to provide any support for sport whether funding, facility, sports development or any other. And in the light of cuts following the CSR, the logical place for many local authorities to make savings will be by cutting those services with no statutory requirement for their provision.

Which brings me to the title for this article; "The public funding of sport and a legacy from 2012".

If we are to safeguard the future of sport in this country, if we are to do it in a way that is about sport for sport’s sake not sport as political tool, if we are to do it in a way that is truly sustainable and if we are to leave a genuine lasting legacy from the hosting of the 2012 Olympic Games the Government need do only one thing - pass legislation making the provision of sporting facilities, the support of clubs with community roots and backing for the development of sport a statutory requirement of local authorities.

Such an action might not pump new money into sport but it would undoubtedly safeguard its future at grass roots level.

Jim Cowan is a former athlete, coach, event organiser and sports development specialist who is the founder of Cowan Global, a company specialising in consultancy, events and education and training. For more details click here

Shauna Mullin: Don't tell me beach volleyball is glamorous

Hello from the Gold Coast of Australia! The GB Beach Volleyball women’s squad is based in Brisbane for an eight-week block of pre-season training before Christmas, with a short break in the middle to finish off the World Tour Season in Sanya, China and Phuket, Thailand. 

We began our journey at Terminal 3, Heathrow, where my partner, Zara Dampney and I did an interview with the BBC. We then flew 13 hours from London to Bangkok, where the plane refuelled, then on to Sydney where the airport was heaving with Bank Holiday traffic and we duly missed our onward connection to Brisbane. 

The result of this was an eight-hour delay in the Sydney domestic terminal - not exactly a hub of excitement. We finally arrived at our apartments on the Gold Coast, 37 hours after leaving London, to rain - lots of it. And we get accused of playing a glamorous sport!

Our apartments are in Broadbeach on the Gold Coast, which is a 20-minute walk from Surfers Paradise and the regular view from our window initially was - torrential rain. This wasn’t the Australia I’d imagined.

However, we’re not here to holiday. Our training week is split into three days in Brisbane at Sand Storm, (Australia’s Beach Volleyball Olympic Champion Nat Cook’s training facility), as well as using the Queensland Academy of Sport’s (QAS) gym. The other two days are spent on our local beach outside the Surf Club. 

A typical week consists of nine sand sessions, three weights sessions, three cardio sessions and four body control sessions.  Body control is a series of exercises to help us transfer correct body movement patterns onto the sand, i.e. jumping over poles, throwing medicine balls, and using bungee ropes. We have spent a lot of time falling over to make sure our centre of mass and body weight is in the right place.  

During our first week our bodies were in a lot of pain. The consistent appearance of single leg exercises in our gym programme only added to that pain!  We didn’t walk normally all week and stairs, both and up down, were avoided at all costs.  The saving grace during that first week was the pool recovery sessions, the massage stick and a tennis ball.  



In preparation for our final two events this year on the FIVB Beach Volleyball World Tour to China and Thailand we have been training extremely hard. These last two events will hopefully give us an opportunity to end the season on a high after not quite achieving all of the goals we had set ourselves. We also have our eyes set on the World Championships, which are being held in Rome in the early part of the 2011 season, and good results in these last two tournaments will really help us qualify.

You may ask why we are already in our preseason training before the competitive season is over? As a programme we felt we needed to grab all the time we could to be ready for Olympic Qualification, which starts with the first event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in April next year.  

As a sport, volleyball and beach volleyball have been in the firing line recently, with funding cuts made in both disciplines. When these funding cuts were announced we were grateful we had the trust and support of the British Volleyball Federation to continue on our journey, both as individual teams and as a programme. 

It was a blow to have the men’s side of the Beach Programme cut, as we were quite a small group and having their support while on tour had a great impact. The cuts of the men’s beach and women’s indoor programmes just fuels our frustration that volleyball is still seen as a minority sport, and how that view affects the different programmes preparations for London 2012 Olympics.   

Shauna Mullin was born in South Africa and moved to Edinburgh, playing indoor volleyball for Team Edinburgh and Scotland. She took up beach volleyball three years ago and now trains with the GB squad in Bath. She got her first GB Beach cap in Korea in 2006.

British Volleyball is represented by davidwelchmanagement.com


Philip Barker: When doves fry and why London 2012 may not miss fireworks

The backlash against the not so humble Olympic firework should not come as a  great surprise. The Olympic Movement’s own green credentials are there for all to see in their  Charter.

"To encourage and support a responsible concern for environmental issues, to promote sustainable development in sport and require that Olympic Games are held accordingly," it says.

Yet in Beijing some 600 people were involved in setting off some 11,462 fireworks and that was in a display that lasted all of 20 seconds to get the Opening Ceremony underway.A few moments later "Footprints of history" were in the words of the organisers "29 colossal burning footprints ...one per second  all the way along Beijing’s central axis to the Olympic stadium".

This was to celebrate the invention of gunpowder, one of the four great inventions in ancient China. A further three-and-a-half minutes of fireworks followed the lighting of the cauldron itself. Add to that the number of fireworks used at the closing, and in the many rehearsals, the Olympic  contribution to the smog above the city must have been considerable.

In recent  Games  the  cavalcade of giant fireworks above the stadium has become a signature opening as the countdown reaches its crescendo and the Opening Ceremony is under way. It was not always so.

Olympic fireworks were scarce for the best part of a century, for the very good reason that by and large ceremonies before 1992 were held during the day. True,there were searchlights  above Berlin’s Olympic Stadium as the Games closed  in 1936, and as  the Roman crowd spontaneously set light to their programmes as they ended in  1960 as a way of saying Arrivederci to the departing Olympians. 

The first truly colossal firework display came in 1984 in a city not unknown for its smog, Los Angeles. By this time the Closing Ceremony had switched to the evening.

Seoul 1988 was the last daytime Ceremony for a summer Olympics (Only the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in  Nagano has since been opened in daylight). It was held under clear blue skies and in bright sunshine. It also featured a  release of doves before the lighting of the cauldron. Evidently unaware of  Olympic ritual, some of the birds came to rest of the edge of the bowl. A few minutes later, the flame burst into life with deadly  consequences for the birds, to the outrage of wildlife welfare groups.

In subsequent Games, symbolic representations of the doves were used. In Atlanta performers carried kites to represent the birds and later, even the spectator kits included cut outs for the spectators to wave. Dancers symbolised the movements of the doves in Beijing. Officially the reason for all these variations  was because birds could not fly at night, but also,whisper it quietly, to avoid another cauldron disaster.

It was not  the first time that Olympic ceremony had been altered for environmental reasons. When Ron Clarke lit the flame at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, he suffered burns to his arm because the flame included magnesium to make it flare .Since then, organisers have been at pains to point out the environmental virtues of their flames.

Guy Fawkes night apart, fireworks have long been a part of sporting celebration in Britain. Back in 1892,when Lord Kinnaird opened  Everton’s Goodison Park ,a display of pyrotechnics burst above the new stadium in celebration. More recently organisers of big rugby and football matches seem to feel no occasion is  grand enough without the addition of the smoke,flares and fireworks.

But even if Danny Boyle and co have a hankering for some outsize roman candles, sparklers and the like, they might recall when the 1986 Commonwealth Games were held in the "Trainspotting" city of Edinburgh and against a light grey sky in early evening, the fireworks looked simply messy. 

Long summer nights in London would cause similar difficulties for  fireworks. Whereas it was virtually dark when things got underway in both Athens and Beijing,at 8pm in London in July, the sun might still be shining.

When the smoke clears the wider issue remains. Have the Olympic ceremonies become just too big? Not for nothing have they been described as the first gold medal of the Games.Ever since Moscow’s tour de force in 1980 and the Los Angeles Hollywood spectacular which followed four years later, each city has tried to be bigger and better than the last.

The budget for the 2006 Asian Games in Doha was so big that the organisers steadfastly refused to reveal the final figure involved and there was a similar story in Beijing. London’s organisers know that they won’t be able to emulate Doha or Beijing, they do know that with or without fireworks, the first headlines of London 2012 will be created  by their  Opening Ceremony.

Philip Barker, a freelance journalist, has been on the editorial team of the Journal of Olympic History and is credited with having transformed the publication into one of the most respected historical publications on the history of the Olympic Games. He is also an expert on Olympic Music, a field which is not generally well known.

Alan Hubbard: Time to stop giving ladies the cold shoulder

Alan_Hubbard_3Some years ago, when Manchester were bidding for the Olympics, their then bid leader Bob Scott (now Sir Bob) castigated the British press for what he claimed was a lack of enthusiasm, suggesting that we didn't want Manchester to win because it would deny us an overseas trip to somewhere rather more exotic.

His argument might have been worthier had he not been stepping off a plane from Acapulco at the time.

Ah yes, Acapulco, that sultry tropical paradise down Mexico way famed for cliff diving and hosting luxurious bunfights for international sports bodies, not least the International Olympic Committee.

That's where members of the Executive Board bedded down for a few nights thisweek discussing, among other things, whether to add ski half pipe, a mixed biathlon relay and women's ski jumping to the Olympic winter sports programme. Obviously, some like it hot when chewing over things that happen in a cold climate.

Funny, isn't it, how sports organisations gravitate towards these five-star laps of luxury rather than an industrial city on the Ruhr or impoverished African township that could do with a lift when it comes to holding their conventions and congresses. Well, jolly good luck to them, I suppose, with the emphasis on jolly.

As an example, no doubt the good burghers of Bolton must be wondering whether the prestigious and spacious establishment at the Reebok Stadium, ideal for such gatherings, doesn't attract the IOC, FIFA, the IAAF and the like. Surely it isn't because Bolton doesn't have quite the same cachet as Barcelona or Buenos Aires.

Mind you, in 2012 there is an opportunity for the IOC to demonstrate that they aren't adverse to showing their support for the East End rather than the west end when they hold their traditional pre-Games meeting. I hear there is a rather good Premier Inn close to Wapping.

On the subject of up-market joints, it was good to be back at London's Savoy Hotel this week for the annual Boxing Writers Dinner. The hotel has been closed for a couple of years while extensive refurbishments have taken place costing some £220 million - apparently the biggest sum in UK hotel history and the sort of figure that would build a reasonably-sized sports stadium.

The boxing bash, as always, was the best of the sports do's - a time when old ring enmities are forgotten and members of the fight fraternity embrace like long-lost brothers even though a few years back they were belting bits off each other.

However, despite the expensive tarting-up, it seemed astonishing that the Savoy provided no wheelchair access to the magnificent room where the dinner was held. A politically incorrect oversight.

Even more politically incorrect, surely, is the continued absence of women from the function. Rightly or wrongly (wrongly in my view) the club does not allow female guests. As a former chairman I voted for the inclusion of women when the issue was last raised two years ago but it was lost on a split decision. So we are embarrassingly left with what appears to be the last bastion of male chauvinism in sport.

It is time the matter was re-visited. Women's boxing is now an accepted part of the fistic landscape and it was a shame that GB's World Championships silver medallists Savannah Marshall and Nicola Adams could not be there alongside Liverpool's Commonwealth Games champion and Euro silver medallist Tommy Stalker, who won the award for amateur boxer of the year.

I have long argued with some of my contemporaries, including my good friend and club stalwart Colin Hart of The Sun, against barring women from the dinner in this day and age. They claim it would spoil the "atmosphere" by which I presume they mean it would inhibit the ribaldry from the speakers.

Jane_Couch
But most ladies I encounter connected with the fight game can bandy four-letter expletives with the best of them. Try picking a verbal argument with ex-pro slugger Jane Couch (pictured) and you'll see what I mean.

The Minister of Sport Hugh Robertson was one of my guests at the Savoy yet when the redoubtable Kate Hoey was Minister I was not allowed to invite her - even though she is a keen fight fan. Another previous Sports Minister, Tony Banks, always refused to go because it was men-only.

And here's an interesting possible scenario. Supposing a woman boxer wins a gold medal in 2012, and no male boxer does. As things stand she could not be voted the year's best amateur - well, perhaps she could but she would not be allowed to attend and collect the award. Ridiculous.

Come on fellahs. Seconds out - and ladies in.

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, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire.