Mike Rowbottom: Fell finding the going difficult at Bath central

Duncan Mackay
Heather Fell, Britain’s modern pentathlon silver medallist from the 2008 Olympics, is proud to come from Devon - and proud to promote anything else that comes from that county. Which explains why she has recently been supporting the launch of a new beer from her local Dartmoor Breweries, entitled Legend.

This 27-year-old from Princeton, near Tavistock, is already something of a local legend following her exploits in Beijing.

But as she turns her attention to this weekend’s World Cup event at Medway Park - she was eighth in her semi-final today to reach Sunday’s final - she is patently a less-than-happy bunny. And Devon is partly to blame.

Nobody could have accused Fell of talking up her chances when she attended a press call earlier this week to help publicise a competition that marks the official opening of the £11 million Medway Park centre, and which is being billed as the first global sporting event to be held in Medway.

She made it clear at the official conference that she had not been able to train effectively since finishing fifth in the first of this season’s World Cup events in Mexico last month, a state of affairs that had been exacerbated by a mild virus.

And she looked fed up.

As Medway Park staff busied themselves putting up banners and adding the final touches to a stadium that, six months ago, was scarcely more than a building site, Fell stood on the track with her GB hoodie pulled up over her head and told me that, if she had the choice, she wouldn’t be competing this weekend.

Fell has always been the most independent of Britain’s modern pentathletes. Having won the world junior title in 2003 and taken her place at the sport’s national training base in Bath two years later, a serious problem with shin splints effectively put her out of the running for 16 months, and she was reluctantly released by the man who is still the British team’s Performance Director, Jan Bartu.

Fell’s reaction to these circumstances defined her as an athlete. She went home to Princeton, got a part-time job as a barmaid in her local pub, The Plume of Feathers, and dedicated herself to the task of getting back to fitness on her home turf.

The task was completed, and with a glorious Olympic result.

Last season was less spectacular, although she helped earn Britain team silver at the World Championships held at Crystal Palace.

At this early stage of the 2010 season, however, Fell maintains she is less than confident . "I’m struggling a little at the moment," she confessed, adding that she has found it tricky adjusting to spending the bulk of her training time back at the World Class Performance centre in Bath, where she is under the guidance of the women’s head coach, Istvan Nemeth, rather than in Devon with her long-time coach Robin Brew.

"I’ve not got the best relationship with my coach at the moment," she said. "Maybe the best way of putting it is that I’m really struggling with the coaching set-up.

"I’m now training more at Bath, and things need to step up, and I’m ready to step it up. But something is missing and it’s quite hard to put my finger on it.

"I had a really good relationship with my coach at home, who was my swimming coach  but also understood my running and understood me and how I worked and what I needed, even though he wasn’t an overall pentathlon coach.

"And I’m kind of missing that guidance at the moment. I feel a bit lost with my training because I don’t have someone that I can go to speak to. At the moment I don’t feel 100 per cent but there’s no one there telling me, ‘Oh, you should train’, or ‘You shouldn’t train’.

"I still try to spend as much time as I can in Devon but they are not keen for me to do that. I’ve been in Bath more often than at home recently. But it’s now starting to show because my times should be getting better and they are not.

"It’s early to tell competition-wise, but I feel I haven’t got the base behind me I need to get me through the season and I’m hoping i will have time to get that base for later in the season.

"It’s not impossible to ring Robin, but I feel that coaches are incredibly busy all the time and you kind of feel you can’t just take, you’ve got to give a bit, and he’s not getting anything back. It’s quite a hard position only to ring him when I’m in trouble.

"I still want to give it a go up in Bath because in theory its great facility and set-up. But having a single programme for a group of people who are all very different... doesn’t always work."

What is adding to the pressure Fell is clearly feeling at the moment is the abundance of talent Britain is continuing to enjoy in an event which has yielded a gold, a silver and two bronze medals since it was introduced to the Olympics in 2000.

The British women’s team currently has at least seven world class performers to call upon. And although both the men’s and women’s teams were allowed to field up to 12 competitors for this weekend’s World Cup, as host - with the women getting eight competitors through to the final - the tariff falls to four for other World Cup events or the world championships.

As for the Olympics - well, there you get just two entries. Even if you are the host nation.

"We have the biggest problem because we are such a strong nation," Fell says. "For the Hungarians it’s just the same three women. The French have just one top girl so she goes to everything. The Germans have three girls who come to everything, same with the Poles. The Russians - the top two stay the same, the bottom ones change.

"For most of the countries it’s the same athletes at every World Cup, whereas when we went to Mexico for this season’s opening World Cup people were coming up to us and saying: ‘Where’s Mhairi [Spence]? Where’s Katy?’  and it was ‘Oh no. They’re coming to the next one.’ ‘Oh. And why are you not doing that one?’ ‘Because there’s too many of us.’

"We have to fight for it. It’s brilliant from the coaching perspective, and it’s great for British pentathlon as well."

The word “but” is not spoken; only inferred...

Fell is right, of course. Having such a wealth of talent can only be good for Britain’s prospects.

( Medal prospects?  Tick. Continued UK Lottery funding? Tick.)

But as London 2012 looms ever closer, you feel there is some urgent fine tuning required for Britain to get the best out of a young woman who has already indicated that she has the attitude and talent of a champion.

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

Tom Degun: How hard can it be to run and shoot?

Duncan Mackay

It was in November 2008 that the International Modern Pentathlon Union (UIPM) decided to radically alter their sport by combining two of the five events - the running and the shooting disciplines.

They did this with the intention of creating more excitement in a sport that has had its status as an Olympic event called into question in recent Games due to its seeming lack of popularity outside of Eastern Europe.

Despite criticism of such a dramatic change - which many believe has too radically altered the historic sport - it is undeniable that the restructuring of modern pentathlon has resulted in a more unpredictable and therefore more exciting climax to an event that was a favorite of the founder of the Modern Olympic Games: Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

The new run/shoot format basically involves athletes taking part of three bouts of pistol shooting followed by a 1000 metre run. In each of the three rounds of firing, athletes must hit the target five times. They must reload their gun after each shot and once they have hit all five targets, they may then resume running. If they don’t hit all five, they must wait until 70 seconds pass them by before they are allowed to continue running again.

This may not seem like a huge amount of time but when some of the better shooters can hit all five targets in just 25 seconds, 70 seconds can feel like a lifetime and can mean the difference between a gold medal and tenth place.

The key then, is to have a steady hand under pressure.

With my rather naïve view that shooting a few targets and running around a track couldn’t be that difficult, I confidently drove down to Medway Park in Gillingham, the picturesque venue that is set to host the Modern Pentathlon World Cup over the next four days. 

I arrived at the Medway Park having signed up for the journalist’s opportunity to participate in the run/shoot event following a press conference with modern pentathlon Beijing 2008 Olympic silver medallist Heather Fell, Olympian Nick Woodbridge and the precocious 19-year-old Freyja Prentice who has finished in the top-10 in all three of her World Cups to date.

To my delight, I bump into my esteemed insidethegames colleague Mike Rowbottom during the press conference who agreed, rather reluctantly, to join me in the journalist’s run/shoot event.

We marched out to the impressive athletics track which featured the temporary shooting range set to be occupied by the world’s best pentathletes.

There didn’t appear to be much of a structure in place for us so rather than run around the 400 metre athletics track, every single journalist, including Mike and myself, headed straight for the shooting range.

Once there, we were supplied with a magnificent silver pistol by the delightful pentathlon shooting staff and instructed on how to aim at the centre of the target.

After a few wayward shots that appeared to be more of a danger to the pedestrians of Gillingham than the target, I started to find my range and began to edge towards the bull’s-eye.

In the station next to me, I found none other than Mr Rowbottom, who was looking unusually focused. Mike was holding a pose that would have made James Bond proud and I grudgingly admit that it appeared to have a positive effect on his shooting.

Mike was consistently hitting the target and, after imitating his one-eye-open/one-eye-closed technique, I found myself almost as consistent as my colleague. 

In fact, after five minutes or so of shooting, it was becoming slightly too easy as the novelty of firing a shiny silver gun began to wear off.

“This isn’t too difficult” I said to Mike who was so immersed in concentration that I doubt he heard me. After a while, I put down my pistol and a minute or ten later, so did Mike.

“Do you fancy doing one lap of the track to see if it is harder to shoot when you are out of breath?" I asked Mike.

“Yeah okay” he replied to my complete surprise.

Mike took off his shoes while I took off my coat and we set off on our one lap together.

I was expecting my colleague to be a relatively slow runner but to my astonishment, Mike flew off the start line like Usain Bolt at an Olympic Games. Not to be outdone, I stepped it up a gear to draw back level.

We continued round the top bend side by side until Mike put in a burst of speed towards the end of the race to pull ahead. As I lined up my own sprint finish, Mike - inadvertently he claimed - diverted straight into my path to block my inevitable overtake. Though the picture suggests Mike was the victor of our one lap race, I feel inclined to say that he is a far better journalist than he is fair-competitor.

Anyway, enough of Mike’s devious tactics.

The two of us sprinted across to our shooting stations and picked up our pistols once more.

I was not expecting a 400m run to take very much out of me but as I looked up at the target and raised my pistol to aim, I began to wonder why everything was swaying from side to side.

I quickly realised that the run had thrown my senses completely off-balance and though I tried to hit the centre of the target; my heavy breathing made such a feat an impossibility.

My arm inexplicably felt extremely heavy and I was finding it difficult to regain the balance and posture I had achieved before I embarked on the one-lap run.

To my delight, I saw out of the corner of my eye that Mike had so exhausted himself on our run that he appeared too uncoordinated even to load his pistol.

I tried to steady myself again when I suddenly remembered a conversation I had had with Freyja Prentice just after the press conference.

I had asked her for her expert advice on the run/shoot format and she had replied: "Slow you’re breathing down and when you aim you pistol, hold your breath for a second so you’re hand is steady while you aim."

Feeling confident, I held my breath and aimed.  Needless to say, I completely missed the target and almost passed out through oxygen deprivation. After well over 70 seconds had passed and I had not hit the target once, I decided to call it a day and so did Mike.

I left Medway Park wondering how anyone can hit five consecutive targets three times in a row after running three sets of 1000m. If I was a pentathlete, I know I would certainly be better at the original format where the two events were separate. However, I had to admit that the run/shoot event is certainly a challenge and after today, I believe that anyone who can master the discipline certainly deserves their reward.

The run/shoot event may have come in for criticism and it may not be entirely in keeping with the history of modern pentathlon but no one can deny how exciting it is. And as Mike, I and anyone who has tried the event would readily confess; it’s bloody hard!

Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames and insideworldparasport 

Mike Moran: At last, the Olympics are coming home in the United States

Duncan Mackay
Yesterday may have been Major League Baseball’s official Opening Day, but here in Colorado Springs, one could also say it was Opening Day for the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and the Scott Blackmun Team.

And if the announcements by the USOC are any indication of what is to come from Blackmun and his batting order, they had better move the outfield walls a lot farther back.

The Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, along with the Paralympics, are just complete, and now you see the first real look at the Blackmun era and rock solid evidence of his strong message to the community at a March 25 reception that the organisation was committed to being a better neighbour and guest of our city than at any time in the 32 years since Olympic House was relocated from New York City to the shadow of Pikes Peak.

You may recall that the USOC made an important pre-Vancouver announcement that it was bringing its largest and most important annual gathering, the US Olympic Assembly, to Colorado Springs for the first time this September, and later, that it was going to spiff up and raise the profile of this big session of the Olympic family, sponsors, athletes, National Governing Bodies, International  VIPs, media and more. No more Dallas, Chicago, Phoenix, Orlando, or (oh,please!), La Jolla. It’s coming home where it belongs.

But yesterday in our burg, the USOC hit a pair of massive home runs that sent a compelling, honest and clear message to the citizens and the business community. Blackmun opened the day by revealing that he was closing the Irvine, California, office of the USOC’s international relations division, a creation of former chairman Peter Ueberroth, and bringing it back to Colorado Springs and the about-to-open new downtown offices.

This is a huge message as well to the International Olympic Committee, which, as I write, lists the USOC’s official address on its website as 19600 Fairchild Road, Suite 270, Irvine, CA 92612, not One Olympic Plaza in Colorado Springs, and has for the last five years.

Hello, Lausanne! 

The USOC opened Olympic House in Colorado Springs on August 1, 1978, and it never left. Makes me wonder what Juan Antonio Samaranch and Dr. Jacques Rogge thought they were doing when they visited us in Colorado Springs during my tenure as chief spokesman from 1978-2003.

But the grand slam came yesterday afternoon at the Hillside Community Center when Blackmun stood next to the Mayor to announce that the USOC and Colorado Springs-based National Governing Bodies (NGBs) USA Archery, USA Basketball, USA Hockey, USA Judo, USA Swimming, USA Table Tennis, USA Triathlon and US Figure Skating were coming forth with a $250,000 (£163,000) grant to benefit the City’s youth sports and recreation programmes over two years.

This simple and caring message will mean much to kids who want to take part in positive 2010-2011 sport programmes in boxing, basketball, swimming, Paralympic sport, in-line hockey, judo and vital summer camps at three community centers, each in danger of extinction because of the city’s widely-publicised budget woes.

"This announcement will fill a gap that exists and allow young people to participate in programming that enhances their childhood and makes our community stronger," said Blackmun. "The USOC and our affiliated NGBs have a special obligation to the people of Colorado Springs, and this grant is just a step along the way in demonstrating our long-term commitment to this great city."

Yesterday afternoon in our city, the USOC met the issue of its commitment to its hometown head on, as well as telling our long supportive city and its hard-working residents that its appreciates the three decades of hospitality, support, love and pride. Yes, there’s still work to be done, more of the same stuff that came out today, and it will take time to rebuild trust and confidence.

What began here in that summer of 1978 took a big step forward today, one that looks like just the first game of a long and rewarding season.

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.

Jeev Milkha Singh: My father's story gives me goosebumps

Duncan Mackay
My phone has been ringing incessantly ever since it became public knowledge that my father's life story will be made into a Bollywood movie.

I have been asked this question more than a few times, and I have no hesitation in saying it again: I think my father is one of the greatest sportspersons in the history of Indian sports.

As for comparisons with me, I think I will have to win a Major or two to even stand on the same platform as him. What he managed to achieve despite the challenges, and the recognition he gets from everyone - including today's youngsters who were born 20 years after his major wins - is just amazing.

My father was one of the millions of migrants from Pakistan, who lost everything, including his family, during the painful days of Partition. To cut a long story short, what still gives me goosebumps is the way he thought. Sleeping under a street light, with tattered clothes on his body and without a single decent meal for months, Milkha Singh was struck with a thought - he wanted to be a world champion.

Imagine, a youngster who was so hungry he was beyond care, thinking of being a world champion. To me, it is that kind of thinking which made him the man he is.

We have regularly received requests from Bollywood producers and scriptwriters over the years, but dad was never interested. And then, I got a call from Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra. Now I have been a huge fan of Rang de Basanti, a brilliant film that he made on the challenges faced by Indian youth in today's time and age.

And when I met him, and Prasoon Joshi, a legendary name in Indian advertising who is now also a very successful scriptwriter and lyricist, I was convinced they are the best people to take dad's real story and transform it to its ‘reel' version.

Then I, along with my mother, sisters and wife Kudrat, had to sit with dad and convince him. He agreed only because we told him how important it is for today's generation to know a story like his.

From what I have been given to understand, Rakeysh is hoping to complete the final draft of the screenplay and start shooting soon. He will then complete the casting and is keen to release the movie just before the 2012 Olympics Games.

The film has been titled Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, or Run Milkha Run, which is almost like the famous line from Forrest Gump. I just hope the film is as inspiring as the one starring Tom Hanks.

Jeev Milkha Singh, the son of Milkha Singh, is the first Indian golfer to become a member of the European Tour and has 19 professional wins to his credit. He won the Asian Tour Order of Merit in 2006 and 2008. This article originally appeared in the Gulf Times.

Mike Rowbottom: ET Tower faces difficult days but then so did the Eiffel Tower

Duncan Mackay

First, a couple of extra things you might not have realised about the structure that was announced this week as the iconic centrepiece of the Olympic Park legacy.

Although the ArcelorMittal Orbital tower will not be as tall as the Eiffel tower - barely a third of its height, in fact - the information sheet accompanying the design’s launch offers an ingenious alternative reading.

Apparently, if you were to flatten out all the new Tower of London’s convoluted steel loops - and more than one observer has sounded ready to do this in the space of the last few days - then yes, it would be taller than the Eiffel tower. It would laugh at the Eiffel tower, in fact.

Should this distortion to Anish Kapoor’s latest inspiration take place, with its 1,400 tonnes of steel being stretched out like a long steel rope, we are told it would be about 560 metres long.

(About? They’ve been designing this thing for months - can’t they even give us an exact figure on its stretched length?)

And consider this: if that steel were further reduced until it resembled tinfoil, then it would comfortably wrap the biggest chicken the world has ever seen. Or turkey, depending on how history judges.

But let’s be serious for a moment.

OK. Let’s continue.

In introducing Anish Kapoor’s new design to a conference room stuffed with television, radio and written media, London’s Mayor Boris Johnson acknowledged that its unusual, some might say challenging, some have said catastrophic aspect might well inspire other names than the title which acknowledges the steel magnate whose £16 million input gave the whole project legs. Sorry, lattice.

"Some may choose to think of it as a Colossus of Stratford," Johnson said, his eye roving over the assembled throng, as is his wont, like that of an old-time music-hall artist.

"Some eyes may detect a giant treble clef, a helter-skelter, a supersized mutant trombone. Some may even see the world's biggest ever representation of a shisha pipe and call it the Hubble Bubble. But I know it is the ArcelorMittal Orbit and it represents the dynamism of a city coming out of recession, the embodiment of the cross-fertilisation of cultures and styles that makes London the world capital of arts and culture."

So there’s the theory. While the Skylon, the cigar-like structure suspended on the South Bank to mark the Festival of Britain in 1951, was toppled the following year on the orders of Winston Churchill and rumoured to have been turned into ashtrays, this marker is going to be a slow burner.

(Although these two edifices appear to have something in common. Kapoor insists that his latest venture "looks like something that would not want to stand up."  Back in the post-war austerity of 1951, the joke was that, like the British economy, the Skylon "had no visible means of support.")

Kapoor maintains that he is "not afraid" of the images that his creation may suggest to the viewing public.

Reaction certainly seems to have ranged from the incredulous to the outraged. The deep-red, winding construction has been compared by some to bloody entrails. Personally I was put in mind of ET in chains.

But then negative reaction to such major construction initiatives is par for the course - a badge of honour, even.

Originally, Gustave Eiffel wanted to build his tower in Barcelona to mark the Universal Exposition of 1888. But the inhabitants of Barcelona’s city hall thought it would be a strange and incongruous monstrosity.

So Eiffel transferred his project to home ground - where, when it was constructed as a centrepiece for the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, it was widely denounced as an eyesore.

One letter published in a French newspaper deplored the prospect of looking out over Paris and seeing "stretching out like a black blot the odious shadow of the odious column built up of riveted iron plates."

The signatories included writers Alexandre Dumas and Guy de Maupassant, although the latter was later spotted dining regularly at the odious column’s highly reputed restaurant. Asked why he was there, considering his objections to the tower, he replied that it was the one place in Paris where one could not see it.

So the ET tower - just my name, probably won’t catch on - is destined to have some difficult PR days before it takes its place in the bosom of the British people.

I think, however, I may have spotted something in the launch details which will ensure its continuing, indeed, growing success as a London icon.

Although the official literature described it as 115 metres high, by the end of the press conference at City Hall, Johnson insisted it was 118 metres high.

This tower, then, is growing at the rate of three metres a day.

Which means that, by the time the Games are declared over on August 12, 2012, on my calculation, the erection in the park will be 2,662 metres high, making it comfortably twice the size of the world’s current tallest building, the 828 metres-high Burj Khalifa tower in Dubai.

And by the turn of the century, the Olympic Park tower will be so tall that it will make the mythical Beanstalk that Jack climbed, believed to have been destroyed by an earthquake in 371 BC, look no more than a puny weed in comparison.

Put it this way. If you stretched London buses end-to-end in an effort to match it, you would run out of buses - even if you managed to get some of the old, bendy stock which Boris Johnson’s predecessor as Mayor so waywardly installed on the streets of the capital…

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

Jason Gardener: Competition teaches life skills

Duncan Mackay

The view that "competition teaches life skills" is often used by people explaining why there should be winners and losers in sport.

I can only speak from my own experiences whilst growing up, having children and what I’ve seen during the many school visits I have been on.

Children are naturally competitive, whether that be when trying to tie their shoelaces before their brother or sister or being the first one to guess the answer to "I spy with my little eye" whilst sat in the back of the car on the way home from school.

For me, sport provides the best environment for children to learn what competition is, how it can be related to everyday life and the skills it can give them which they will use, often without even realising, when they get older.

Not wanting to fall behind in lessons, working on a group science project, being respectful to others in class or reacting with grace when they’ve sailed through an exam while their best friend’s flunked it - these real life situations in school require self-discipline, teamwork, fair play and respect, which are all skills sport can offer.   

This is of course not even considering the health benefits of sport and physical activity.

When packaged effectively and appropriately, I believe competitive sport can enhance the lives of every young person.

Challenging a child to beat his or her own PB is as important as encouraging a school team to overcome their opponents.     

There is still the problem that too often the same children represent their school football, rugby, hockey or netball teams.

However, competitive sport is being put back at the heart of schools which means there is an ever increasing number of opportunities for young people to enjoy and benefit from competition regardless of their age or ability.

For those young people who demonstrate talent good enough for them to consider a career in sport and they have a hunger which drives them to compete and be the best, there are more opportunities for them outside of school.

This is shown in the improvements being made to how young people can progress from school sport, to county, to regional and national competition through the work involving the national governing bodies.

Last year, over 2.7 million pupils aged five to 16 regularly took part in competition between schools.

The Sainsbury’s UK School Games, an event which I’ve been to a few times since my retirement, are a really important stepping stone for many talented young athletes looking to make it in elite sport.

The Games, which this year take place in the North East of England from September 2-5, will see around 1,600 school-age athletes  experiencing an environment similar to that of the Olympics, Paralympics or Commonwealth Games - it’s certainly something I wish had been around when I was young.

It’s a multi-sport event with an Opening and Closing Ceremony and Athletes’ Village which many, if not all of them, will not have tasted before.

I’ve no doubt there will be some competitors who will be overawed and let the nerves get to them whilst others will simply thrive on the pressure and atmosphere and achieve PBs or win medals which they didn’t think possible before the Games.

The key point is however they perform or whatever they achieve, it’s an experience they will never forget and an invaluable lesson as they embark on their sporting careers.

Going to a major championship, mixing with other athletes, interacting with a crowd or dealing with the media can affect different athletes in different ways.

Being able to handle all these external pressures whilst still performing when it matters most is what separates medallists from also-rans.

The Sainsbury’s UK School Games are a fantastic opportunity for these youngsters to learn their trade so that they are not overawed when they earn senior selection and compete on the biggest stages in sport.

We all know the knock-on effect of success achieved by our country’s athletes in international sport.

The euphoria seen back home when Great Britain’s athletes achieved their incredible success at the 2008 Beijing Olympics followed by our inspirational Paralympians a few weeks later was huge.

Should England win the World Cup in South Africa this summer then I think the country will witness a feel-good factor of unrivalled proportions.

Competitive sport has the ability to inspire those watching as much as those playing, which is why the opportunities presented by London 2012 are so exciting.

There’s no doubt there will be a surge in the numbers of young people wanting to take up the Olympic and Paralympic sports which they will have just watched on TV - but more likely the sports in which we’ve been successful.

Children will always want to emulate their heroes, the people they respect, the people who they perceive to be winners in life. This applies to musicians, teachers, doctors, even bankers and brings me back to the point I made about competition teaching children life skills.

By creating an environment in school where all young people can learn, enjoy and achieve through competitive sport, this experience can help them develop socially, break down cultural barriers, assess risk and when to take it, but above all allow them to realise their potential and self-belief. 

Jason Gardener was a member of the Great Britain 4x100 metres relay team who struck gold at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and is a former world indoor 60m champion. He is now a School Sport Ambassador with the Youth Sport Trust.

Alan Hubbard: Klitschko, Henry Cooper and the other doubters have to accept that women's boxing is here to stay

Duncan Mackay

Vitaliy Klitschko, the giant Ukrainian who holds the World Boxing Council heavyweight title - the most authentic of the game's alphabet soup - says women’s boxing sickens him.

"When I see two women face to face in a boxing ring I feel nausea. The sport is appropriate for men, not for women. Perhaps I am old (Dr Ironfist is 38) or conservative but I consider there are sports much more beautiful for women than boxing."

He is not alone among boxing’s elder statesmen in disapproving strongly of ladies who punch. Sir Henry Cooper pointedly made an excuse and left when a female bout was announced during a mixed international between Great Britain and the USA last year. Amir Khan believes women should stick to tennis, Barry McGuigan is firmly in the anti-camp as is leading promoter Frank Warren ("I wouldn’t allow my daughter to box") while my good friend Colin Hart, The Sun’s doyen of boxing scribes, will have no truck with it either.

Their self-admitted chauvinistic views will get short shrift from the seven feisty females selected as Britain’s Olympic squad, notably Amanda Coulson who is among those in contention for the three places available when women’s boxing makes its Olympic debut in 2012. 

The 27-year-old lightweight from Hartlepool, whom I first met five years ago when she was helping to pioneer the sport here, is something of suffragette of sock. I am delighted to see her in the squad for she has campaigned vigorously for the recognition of the sport when there were many in male-dominated officialdom sneering at its validity in this country and obstructing its progress. She said at the time: "When I am out there in the ring I am not only fighting my opponent, I am fighting the officials, the organisations, and all the old school that don’t agree with women’s boxing."

She gained the backing of the then-national coach Terry Edwards and her fight has been well and truly won despite the detractors like Klitschko and co. The advent of women’s boxing in the Olympics is a real landmark for London and a triumph for those like  Amanda who have fought strenuously for the cause.

Both the Amateur Boxing Association of England and the British Amateur Boxing Association are to be applauded for their ready acceptance of women’s boxing into their programmes and affording it equal status with the men in terms of facilities and coaching at elite level. 

When I first spoke with Amanda (pictured) she was sparring at Crystal Palace in preparation for the European Championships. I hope I am not being too sexist when I say that she is attractive enough to be on the catwalk instead doing a ring walk. Then there were about 70 female boxers in Britain.

Now there are 700, and more than 37,000 women regularly participating in boxing training as a fitness exercise.

Over 250 clubs in England have female members and in 2008/2009 British women won 18 medals in seven international competitions, including three golds and two bronze in the EU Championships in Bulgaria.

The articulate Coulson now shrugs off the reactionaries, saying: "You will always get some people who are negative, saying women shouldn’t box, or it is just handbags at ten paces. But the sport has evolved dramatically and has as much skill and technique as in men’s boxing."

She told us she first got the gumshield between her teeth as a 13-year-old. "I've always been a bit of a tomboy and liked competing in male- dominated sports, but what attracted me to boxing was when I read a report in a local newspaper about two other 13-year-olds who were to be the first females to take part in a bout in England. I thought, 'I wouldn't mind a crack at that', but I didn't really know where to start, so I thumbed through the Yellow Pages looking for a club that would take women. Finally I found one, a local boys' club that was run by the police (Hartlepool Catholic Police Community Club). They welcomed me and that was it. I was hooked.'"

She now works for the police as a communications officer, answering 999 calls, and fits her roadwork and gym training between her shifts. At college she studied sports science and intended going to university, but this plan was abandoned when her father died of a brain tumour.

Coulson, who has been boxing for 14 years, has extensive experience, collecting medals at an array of international tournaments and  representing GB in the 2008 World Championships. She has been in great form since being beaten by her under 60 kilo rival Natasha Jonas in the 2009 ABA Championships.

Hartlepool now seems a hotbed of women’s boxing, producing another squad member in 18-year-old middleweight Savannah Marshall (pictured), who won the European Union title in only her fifth bout and is known as "The Silent Assassin" because she has little to say for herself but is a ferocious finisher in the ring. After winning the European Youth title in December 2008, she moved into senior boxing with devastating results, winning the 2009 ABA title inside 60 seconds before being crowned European Union champion in only her fifth adult contest.

The tall, unbeaten teenager twice defeated American Brittany Inkrote in internationals against the USA in London in November (the one Sir ‘Enry walked out on), winning 16-3 and 19-4.

She is a hot tip for an Olympic medal, together with Britain’s most successful female boxer, flyweight Nicola Adams, 27, from Bradford, Britain’s first world amateur medallist, winning silver in China 16 months ago.

With only three divisions - flyweight, lightweight and middleweight - there will be intense rivalry for an Olympic berth, though Marshall seems virtually guaranteed a slot as she is the only one nominated at middleweight.

Coulson will be challenging for the lightweight spot with Jonas, who has beaten her twice, and Londoner Ruth Marshall. The 31-year-old Navy lieutenant Lucy O’Connor, who like Coulson, has been an ardent campaigner on behalf of women’s boxing, has shed 6kg to be one of the three competing for the flyweight place, together with favourite Adams and Nina Smith, from Essex.

All seven will receive funding and train fortnightly at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield under GB Performance Director Rob McCracken and a highly professional set-up which includes coaches, a nutritionist. a psychologist, a physiotherapist and a video analyst. 

Amanda Coulson, boxing’s Cinderella girl, could hardly have envisaged all this happening when she first began banging the drum for women’s rights (and lefts) in the sport. As the saying goes, you’ve  come a long way, baby.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered 11 summer Olympics and scores of world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire, and is a former chairman of the Boxing Writers’ Club.

Mihir Bose: West Ham Olympic Stadium saga is beginning to repeat itself as farce

Duncan Mackay

History may not always repeat itself first as tragedy then as farce, as Karl Marx said, but there are some very curious and interesting similarities in the latest attempt to get West Ham into the Olympic Stadium.

The tragic episode came back in 2006, so is it possible that we have now reached the stage of farce? And in the end could, as one football chairman told me, the stadium become a place where Tower Hamlets play Shoreditch Grammar School with grass growing out of the seats?

Well, let us go back to 2006 when the last serious attempt was made to make West Ham an anchor tenant for the Olympic Stadium. Richard Caborn, the then Sports Minister, was very keen on it so was Sir Robin Wales, the Mayor of Newham and so were the owners of West Ham.

Indeed Terry Brown, then chairman, saw the move to the Olympic Stadium as crucial to West Ham competing on anything like equal terms with the likes of Chelsea or Arsenal. It also formed a central plank of his desire to sell the club. And on the field of play the club faced relegation.

Out of that cocktail of possibilities the only event that actually materialised was the sale, although Sheffield United fans will forever claim that relegation would and should have happened had West Ham been prevented from paying Carlos Tevez.

The sale had its own drama with Brown and Co not selling to the Russian-born Israeli that Tevez's manager Kia Joorabchian had introduced but to a then rich Icelander. Nevertheless Brown and co still walked away with something close to a £100 million.

Four years later the club has new owners, is again facing relegation and the move to the stadium is back on the agenda. The difference is Messers David Sullivan and David Gold, now see it as crucial to the club's salvation. It is a reflection of the completely altered economic climate that a post-2012 move to Stratford is not meant to make West Ham the equal of Chelsea or Arsenal, more to ensure the club stays afloat.

Given the mess the Icelandic owners created, Sullivan and Gold can hardly hope to walk away with £100 million but are coping with clearing debts of £100 million.

Any talk of football moving to the Olympic stadium means we renew the tennis match, or to borrow Lord Coe's phrase, replay the cracked record of the future of the running track. Sullivan, soon after he completed the takeover, lobbed over the argument that it had to go which promoted a volley back from Coe, the 2012 chairman, that it had to stay.

And this view was reiterated by Baroness Ford, chair of the Olympic Park Legacy Company, in her evidence to MPs last month when she insisted that athletics could co-exist with football. Her words are worth noting, "for me premier athletics must be part of the mix because that was part of the bid commitment."

So can all this be resolved? One man who can claim to have an insight into all this is Barry Hearn, the chairman of Leyton Orient. While West Ham moving to the Olympic Stadium has been the main news, ever since the stadium was planned the default position of the Olympic authorities has been that the League One club could be the anchor tenant and help pay the costs of its upkeep.

I have been talking to Hearn and he tells me that, whatever happens, his club will not be moving to the OIympic Stadium after the 2012 Games. Hearn told me: "For three years we have been talking. Leyton Orient would have loved to have been in the Olympic stadium."

At Brisbane Road Leyton Orient can accommodate 9,000 although at present they average round 5,000. Post-2012 with a 25,000 stadium to fill Hearn felt this "would have given us capacity to grow to perhaps 24,000. But I have told the Olympic authorities we will not be moving there."

Hearn's reasons for turning the move down is simple.

"They have built the wrong stadium. In an athletics stadium the slope of the seats is different, they go up at a different angle to a football stadium. When Seb said, 'I have given my word that the running track must remain,' I said spend money on a hydraulics system, like at Stad de France where seats come forward during football to cover the track. But they did not want to spend the money. A running track kills football. In modern football proximity to players generates the atmosphere."

Hearn is absolutely scathing about what has happened. "We will have spent £500 million plus and in two years we will end up with Tower Hamlets playing Shoreditch Grammar School and grass growing out of the seats. Wonderful, well done boys."

And then, in a voice drained of any hint of sarcasm, he added: "They have built a stadium which will be completely useless after the Olympics, totally, a waste of public money, a disgrace.

"Because they don't listen to anybody, they don't think it through and they don't have common sense. Nobody has taken any responsibility."

Since Hearn turned down a move to Stratford he has closely followed the discussions West Ham are having and is convinced that for all the warm noises coming a deal with West Ham is impossible. A few days ago David Sullivan rang Hearn to tell him he was confident the talks would be successful. Hearn said: "David is a friend of mine but he does not understand the infrastructure and the details at the moment. He is a clever man and, when he does, he will realise the deal with West Ham cannot be done."

Time will tell whether Hearn is right but with Hearn’s rejection of the stadium this does mean it severely limits Baroness Ford’s options to get a workable post 2012 deal.

Options that are even more restricted as a result of Boris Johnson taking over from Ken Livingstone as the London Mayor. Back in 2005 when the cost plans for the Olympic Park were being made Ken Livingstone, essentially on the back of envelope calculations, said he would provide £10 million a year for its upkeep.Johnson was aghast when he heard about it. For him the £10 million a year for the park that Ken talked about has never made any sense.

He is much more concerned with grass roots legacy and he has ring-fenced £15 million which with matching funding is part of the £30 million pot he wants to ensure 2012 will provide a real  sporting legacy.

So where will Baroness Ford get the money for her legacy plans and will this not put her under greater pressure to do a football deal with West Ham? But how she can square it with the running track is difficult to see.

All this suggests to me that this stadium story far from being concluded has now entered its most difficult and its most unpredictable phase. If Hearn is proved right this will turn out to be a farce which will produce tears not laughter.

Mihir Bose is one of the world's most astute observers on politics in sport and, particularly, football. He formerly wrote for The Sunday Times and The Daily Telegraph and until recently was the BBC's head sports editor.


Mike Rowbottom: If West Ham move to the Olympic Stadium then it won't be the first time they have shared with athletics

Duncan Mackay

In his funny and honest book, The Heart of the Game (Time Warner,£18.99), Jimmy Greaves provides the best analogy I have ever heard for the experience of following football.

He recalls a childhood pal of his who was given a pocket knife by his dad. A couple of years later the handle broke and had to be replaced. Some years after that, the blade broke, and was also replaced.

"Yet," Greaves writes, "my pal still loved the knife, believing it to be the one his dad had given him as a birthday present all those years ago. I mention that story because I believe the way we think and feel about football is similar to the way my pal loved and treasured that knife."

Now I don’t want to get too philosophical here - "When you can snatch the pocket knife from my hand, Grasshopper…" - but I think this image really does point the way to something a bit mysterious.

What is it we follow when we follow a team?

The players change. The kit changes. The manager changes - in some cases, more swiftly than the kit. The ground changes - as all those clubs now located in efficient but anonymous arenas on out-of-town industrial estates will bear witness.

The badge changes - "Coat of arms and a motto? Fans don’t want that old rubbish any more. Get something a bit more user-friendly…" The style of play changes.

The nickname changes. "Come on, you Glaziers!" Heard that recently, have you? It’s all "Come on, you Eagles" down at Selhurst Park nowadays.

"Come on, you Biscuitmen!" Heard that recently? No, because Reading have been The Royals for the last 20-odd years. Although one of their fanzines does celebrate the reference to the old Huntley and Palmers factory in the town by calling itself Hob Nob Anyone?

So what doesn’t change?

I suppose it is no more and no less than the idea that you support a particular team.

In which case, my antipathy to the possibility that the team I have followed since I was 10, West Ham United, will take up new residence in the 2012 Olympic stadium, is irrational.

But as the club and their partners, Newham Council, bid to secure shared use of the stadium with athletics after the Games have finished, I find myself getting mournful about the idea that West Ham will no longer be at Upton Park.

I will never forget the thrill of reaching the top of the stairs in the East Stand and seeing the pitch so far below me when my dad took me to see my first West Ham game - a 1-1 draw with Sunderland on October 25, 1969.

And when the players whose pictures covered my walls - courtesy of Goal, Shoot, Football Weekly and Football Monthly magazines - trotted out onto that green turf and began scattering and scampering about in the warm-up, it felt like all my birthdays and Christmases combined.

Over the last 20 years, as I have covered West Ham matches from the opposing side of the pitch, I have always gazed across and remembered that occasion, trying to picture where we would have been sitting.

And yet, for many West Ham fans back on that October Saturday, the East stand may have been regarded as an unwelcome addition as it had replaced the hugely popular and historically raucous Chicken Run earlier in the year.

The "new" East stand is now the oldest part of the ground since the West Stand was rebuilt in 2001 - complete, it has to be said, with naff, theme-park turrets to chime in with the club’s badge.

Rationally, then, a move to the Olympic Stadium would be a case of "plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose."

If West Ham do end up sharing a stadium with athletics, it would not be for the first time.

Back in 1897, when they still played under the name of Thames Iron Works, the team were ensconced in a new stadium in Plaistow - the Memorial Ground - provided by the Iron Works owner, Arnold Hills.

But football was far from top priority at the new site, as Hills made clear in his address to the Ironworks’s Federated Clubs annual festival.

Adam Ward’s Official History of West Ham United (Hamlyn, £20) details how Hills remarked that he had "secured a large piece of land for an athletic ground", and that "the ground would contain a cycle track equal to any in London (this comment was met with applause) and it would also be used for football, tennis etc".

Should West Ham succeed in shifting to the new site in Stratford, there will be no question about which sport has priority - which means it is vital for UK Athletics to make a strong case now to secure the opportunity of using the stadium to host significant championships in the future.

OK. I think I’m coming round to the possibility.

 It won’t be the same – but it won’t be the end.

That said, there should be no shifting on the subject of the club’s name - which the newly installed vice-chairman Karren Brady suggested recently might be changed to West Ham Olympic.

Albeit that they began life as Thames Ironworks, West Ham United have been West Ham United since the summer of 1900. Let’s at least keep that precious bit of history intact.

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

Mike Moran: Spinmeisters like Ari Fleischer are not doing sport any favours

Duncan Mackay
I’m constantly fascinated by the series of carefully orchestrated and rigidly controlled public apologies and ‘coming out” media events created by "crisis management experts" and assorted "spinmeisters" who are hired regularly now by tarnished sports stars like Mark McGwire, Tiger Woods and Roger Clemens.
We have reached the point in our media-mad world where the conflict between the athletes and the public has created a whole new culture, based on the unproven notion that Americans will always forgive and offer a second chance to any celebrity who makes a public apology, no matter how vague or disingenuous it appears.

The same touch is being applied now to sports organisations, leagues, teams and even players facing some perceived crisis of public acceptance or understanding. Former George W. Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer is the poster boy these days for the band of image and communications consultants plying their trade amidst the murky and ever-changing world of spin and the remaking of issue.

Fleischer was hired by the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) in May, 2009, at a critical time for the USOC related to Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Olympic Games, the ouster of popular CEO Jim Scherr and the sudden departure of chief communications Officer Darryl Seibel.

Fleischer said at the time that he would work on overall communications issues by helping "the USOC to think about the big picture" and work with the organisation’s communications staff as it goes through a transition period with the impending leadership change. He also said he would be able to offer the organisation both domestic and international political expertise as it pushes Chicago’s bid to host the 2016 Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee then threw Chicago out in the first round on October 2.

"The USOC is one of the most exciting brands in sports," Fleischer said. "Everyone looks up to Olympians, and it’s an honour to be able to work with them."

There is no record of just what Fleischer actually did during his time with the USOC and acting CEO Stephanie Streeter, but his profile has exploded since with the activity for his newest clients, Mark McGwire, Tiger Woods, and the BCS (Bowl Championship Series). He also had handled the sticky issues surrounding the divorce between the Green Bay Packers and Bret Favre.

Fleischer (pictured) is just one of a growing legion of image and crisis experts in sports and politics who are making a lot of money to help athletes and organisations deal with a multitude of issues, from scandals, melt-downs and bad decisions to other embarrassments.

Say what you want about how the McGwire and Woods performances were received or staged, but it doesn’t matter anymore.

The idea is to get out there at a selected time, in front of a carefully chosen audience, take no questions or limit the questions, stay "on message", repeat particular lines over and over when an interviewer tries to take the questions outside the managed boundaries, tear up appropriately, and open up in a way that you did not as an athlete, ever.

The reviews are split on how these two performed, from ridicule to columnists insisting it’s time to move on. And that is the key to this peculiar dance now: move on and get off the stage and back to playing or coaching. No more interviews except perhaps another choreographed appearance at a tightly-controlled venue where media is restrained or the room is full of shouting, adoring fans openly hostile to reporters and television crews.

We live in a sports world where today’s news cycle changes rapidly, and whatever the big issue is will swiftly be replaced by the next, predictable scandal or controversy, and the sports public, wired to the internet, blogs and talk-shows, will quickly dive into the newest mess to chow down on. These spinmeisters and "handlers" know this all too well, and use that knowledge to pick the right time, the right audience and the venue to create the big event that simply shuts off further heavy attention or scrutiny, barring a relapse or previously unknown elements or facts.

But the public is not always that easily cajoled, duped or rendered sedated, and the artful apology is sometimes now parsed and seized upon, like McGwire’s stultifying insistence to stay on message that his use of steroids did not have an impact on his performance and the staggering numbers, despite the repeated attempts by interviewer Bob Costas to question him on the issue.

Then, recently, my old friend Bill Hancock, the chief executive of the BCS, fired back at critics in Congress about their concerns over how the organisation distributes its riches and which conferences seem to make out better than others. "I sure do think that Congress has more important things to do, with all the issues facing our country," said Hancock in an arranged phone interview with the Associated Press [That one of the standard actions in the crisis control playbook these days - no face-to-face sitdowns that could go wrong]. "The BCS is fair. Access is fair, revenue is distributed fairly, and frankly, we welcome the opportunity to tell our story every chance we get."

I love Hancock like a brother, brought him to the Olympic Games years ago on my staff to handle sensitive special tickets for the media, and we worked together in the old Big 8 Conference in sports publicity, but I would have not advised Hancock to be critical of what, and what not, The Congress should be dealing with. I would bet there are scores of young, ambitious Congressional staffers who took his statement to their bosses and offered them even more openings to meddle in the BCS issue and further create attention and scrutiny, when just the opposite is the desired end game.

The statement drew a quick, sharp response from critics of the BCS like the political action group The Playoff PAC that lobbies for a football playoff. "It’s astoundingly arrogant of the BCS to suggest that Congress has no business asking questions here. Students across the country are protesting tuition hikes, public universities are operating in the red. The BCS is holding an enormous pot of school-bound money, and they refuse to tell anyone how much they have, how much they spend, and how they’ll distribute funds."

That was the beginning of March, but today is towards the end of March, and the sports public has moved on to the amazing story of the Northern Iowa Panthers and their history-making upset of the Kansas Jayhawks, Tiger’s announcement that he will play in the Masters, prompting CBS Sports President Sean McManus to breathlessly say that Woods’ return to golf will be "the biggest media event other than the Obama inauguration in the past 10 or 15 years." Yup, Mission Accomplished.

McGwire is teaching hitting to Cardinal betters in spring training and taking no questions other than those from ESPN baseball analysts in high chairs between himself and the amazing Albert Pujols, on the art of hitting.

I’m no outsider to this phenomenon, trust me. I created scores of media events spotlighting USOC leadership and Olympic athletes, both to get ahead of an issue or quickly respond to it.

To spotlight a positive story and deliver it when media had not been interested, or to tell our side of the story. But none of these enjoyed the ambiance and luxury of a controlled audience and venue, nor any embargo on reporters’ questions and followup. Nor vapid, prepared text delivered to a mute throng of selected media and supporters.

We put it out there and took our lumps, not waiting a month after the incident, or leaving calls unreturned or avoided. That earned us consideration and maybe a break or two the next time, but we never ducked.

But that is ancient history now.

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.

David Owen: Greenwich Park process gives me a warm glow inside

Duncan Mackay

It doesn’t happen very often, but every once in a while a warm glow of affection for my country and fellow citizens steals up on me.

Usually it comes on a cricket-field or some well-appointed rural pub.

On Tuesday night, it accosted me in Woolwich Town Hall.

This is that particular type of imposing civic edifice in which even the gents’ urinals, made by a Scotswood-on-Tyne company, are monuments of the engineering prowess that built an empire.

It wasn’t the building itself, though, that was responsible for my sentiments.

It was what was going on inside.

This was D-day for the plan to stage the 2012 Olympic equestrian events in Greenwich Park, a World Heritage site of immense importance to this local south-east London community.

Greenwich Council’s Planning Board had gathered, on a three-foot high stage, to pronounce on the plan.

They were joined in a yellow-walled hall by perhaps 200 other people, including London 2012 chairman Lord Coe, while a small knot of protestors did their thing in the drizzle outside.

This was potentially a grisly way to spend an evening – and not just because of the near-certainty of acquiring a neck-ache.

As a gentleman in a blue shirt outlined the proposal, with intonation pitched somewhere between a tour guide and a traffic policeman, I feared the worst.

But then the general public got their say, pros as well as antis, for the most part in three minute slots, and I gradually became transfixed.

It was the calm yet determined dignity with which most made their points, trenchant or batty, over the three-and-a-half hours I sat there that struck a chord.

I’m not sure that anyone in the room, in their heart of hearts seriously expected planning permission to be turned down.

Official after official had told me in the preceding days that there was "No Plan B", although one did eventually allow half-jokingly that "there might be a Plan Z".

Yet some of these residents had plainly devoted hours and hours to unearthing the minutiae they required to make their cases.

As a quintessentially English exercise in local democracy of sorts it was very moving; the Orwell of The Lion and The Unicorn would have felt instantly at home.

What is more, it will probably bear fruit, in the sense that the powers-that-be, I’m sure, will think very carefully before going back on their word or trying to cut corners, even once the intense pressures to which they will be subjected by bean-counters, security operatives and, worst of all, TV producers are ratcheting up in earnest.

It has to be said that this appeared a community singularly well-equipped to ensure that their concerns got a thorough airing.

It wasn't so much George Orwell as Hugh Scully who I kept expecting to see walk through the door between the attendants.

Truly, you could imagine the same audience being present (minus possibly Lord Coe) for an episode of Antiques Roadshow.

I would think the collection of doctorates and PhDs in the hall was worthy of All Souls.

Frankly, if I lived in Greenwich, I would be profoundly wary of what is about to happen to the Park - less because of fears about permanent damage than worries over restricted access.

If this was Nimbyism, however, it was putting on its most attractive face.

One woman behind me had even brought a thermos.

I took a note of some of the most arresting points and phrases.

"LOCOG does not know where the bat roosts are."

"I have intimate knowledge of at least six conduits" – this from a man with a strong European, possibly German, accent offering to carry out a survey of these park conduits at his own expense.

"Worldwide there are 689 World Heritage sites."

"I’m actually still reeling from the artist’s impression of the stadium."

"This is a landscape that has survived and grown graceful in old age."

This last description could equally have applied to many of the audience.

There was also a tale which I didn’t completely grasp relating to Tudor bricks that had somehow "emerged spontaneously", at least I think that was the phrase used.

What was very noticeable too - and Orwell would have recognised this - was how obedient the speakers were when asked by the chair to wind up because their time had elapsed.

This even though many of them had plainly poured life and soul into their doomed attempt to encourage a No vote.

The audience did draw the line at Councillor Ray Walker’s urging to: "Please don’t clap because we will be here all night if you do."

Yet most of the bursts of applause that punctuated proceedings were brief if often enthusiastic.

Though I had to leave well before the dénouement (a 10-2 vote in favour of the application), officials from a variety of interested bodies - including a man from the Royal Parks with terrifyingly shiny black shoes – were all on their best behaviour. 

Is this sort of thing happening in Sochi?

Did it happen in Beijing?

I think Britons can take pride and heart in the fact that it happens here.

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 last year's Beijing Olympics. An archive of Owen’s material may be found by Twitter users at www.twitter.com/dodo938

Alan Hubbard: British boxing is finally looking to the future with optimism again

Duncan Mackay

Buried beneath the hyperbolic avalanche of sporting  reportage from Chelsea to Cheltenham in the popular prints last week was the good news that British amateur boxing is back on the front foot after the seismic fall-out which followed Beijing. 

A Great Britain team returned from the Commonwealth Federation Championships in New Delhi with ten medals - four gold, one silver and five bronze - and this without several of their top men including Olympians Bradley Saunders and Khalid Yafai and European champion Luke Campbell.

Names like England’s Iain Waver, Scott Cardle, Simon Vallily, and Welshman Fred Evans, may be unfamiliar to all but the amateur game’s cognoscenti but they won gold in a highly- ompetitive tournament which looks promising  not only for the Commonwealth Games, also in New Delhi later this year, but the 2012 Olympics.

For the record the other medallists were England’s Frank Buglioni (silver) with bronze from Andrew Selby (Wales), Daniel Phillips (England), Callum Smith (England), Stephen Simmons (Scotland) and Frazer Clarke (England).

All are members of the elite squad assembled at the British Amateur Boxing Association’s state-of-the-art HQ at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield under the aegis of new performance director Rob McCracken.

The successes demonstrate the professional influence of McCracken, who says: "To deliver ten medals is a superb performance from a squad that was relatively inexperienced in terms of international competition. Both the results and the performances were excellent and showed the breadth and depth of talent we have throughout the GB squad. It is a very positive result for British amateur boxing."
Indeed, and it also shows there is new life in the ring after that Olympic exodus.

McCracken has not taken long to whip British amateur boxing into better shape. As I said at the time, he is an excellent appointment, having carved out a decent career himself as a former British and Com monwealth middleweight champion and world title contender who lost only the last two of his 35 fights. He is also coach to Britain’s most authentic world champion, Carl Froch, who holds the WBC super-middleweight title.

Like the popular Terry Edwards before him the 49-year-old Brummie is no mere bucket-and-sponge conditioner but a cerebral tactician who knows how to bring out the best in boxers even of limited ability. He has certainly lifted the spirit of his Sheffield squaddies after a relatively disappointing World Championships. Following the results in New Delhi  it seems there will be healthy competition for places in England’s Commonwealth Games team, the event from which they returned from Melbourne with five gold medals under Edwards four years ago.

McCracken will shortly be taking leave of absence to work with Froch as his puts the finishing touches to his preparations for his world title defence against Mikkel Kessler in Henning, Denmark, on 24 April, which is part of boxing’s Super Six Series.

McCracken’s association with Nottingham’s unbeaten Froch (aka "The Cobra") has been an added bonus for the boys in Sheffield, as Froch has been working out there with them, which has allowed McCracken to oversee both his responsibilities.

Meantime what of those Olympians who got away? All six who turned pro after Beijing remain undefeated and gold medallist James DeGale (pictured) has progressed swiftly to title-challenging status.

He will fight for the vacant WBA International super-middleweight title in his first 12-round bout at Upton Park on May 15 on the undercard of the Kevin Mitchell-Michael Katsidis WBO interim world lightweight title fight. It will be only the seventh pro fight for the charismatic Londoner (who has yet to proceed beyond four rounds) in what is regarded as a sort of ‘junior’ world title bout.

Stablemate Frankie Gavin, now boxing at welterweight after infamously failing to make the lightweight limit pre-Beijing, is equally ambitious, and so far has been the most impressive of Frank Warren’s Olympic trio. Also unbeaten in six fights he’ll have his first eight-rounder on the West Ham bill and wants a title fight this year. His ultimate aim to meet erstwhile amateur room-mate and spar-mate Amir Khan, now a world champion and chasing his American dream with Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy outfit.  Light-middleweight Billy Joe Saunders (unbeaten in five) also appears at Upton Park after recovering from a hand injury.

Their  Beijing bronze medal buddies Tony Jeffries (light-heavyweight) and beanpole big-hitting heavyweight David Price are both making good progress under the promotional banner of Frank Maloney while featherweight Joe Murray steps up for his first eight-rounder after five unbeaten contests on Ricky Hatton’s promotion at  Dagenham, Essex this Friday (March 26).

And what of Edwards, the man who masterminded Britain’s best-ever Olympics before his shock dismissal? Well, he’s doing very nicely thank you, having collected a tidy bundle in damages from the Amateur Boxing Association and is now coaching pros and amateurs in an East London gym. He is also a consultant to Ghana may well be in their team’s corner in London.

So now the dust has settled after amateur boxing’s maelstroms it seems everyone is happy - or at least a little happier. Allied to those heartening results from India it gives British boxing a ring of confidence for 2012.

Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered 11 summer Olympics and scores of world title fights from Atlanta to Zaire, and is a former chairman of the Boxing Writers’ Club.

Karim Bashir: It's time we began to take interest in the British Athletes Commission

Duncan Mackay

Most people involved or interested in sport in the UK know that UK Sport is the organisation responsible for the distribution of National Lottery and Exchequer funding and ultimately are responsible for elite level performance in partnership with the National Governing Bodies (NBG) for each sport. 

These people also understand that the British Olympic Association (BOA) and British Paralympic Association (BPA) look after TeamGB athletes at Olympic/Paralympic Games time.  There is no doubt that all of these organisations have done a fantastic job in recent times and a great deal of this is down to their desire to become more professional in their operation.  However, quite rightly, their job is to focus on the "group" as apposed to the "individual".

So who looks after the swimmer, the fencer, the wheelchair basketball player when things aren’t quite right? In the first instance those athletes can turn to their NGB who will undoubtedly do their utmost to help. But what if the dispute is between the athlete and their NGB?

In 2003 a group of athletes recognised that there was a requirement for an independent organisation to represent the views of all elite athletes in the UK and set up the British Athletes Commission (BAC). The original remit of the BAC was to facilitate athlete representation and communication pathways within sports and to ensure that the views of elite athletes were communicated coherently to the key decision makers in British sport.

Initially, the BAC worked very much under the radar while it developed relationships with NGBs and National Sporting Organisations, building trust in the way it operates and represents athlete’s views.

Now, however, the BAC is becoming a much more visible organisation in the UK elite sport landscape. This has occurred through the need to represent the athlete’s views publicly and to raise awareness of the BAC as a commercial organisation.

To ensure that the BAC can guarantee its long term independence it now generates its own income alongside the grant funding it receives from UK Sport. This is achieved through athletes paying a membership fee of £60 per annum, through partners who work with the BAC and through sponsorship.

Since the middle of last year, the BAC has undergone a strategic review of all its operations and has split its operations into two areas:

• Core operations - which revolve around its free services of advice and representation to the athletes

• Elite Athletes Club - which is a membership organisation designed to provide fantastic benefits and services to athletes, retired athletes, and the support service staff around those athletes. The club will operate as a separate trading company of the BAC, with the sole aim of generating income to support the BAC’s core services.

So why should anyone be interested in what is effectively a trade union? To answer this question we have to look at the three stakeholder groups who are linked to the BAC.

Until now the majority of Lottery funded athletes have only ever had to engage with the BAC when things go wrong. Put simply, if everything was going to plan there was no motivation for an athlete to have any involvement with the BAC. 

This has changed. There are now over 15 benefits providers associated to the Elite Athletes Club and the discounts available make the £60 annual subscription a steal. 

I have been a member since its inception and my subscription payment was covered in the savings I made in just three nights hotel bookings.  If your mobile phone contract is up for renewal you’d be crazy not to look at their offerings. On top of his the BAC now deliver access to a schools speaking programme - AthletesDirect - and a sponsorship and appearance service at no cost to the athletes.

The second group that we have to consider are UK Sport, the BOA/BPA, NGBs and the four National Institutes of Sport. Engagement with these organisations has been a priority for the BAC and there has certainly been great development in these relationships. 

Team2012 may never have got off the ground without intervention from the BAC and that has resulted in a £10 million investment from Visa which has meant increased funding to some of the sports that received cuts last year.  If that alone doesn’t persuade these bodies to develop stronger ties with the BAC then they also need to consider the savings that they will make by ensuring that their performance staff sign up to the Elite Athletes Club. If every NGB performance team benefited from the savings available here the amount of money saved would be phenomenal. And which NGB isn’t asking for more money?

Finally, there’s the corporate sector. This is an easy one for me. Delivering a benefit through the Elite Athlete’s Club gives an organisation access to over 2,000 potentially new customers for very little work. Not only that but those partner organisations can tell the world that they are supporting every elite athlete in the UK.  Furthermore the opportunity to become the title sponsor of the BAC is still available, amazingly. Whoever snaps this up will steal a march on their competitors and will have a great story to tell.

Ignoring the British Athletes Commission is a mistake all of us could and should avoid making. 

For more details on the BAC click here.

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.

Mike Rowbottom: Our Sporting Life – courtesy of Wilkinson and Edmunds

Duncan Mackay

It’s  just a rugby ball. Manufactured by Gilbert, with standard blue and green markings. But on November 22, 2003, the inert object now on display at the Henley River & Rowing Museum carried the charge of a nation’s yearning as it described a trajectory between two rugby posts - despatched through the Sydney night air by the right boot of the man whose signature it now bears: Jonny Wilkinson.

Albeit that the signature looks curiously like "Andy Watson",  the ball which Jonny drop-kicked to give England’s rugby union team its last-gasp World Cup final victory over Australia is, and will forever be, a potent sporting icon.

As it stands behind toughened glass in the Museum’s foyer, though, with children passing it en route to the Wind in the Willows exhibition, it looks, frankly, a bit scruffy and deflated. Very much down the social scale in comparison to its neighbour, the magnificent silver wedding cake that is Henley Royal Regatta’s Grand Challenge Cup.

Could this scrap of leather really have been at the centrepiece of one of the great sporting occasions of recent years? Could it really have been this scuffed object which Matt Dawson shepherded with such nerveless brinkmanship before releasing it for his outside half to turn himself into sporting legend?

Above the autograph, written in what one can only presume is the same hand, there is a schoolboyish inscription in dark blue ink: "Eng v Aus." As if anyone was likely to forget.

But if the history of this particular sporting artefact is widely known and celebrated, other items on display in the first of a series of 100 planned exhibitions entitled Our Sporting Life prompt memories of a less exalted, but no less worthy nature.

The idea of the scheme is to create what will effectively be a sporting road-show that will tour the museums of the country, supplementing a central core of national and international exhibits with local memorabilia, all the way through to 2012, when the best of the displays will form part of what will be the largest ever exhibition of Britain’s sporting heritage in the capital.

And one of the main aims of the whole initiative is not just to present local communities with their history, but to stimulate their own recollection and celebration of it.

Thus the inaugural exhibition includes a venerable number.10 shirt donated by Henley Rugby Club, whose history is documented, programmes and photographs detailing past triumphs of Henley Town FC and, as you would expect, a wealth of rowing memorabilia from Leander and other local clubs.

Ben Hunt-Davis, a local member of the British eight that took gold at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, has lent his medal to the exhibition.

The achievements of another local, double Paralympics swimming gold medallist Graham Edmunds (pictured), are also detailed.

Edmunds is one of around 15 local sporting figures whose recollections can be heard at the press of a button. He makes fairly brief mention of the motorbike accident he suffered in 2000 which turned him from a talented swimmer, who spent his spare time coaching disabled swimmers, into someone so badly injured that he was advised he might never walk again.

Elsewhere in the exhibition one can read that two teams of surgeons worked for five hours trying to save and reconstruct his shattered legs.

"I spent 10 years working with guys who were very, very badly physically and mentally disabled. So unlike most disabled athletes, I knew all about disabled sport before I became disabled myself," he says, before going on to describe how it was only at the insistence of one of the disabled swimmers he had coached, a young man with Down’s Syndrome, that he started trying to walk again.

"He said to me: ‘No pain, no gain. No pain, no gain. Come on! Walk to me...’," Edmunds recalls, adding that he rejoined some of his former charges in the local pool and started to progress from wading to swimming.

After receiving a disabled classification of S10, the category for the least disabled group, Edmunds won gold in the Athens 2004 Paralympics 4x100m relay in a time that lowered the world record by seven seconds.

Four years later the same quartet took another seven seconds off the record in defending their title at the Beijing Paralympics.

Here is a story which stands at the heart of the exhibition, linking local and international achievement.

While the rugby ball in the foyer is emblematic of a huge and passionate sporting contest, the words of Graham Edmunds speak more clearly about the nature of courage and sporting endeavour.

But, hey, you don’t have to choose. Just embrace the whole package if and when it comes your way...

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

Niels de Vos: UK Athletics offers better value for money than any sport in Britain

Duncan Mackay
John Bicourt questions the return on investment into UK Athletics but sadly his article is characterised by poor research, incorrect facts and simply ill founded assertations.

Mr Bicourt begins by asserting that other sports such as football do not receive public monies. 

In fact, for the promotion of participation and grassroots competition, football (in common with other professional sports such as rugby union, rugby league and tennis) enjoys substantial public sector investment from Sport England, in excess of that received by athletics which does not enjoy the riches of these sports.

Mr Bicourt also misunderstands the roles and responsibilities of UK Athletics. Contrary to his view, we are not funded from the public purse to develop grassroots athletics and participation levels. This responsibility lies with the Home Country Athletics Federations and they are funded directly via their respective Sports Councils in pursuit of these objectives. 

UK Athletics’ role in this is to provide a strategic oversight and direction informed by the elected UK Members Council who represent not only the Home Countries but representatives from clubs, coaching and officials. Currently Sport England are investing (through England Athletics) over £2 million a year directly into club athletics via club coaching programmes and Athletics networks (including some clubs who are part of Mr Bicourt’s own self-appointed and unrepresentative body, the Association of British Athletics Clubs), which is then enhanced thanks to the support of UK Athletics sponsors McCain with a further investment of £1 million.

Where UK Athletics do contribute massively to grassroots athletics is through our primary sponsors Aviva. Over a period of 10 years Aviva have invested £18 milion into the promotion of athletics within British Schools through Star track, Sportshall, Elevating Athletics and more recently the sponsorship of all Home Country Schools Championships (track and field and cross-country).

UK Atheltics' only public money is provided by UK Sport and is correctly focussed on the elite end of our sport - to provide the best training facilities, the best coaching and the best support staff possible.

Again however, the numbers quoted by Mr Bicourt do not tally with reality. UK Athletics' current four year funding agreement with UK Sport see the sport awarded a total of £6 million per annum to fund our Olympic programme. Looked at another way this equates to just £375,000 per year per discipline, making athletics, by disciplines amongst the lowest funded of Olympic sports, and the sport offering perhaps the best value for money of all.

Bear in mind too, that the award is not, as Mr Bicourt asserts, restricted to a "tiny elite level".  Of that £6 million, 25 per cent of the sum every year is invested in ensuring we are able to take full British teams to all major track and fieldchampionships - not just senior teams but junior teams too.

Along with the track and field teams, others, such as the cross-country teams (junior, intermediate and senior men’s and women’s, all of whom returned with team medals from the European Championships in both 2008 and 2009, including Hayley Yelling (pictured) winning the women's race in Dublin last December), our British mountain running, fell running and ultra running teams are again funded from our commercial income and enjoy no public purse support at all.

Mr Bicourt makes a further comment regards public monies in administration - again the facts do not support his claim. All UK Athletics overheads are in fact paid for by our own commercially generated funds. Every penny of UK Sport investment goes directly to our World Class programme to which we ourselves contribute some 15 per cent through commercial funding.

So UK Athletics clearly demonstrates excellent value for money and is one of only a few sports from the Olympic family which raised its own commercial revenue to further invest in the sport which it is internationally recognised and charge to governing.

Finally Mr Bicourt asserts that at elite level the sport is not showing signs of progression. Once again, the facts do not support him. Consider the following statistics looking back at the number of UK medallists over the past three Olympic/World Championship cycles.
·         Sydney 2000/Edmonton 2001 – 6
·         Athens 2004/Helsinki 2005 – 12
·         Beijing 2008/Berlin 2009 – 16
And for evidence the positive trend is not just at the very top, let us consider top eight placings.
·         Sydney/Edmonton – 33
·         Athens/Helsinki – 27
·         Beijing/Berlin – 40
As recently as last week’s World Indoors, UK finished fourth in the medals table and fifth in the points table, ranking as the top European nation - a status the majority of British sports would give their right arm or leg for!
Last week also saw the publication of the results of the independent Active People survey (IPSOS Mori) which showed that participation in athletics has risen for the fourth consecutive six-month period - demonstrating clearly that our colleagues in England Athletics are also delivery against their remit.
So I am sorry Mr Bicourt, but I am afraid the facts do not support your position – I suggest the sport does not either.

Niels de Vos is the chief executive of UK Athletics