How to run faster

Despite the British success at Athens, coaches still want more cash for elite athletes

It is not often that John Major makes a foray back into political debate, but the tenth anniversary of the National Lottery has prompted a rare public outburst. The former prime minister has launched an attack on the government for having "raided the Lottery fund for programmes that historically have been met out of central taxation. Overall, Labour's behaviour has been nothing short of grand larceny."

It was ironic that, on the same day Major was being held up as the great defender of the Lottery, Ivan Lawrence, the former Conservative MP whose private members' bill in 1991 had opened the way for its creation, recalled his leader's lukewarm attitude: "I saw him [Major] quite often, but he never said, 'Good luck with your bill'. He wasn't wildly enthusiastic."

What should concern us more, however, is how existing funds are being distributed. Or not distributed. A report produced by the Comptroller and Auditor General in July revealed that £2.7bn was unused (though most of it was allocated) in the National Lottery Distribution Fund - £202m of which should have gone to Sport England. This revelation was particularly poignant when British athletes, so often the poor relations of national sport, were about to depart for Athens to compete in the Olympics.

These games were the first at which we could fully gauge, after several years of funding, the benefits of the Lottery grants offered to our elite athletes. As many as 550 Olympians and Paralympians received an annual stipend of up to £50,000 a year to cover massage, coaching and transport, as well as additional sums to meet living costs. In total, £20m of Lottery money has poured into their cause in the past five years.

A haul of 30 medals represented the best performance since 1928 and a slight improvement on Sydney 2000. Feel-good stories were provided by the success of runner Kelly Holmes and the men's coxless fours rowing team, and the inevitable parade through London ensued. But we should not let this divert our attention from the bigger picture.

Before the games, the sprinter Darren Campbell claimed that Lottery money was creating a "comfort zone" for many supposedly elite competitors who preferred to squander their windfalls "on PlayStation games and DVDs".

Could Campbell have had in mind his team-mate Mark Lewis-Francis? A junior world champion in 2000, Lewis-Francis's underachievement since has been symptomatic of all too many young British athletes of late. This summer, for the first time ever, Britain left the world junior athletics championships without a single medal.

Why has this happened? What appears to be absent is a coherent plan for how the money should be channelled. True, many ramshackle sports grounds have been renovated, and the government has launched a belated campaign to combat national obesity and indolence. But as Major would point out, these are initiatives that should be funded by local and central government. There is a real danger that resources which should be set aside to assist leading sportsmen and women are being depleted as a result. Furthermore, it is all very well doling out what cash there is to "elite" athletes, but unless there are elite programmes in place for them to follow, it will be wasted.

This point was made by Colin Moynihan, the former "miniature of sport" (as he was nicknamed), who has re-emerged as a persuasive shadow minister in the Lords: "We are the only bidding country for the 2012 games where funding into world-class programmes is decreasing . . . programmes have been cut, shelved or haven't got off the ground." The UK swimming coach Bill Sweetenham (an Australian) recently observed that his team could never hope to gain ground on their Antipodean rivals while the latter received an annual £2m more.

Yet it doesn't have to be like this. The World Cup-winning rugby supremo Clive Woodward has recalled how he made countless demands for more money during his time in charge of the England team. On some occasions, his bosses at the Rugby Football Union delivered; on others, they did not.

Woodward's response to setbacks was to use his initiative. Can't afford to send a chef to Australia to cook for my boys? Don't worry, I'll find a sponsor myself. Not going to pay for my players to have laptops? Fine. I'll use my contacts in the computer industry to get them. All the Lottery money in the world won't make a difference unless there is a Woodward-type character in charge of our Olympians, in charge at Sport England, and in charge of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. But there's a good chance you will win the Lottery before this happens.

Nick Greenslade is a contributing editor of the Observer Sport Monthly

This article first appeared in the 08 November 2004 issue of the New Statesman, Bleak morning in America