50 days to go, but Minister mindful of Olympic legacy

Minister for Sport Hugh Robertson delivered a fascinating hour-long media briefing in London today at the latest SJA/Ladbrokes Lunch, ahead of possibly the most important sporting summer in British history

Hugh Robertson (white shirt on top table, right of picture) answering all questions during an hour-long media briefing at the latest SJA/Ladbrokes Lunch. Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

An announcement will be made next month to confirm the legacy tenants for the vast halls of the Main Press Centre and International Broadcast Centre in London’s Olympic Park, Minister for Sport Hugh Robertson told his audience of journalists at today’s specially arranged SJA/Ladbrokes Lunch in Fleet Street.

With exactly 50 days to go until the Opening Ceremony of the London Games, and just one day before the start of Euro 2012 football tournament, the timing for this latest working lunch generously sponsored by Ladbrokes and organised by the SJA could not have been better.

Robertson is unique among sports ministers to have actively requested to engage with sports journalists and attend an SJA-organised event – last year’s Olympic Question Time – and today, he was never less than frank and forthcoming on a wide range of issues, from the non-selections for the respective teams of taekwondo world No1 Aaron Cook and former England football captain Rio Ferdinand, to human rights issues and racism in Ukraine and gender inequality in Saudi Arabia, to the creeping commercialisation of the Olympics.

He also spoke passionately and at some length about the country’s commitments to the Olympic legacy promises made in Singapore in 2005, in terms of facilities and participation, and underlined his determination to make sure that they are fully met.

“I am going to do everything I possibly can to make sure that we deliver on those legacy promises,” Robertson said during an hour-long briefing, attended by nearly 30 lunchers, including SJA members and some guests, and two heads of sport, between them responsible for the back pages of eight major newspapers.

“One of the things being in the Army taught me,” Robertson said, “was always have a clear aim. It is our absolutely clear aim to deliver a successful Olympics, and part of that is having a successful team.”

Robertson linked elite success, funding and facilities as helping to drive and inspire grassroots participation, but he dismissed the Sport England target of having an extra 1 million active in sport by 2012 as “just idiotic – it was as if someone just picked a number off a wall”.

Minister for Sport Hugh Robertson is greeted by SJA chairman Barry Newcombe as he arrives for today's SJA/Ladbrokes lunch at the Association's Fleet Street "home", Ye Olde Cock Tavern

It was telling that, with 50 days to go before the Opening Ceremony for the Olympics, much of Robertson’s outlook now is what comes after the Games. He pledged to deliver a mixed-use stadium capable of staging Premier League football and world championship athletics alike – “I know what the traditions are in this country with football grounds, but I don’t think the two uses are completely incompatible” – and he spoke of being “confident there will be a major football club in there” by 2014.

Robertson called the Pickett’s Lock fiasco, when Britain was awarded the rights to stage the athletics world championships yet failed to provide the promised stadium as “a national humiliation”.

In 2005, when Lord Coe and the London bid team sold the notion of the British capital hosting the Olympics for a third time, part of their pitch was to deliver a national athletics stadium capable of staging an athletics world championships. “Having made a commitment and garnered a significant number of votes on it,” Robertson said, “it was essential that we deliver on that promise.” London’s Olympic Stadium will host the 2017 athletics world championships.

Finding long-term uses for the Olympic Park’s “big five” venues – ┬áthe Stadium, Aquatics Centre, Olympic Village, Velodrome and International Broadcast Centre and Main Press Centre (IBC/MPC) – has been a key task.

The future for four of those venues seems determined, while the IBC/MPC, where 10,000 sports journalists and broadcasters will be based at Games-time, is the last to be nailed down. A “silicon shed”, filled with bustling new businesses that help to revive the local economy in Hackney, providing hundreds if not thousands of jobs, was the developers’ dream. That, though, was before the recession.

So when Robertson told his audience today that “we will have a confirmed legacy user for the MPC/IBC by July”, you sensed that a good deal of relief might be involved in avoiding the building becoming a white elephant. “But that’s the Mayor of London’s problem… thank goodness,” Robertson said.

Robertson came out against the notion of “Plastic Brits”, “if you put people artificially in a British vest, the public do not respond to them. I do not approve of fast-tracking people for sporting reasons. I’d much rather the governing bodies developed talent here,” Robertson said, adding that elite competitors, once they have a UK passport, should be entitled to be selected for British teams. “They should know the national anthem though. Yes, I think that’s a good idea.”

In other areas, Robertson said that he would not hesitate to act if necessary, including in the lingering row in taekwondo, where the British governing body has refused to pick Cook.

“I do not, quite properly, have a role in the picking of the teams,” he said, “but my line in this is that I want us to win as many medals as possible.

“Is this embarrassing for us? The answer to that is ‘Yes’, because you would rather not see our sports getting criticised by their international federations.

“That said it is probably inevitable before a home Olympics. Almost all the Olympic sports are expecting more appeals over selection than they have had at any previous Olympics and that is because so many athletes want to compete at a home Olympic Games.

“Yes, it is a bit embarrassing but it is not a surprise. I sort of thought this would happen if I’m honest.

“It is not for me to tell either British taekwondo or the British Olympic Association who they select or which individual athletes they select for GB.

“If I were to step into this process I set a very dangerous precedent because at that point everybody else who has a similar gripe, and we are expecting a record number of these, will come automatically to me.

“I am setting myself up for an awful lot of trouble but if this one ran on for a long time clearly I will talk to the British Olympic Association about it, of course I will.”