IAN COLE, flushed with the success of dominating the floor of the old GLC’s Debating Chamber in the style of a 1980s Ken Livingstone, reports on another headline-making SJA Olympic Question Time.
Photographs by STEVE ROWE
Sports Minister Hugh Robertson called the multi-million pound cash and contracts dispute between the British Olympic Association and London Games organisers LOCOG “an embarrassment” but promised it would not be allowed to affect the success of next year’s showpiece event.
Robertson was speaking at the SJA’s Olympic Question Time event in the old County Hall at which a distinguished panel discussed issues raised from the floor by SJA members.
The SJA’s second Question Time event was generously sponsored by BP Target Neutral and was the product of unique collaborations with the organisers of the international SportAccord Convention, taking place all this week in a hotel just across the road at the south side of Westminster Bridge, plus help from Visit London and PR agency Hill & Knowlton, with the burden of organisational work taken on by the SJA’s regular event organisers at Start2Finish.
And just like last year’s event, the discussion generated numerous headlines and this time made the lead item on the BBC’s London news bulletin.
Of the row about the carve up of post-Games profits (there will be profits?), Robertson said: “This is a slightly arcane dispute over profits which may or may not exist.
“It is an embarrassment and we need to get it sorted out.
“But it is not central to the delivery of the Games. It is not fundamental to the successful outcome of the Games. If this very narrow dispute is big news, it means the rest of the project must be going well.”
Unsurprisingly, the Minister’s view was supported by Paul Deighton, the chief executive of LOCOG, who stressed: “This has no input on the staging of the Games or the preparations of our athletes. As long as neither side allows itself to remove its focus, the input on the Games will be zero. This case makes no sense. Sooner or later reality will dawn on everybody.”
Indeed, by this morning, the BOA, which wants a cut of profits from the London Olympics before costs of staging the Paralympic Games are considered, had agreed to drop its threat of legal action and instead to enter talks with the Games organisers.
The view of the Question Time panel was almost uniformly critical of the position that had been taken by the BOA, with Baroness Campbell, the chair of UK Sport, criticised the national Olympic committee for trying to separate the Paralympic Games from the Olympics.
“This argument is not good for British sport,” she said. “As the funding agency for elite sport in the UK, we are as committed to Paralympic athletes as we are to Olympic athletes. We value them equally. Their achievements are an inspiration and they deserve the same stage as the Olympians.”
Another guest on the SJA panel, IOC member Pat McQuaid, said: “What I see here in London is an absolutely magnificent Games taking shape – and that’s what we should be concentrating on.”
Olympic Question Time attracted a mixed audience of SJA members and other journalists from newspapers, agencies, radio and TV. The panel was expertly chaired by broadcaster Sybil Ruscoe.
Topical issues such as the Olympic legacy, transport throughout London and latest plans for the pursuit of drug cheats were debated enthusiastically, but greatest agreement came when a question from the floor asked whether Gareth Bale should be allowed to play in a Great Britain Olympic football team.
Bale, the 21-year-old Spurs midfielder, is among the hottest properties in world football. But he is Welsh and the FA of Wales – along with the Scottish FA and, to a lesser extent, Northern Ireland’s FA – refuse to acknowledge a Great Britain team for fear of weakening their independent status within FIFA and UEFA.
Lord Coe, chairman of LOCOG, is committed to entering a Great Britain football team at the Games for the first time since 1960. But will it be an all-English team? Sports Minister Robertson hopes not.
He said: “The whole point of the Olympics is to allow any young man or woman to compete for their country and I would hate to see any young man or woman denied that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for political reasons, especially in their home Olympics.
“This should be about the athletes, not politics. FIFA have given a cast iron guarantee that selection of a player for Team GB would not affect that player’s Home Nation status. Everyone involved in sport in this country should want to see the best possible Team GB representing us and we will do everything we can to encourage home nations to put their players forward.”
Deighton added his support, saying: “The Olympics is all about great sporting moments and to see a British football team in action at the London Games would be such a moment.”
The SJA extends its warm thanks to Sybil Ruscoe and our panel members, Baroness Campbell, Pat McQuaid, Paul Deighton, Hugh Robertson and our colleague from Los Angeles, Alan Abrahamson. We also thank our partners in staging the event, BP Target Neutral, SportAccord and Visit London.
View some of the coverage from this SJA event here:
BBC London News on iPlayer (first news item, on Sanderson, legacy and funding)
Robertson wants Olympic unity (PA Sport)
Olympic minister slams Games profits row as an ’embarrassment’ (More Than The Games)
Bale handed government backing over Olympic Games football (SportsFeatures.com)
UPCOMING SJA DATES
Wed Apr 13: SJA 2011 Annual Meeting, at offices of UK Sport, Russell Square. Strictly SJA members only.
Wed Dec 7: SJA 2011 British Sports Awards – note the date in your diary now.
All details subject to alteration. Keep checking sportsjournalists.co.uk for updates