Is there anyone here from swimming?
The National Sports Development Seminar saw another bravura performance from one of the larger characters in the world of sports administration. Jonathan Ives wonders if size is still an issue
Clouds or blue skies on the horizon?
In the week in which Britain lost one of its most controversial comedians, it was an unnerving yet somehow reassuring experience to be at the National Sports Development Seminar to witness a big man with a regional accent divide an audience by delivering a couple of jokes and a few blunt opinions. Initially it seemed as though the split would be between those who were familiar with David Sparkes, chief executive of the Amateur Swimming Association and international man of action, and those that were not. Later, as so often with controversialists, it would be a split between those who thought he was only saying what others were thinking and those that thought he had gone too far.
The section familiar with Mr Sparkes comprised a few old lags of the sports development sector (your correspondent included) and, given that the majority of the audience were sports development officers full of vim, vigour and whatever else it is that they put in their tea to give them that air of frighteningly youthful enthusiasm, the ‘unfamiliar’ section made up the larger part of the gathering. Like the seasoned pro that he is, Mr Sparkes softened up the crowd with some familiar riffs, starting with the need for more pools and fewer consultants, before getting into his stride with an explanation of why elite success is so important but so elusive for British swimming. Warming to his theme, he threw in a few gags. “I always said that if the Americans got their act together, we’d be in the shit,” he said, pausing with practised comic timing and what may well have been a twinkle in his eye to take effect: “They have and I can tell you that we are in the shit.”
It got a good ripple from those in the stands and if you didn’t know the big man on stage you could be forgiven for seeing the very embodiment of a sporting outsider. After all, he is the archetypal iconoclast: bluff and hearty, combative and outspoken; prepared to be rude about those he thinks should be challenged; and, to seal the deal, he lives in Germany (did he mention it?). But if you’ve been around the circuit a few times, if you’ve hung around backstage at a few events to see the stars and the chorus line away from the lights, it’s easier to spot one of sport’s ultimate insiders: one of the longest serving governing body chief executives in British sport, a man who has the phone numbers of the international sporting great and good in his electronic organiser and the cream suit of the London 2012 bid team’s visit to Singapore hanging in his wardrobe.
His willingness – perhaps his determination – to be blunt was demonstrated to full effect as he took questions from the floor. Having heard Mr Sparkes earlier in his presentation confess responsibility for swimming’s poor performance in terms of Olympic medals and, in answer to a question, his steadfast commitment to elite performance programmes in pursuit of these medals, a young woman suggested that the £4,000 a year she had been offered as funding to join the national synchro squad was insufficient to enable someone from a non-wealthy background to move to the town in which the team is based and devote themselves to the full-time pursuit of Olympic glory in the pool. Would Mr Sparkes care to comment? The question was well-rehearsed, emotionally presented and had probably been asked on previous similar occasions but it wasn’t the most testing of debating deliveries for someone who has had hard questions regularly thrown – and hard news cameras pointed – at him over the last decade. The temptation to give the treatment was too much to resist. So he didn’t.
Resist, that it is. He gave it the full treatment, reminding this prospective member of one of his own national squads that British athletes were the best-funded in the world, that Australian athletes don’t get funding, that the model of full-time athletes doesn’t work and that the four grand she had been offered was too much. Still game, his questioner suggested that such an attitude might restrict national squads to those who could afford to dedicate sufficient time to training. Mr Sparkes didn’t agree. Athletes need more life experience beyond the pool hall. His advice that you should move to Aldershot and get a job saw his questioner retire from the arena hurt and tearful.
With one member of the audience down and at least one other pleasantly surprised that someone from a governing body of sport was prepared to speak plainly and ‘tell it like it is’, Mr Sparkes made way for the business of the seminar to continue.
And continue it did. The big man wouldn’t have minded the Countdown spoof at the end of the seminar in which Steve Bradley took the Carol Vorderman role to reveal that the solution of the day’s conundrum turned over DAVIDSPARKES to reveal INSENSITIVEBLOKE. He wouldn’t have minded Mr B’s comments regarding the role of a chief executive of a governing body being a position of privilege, nor that Mr B encouraged the poser of the question to come back in 2012 to show the seminar her medal. He won’t even have minded the laughter when Mr B wondered in what sport the medal would be, seeing as it wasn’t likely to be in swimming. He won’t have minded because you have to be a big man to succeed in sport and he would have had something to say to an audience that was ultimately split on a non-sporting question: how big a man do you have to be to make a young woman cry?
Jonathan Ives is editor of The Leisure Review