Let’s take you back to the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal. Great Britain won a total of 13 medals – three gold, five silver and five bronze. The level of interest which surrounds Team GB and the success of the country’s athletes these days certainly wasn’t a familiar picture back then. Media coverage of the Olympics had been limited to a small number of sports while there were grumblings of discontent as Britain finished 13th on the medal table.
Yet, beneath the surface, the Games had marked a significant milestone in British sport, with the first recipients of SportsAid support competing for Great Britain. The Sports Aid Foundation, as it was known then, had been founded in the build-up to Montreal as part of a plan involving Denis Howell, the UK’s first Sports Minister, to provide the country’s top athletes with the appropriate funding, in the absence of Government support, to compete against usually better-resourced overseas rivals.
David Wilkie became the first SportsAid beneficiary to produce an instant medal return in Montreal with gold and silver in the 200m and 100m breaststroke respectively. The SportsAid awards, financed through the Football Pools and private sector, were allowing athletes the opportunity to focus on their training full-time. British rower Chris Baillieu, who won silver at Montreal in the double sculls alongside Mike Hart, was presented with his first financial award by SportsAid shortly after the Games.
“There was quite a narrow perception of British sport with far lower medal expectations,” said Chris. “The changes we [Chris and Mike] made to our training allowed us to be in gold medal contention. We took a no-compromise approach to our preparations which wouldn’t be unrecognisable today. SportsAid allowed us to maintain those levels after the Games. During that period, there was a complex, tiered structure in place to ensure anybody with prospects of taking part in the Olympics was grant-aided.”
This was the beginning of eight years of SportsAid support for Chris, and the start of an even longer association with the charity which sees him sitting here as Chairman this evening. He won World Championship gold in 1977 and came fourth at the Moscow 1980 Olympics before deciding to retire from rowing in 1984. A couple of years later he became involved in the administration of SportsAid as he accepted a role on the National Awards Committee to help identify athletes in need of funding.
“The committee, as it is today, was very much the engine room where all the decisions were made,” commented Chris. “There used to be lively debates with very distinguished experts around the table. That’s where I cut my teeth, if you like, for SportsAid. Ultimately, I became Deputy Chair of the committee and then a trustee on the main board a few years before the arrival of the National Lottery. That’s when the dynamic really changed and we had to reappraise and re-evaluate our approach.”
The Lottery money had come in response to Britain’s poor showing at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics where just one gold medal was won by Matthew Pinsent and Steve Redgrave in the coxless pair. UK Sport was established to distribute the funding with SportsAid having to re-evaluate its role and focus purely on the next generation coming up the talent pathway. Chris played a key role in stabilising the charity and taking responsibility for the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS) in 2003.
“We had been helping those athletes progressing up the pipeline through the SportsAid Trust when it was formed as a junior partner to the Foundation in 1984,” recalled Chris. “There was a big transition after the Lottery came in and it was a crucial period for the charity. I met with Sue Campbell, the chair of UK Sport, who had been the driving force behind TASS with Tessa Jowell, to discuss us becoming the administrator of the scheme. We agreed a deal and grasped the opportunity. That gave us credibility within government funding and allowed us the platform to get us to where we are today.”
Chris became Chairman of SportsAid in 2012 and has taken great pride in seeing the charity go from strength to strength. Britain’s standing within Olympic and Paralympic sport has soared since the Sydney Games in 2000, and is a far cry from Montreal, and more recently Atlanta. He feels the role played by the charity can’t be underestimated, with 418 members of its alumni competing across the Rio Games, and a return of 150 medals, adding to its impressive track record.
“If SportsAid didn’t exist, someone would have to invent it,” said Chris. “You only have to look at the number of SportsAid graduates who find their way into the Olympic and Paralympic teams. There are masses of unrealised talent and we know what a difference it makes to the individuals concerned to help them reach their full potential. It’s been a great privilege for me to work for all these years with SportsAid. I find it immensely fulfilling. I wish the charity great strength and happiness in the future.”
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