The unlikely lads: how two unassuming gents paved the way to Team GB’s success.

Team GB’s performance at the Olympic Games in Rio delighted, entertained and inspired the nation.

As the athletes return home to rapturous praise this column salutes their dedication, their commitment and their incredible performance. We should be proud of them as they should be of themselves.

Much has rightly already been said recently about the foresight of former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, and his vision of sports funded through a National Lottery. We can argue about the rights and wrongs of gambling, but if a Government endorsed flutter is to be permitted, it needs to be regulated to avoid exploitation of the vulnerable and to ensure that the proceeds go to good causes.

So far, the National Lottery in the United Kingdom has generated £35 billion and funded 490,000 projects around the country. There are currently 12 Lottery funders who independently decide which projects have successfully applied for a grant. Each is independent of Government, but has to follow guidelines when deciding who should receive National Lottery funding.

The main areas of funding are the arts, heritage, improving communities and sport. It is that latter strand of funding, consistent since the launch of the National Lottery in 1994, that has made such a significant difference to our nation’s achievements on the World’s sporting stage. It has increased participation in grassroots sport to widen the pool of talent upon which elite sport can draw. It has then provided those leading athletes with funding to enable them to train much more than would otherwise have been the case, it ensures those athletes are trained by the best coaches in their field, and it gives them access to facilities and resources of the highest possible standard.

Sir John Major should be glowing at the success of his legacy in Rio 2016, a success foreshadowed by Team GB’s excellent performances in the two previous sets of Olympic Games, London (21012) and Bejing (2008). Team GB was right to acknowledge the paradigm shift that steady and secure funding has delivered to the careers and performances of so many of our sportsmen and women.

A much-underrated politician, who left office with his reputation in tatters after bitter Conservative infighting over Europe, and a general election trouncing by Tony Blair, Major is perhaps now seen with hindsight in a better light.

Major also delivered a paradigm shift in the perception of public services. His Citizens’ Charter, launched in 1991, sought to make it clear that public services were there to do what it said on the tin - to serve the users, not the providers of those services. It put the citizen’s perspective at the heart of assessing the performance of almost all public service providers by making administration accountable and citizen friendly, by ensuring transparency and the right to information, by motivating the civil service, and by adopting a stakeholder approach. All services, many for the first time, would have to publish clear targets for levels of service. From hospitals and schools to prison services, local councils and fire services, attitudes began to change.

One part of the initiative was the granting of "Charter Marks" to those public bodies meeting defined standards. These were sought-after accolades for those who wanted to be seen to drive up the services provided by the organisations they led.

It was also John Major who took the first courageous steps in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. His 1993 Downing Street Declaration: The Joint Declaration on Peace was signed by Sir John on behalf of the United Kingdom and by Albert Reynolds the Prime Minister (Taoiseach) of the Republic of Ireland. This established a foundation for the building of trust and dialogue with all the stakeholders, including, it transpired, for discussions with the IRA.

But, back to the Olympic success in Rio. As well as Lottery funding, there had been another major factor that helped deliver a paradigm shift in the British sporting world.

At my first meeting, in January 1998, with Simon Clegg, then recently appointed Chief Executive of the British Olympic Association (BOA), he made it clear that under his leadership and that of its then Chairman, Craig Reedie, there would be “no more Eddie the Eagles”, a reference to the embarrassingly underperforming British ski-jump entry whose disastrous 1988 Winter Olympics performance became a global joke (though bizarrely a film of that story has recently been released as a film performing quite well in British cinemas). Investment and selection for Team GB would be for those who could win and were determined to do so.

Clegg managed Team GB athletes at 12 Olympic and Olympic Winter Games, six as Team GB’s Chef de Mission including the highly successful performances at Salt Lake City and Beijing.

It was Clegg, with Reedie, who led the project, on which your author worked with them for several years, to persuade the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to join with the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone (then recently expelled from the Labour Party for having stood as an Independent), and the Conservative Opposition, (whom Blair had just beaten in the 1997 General Election) to make the historic bid to host the 2012 Games in London and make the biggest peacetime investment in the history of the nation.

It was Clegg, along with a colleague, David Luckes, who then oversaw the writing of the Bid document and the global campaign of lobbying that led to the award of the 2012 Games to London by the International Olympic Committee.

Others will write the more recent Olympic history, but for the change in culture he delivered to British sport, and in securing the 2012 Games, it is timely to acknowledge the huge contribution that Clegg made. We are now reaping the rewards.

Lest this column read like an obituary, Clegg is alive and well and continuing to drive forward sporting performance. His most recent project was to deliver the inaugural European Games in Baku, leading a team of 2,500 full time staff and 12,000 volunteers, delivering an event with global television audiences estimated at 823 million households, and all in an incredibly tight timescale.

Clegg doesn’t hog the limelight, but has certainly earned both the OBE and later the CBE which he was awarded for his services to Olympic sport. This column salutes him and Sir John Major, alongside those returning Olympic athletes.

This article first appeared in The Catholic Universe on 26th August 2016.

Cllr Chris Whitehouse KSG is Chairman of Westminster’s leading political consultancy, www.whitehouseconsulting.co.uk, Secretary of the Catholic Legislators’ Network, a Trustee of the Right To Life Charitable Trust, and a Member of the Isle of Wight Council (Cons. Newport West) t: @CllrWhitehouse