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Page last updated at 15:02 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

Smith calls for gymnastics cash

By Matt Slater

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Louis Smith and his coach Paul Hall on why gymnastics merits more funding

The first British gymnast to win an Olympic medal for 80 years has made an impassioned plea for more funding for his sport in the run-up to London 2012.

Louis Smith claimed a bronze in the pommel horse, helping the GB gymnastics team reach its Beijing targets.

But gymnastics, like most Olympic sports, now faces an anxious wait to learn what its budget will be for 2012.

"More money isn't going to produce 10 golds like China but it will certainly produce more medals," Smith said.

"All we can do is wait and hope, and if (the money) doesn't come then perhaps one gold medal every 100 years might be enough for some people. But we're looking for more than that."

The four-year spending plans for all 26 Olympic sports, apart from football and tennis, are announced by UK Sport (UKS), the government agency that distributes lottery and public money to elite sport, on 3 December.

Gymnastics was given 9m for Beijing out of an overall 2005-2009 UKS budget for Team GB of 265m.

But in the wake of London's successful bid for the Games, the Government promised more funds for elite sport. The overall pot for 2009-2013 was supposed to grow to 354m, with an increased contribution from the public purse and 100m from the private sector.

What would happen if we were able to pump some more money in and help more athletes?

Louis Smith

Unfortunately, that private-sector cash has not materialised and serious doubts exist that it ever will.

Thanks to a better-than-expected lottery contribution the hole in the budget has shrunk to 79m but that still represents an annual cut of nearly 20m or 22%. A shortfall that large could have a dramatic effect on an emerging sport like gymnastics.

Under normal circumstances, the 19-year-old Smith's success in Beijing would have unlocked greater funding for himself and his team-mates but, with uncertainty surrounding the bottom line, gymnastics may have to continue to make do on relative scraps.

Paul Hall, Smith's coach, believes British gymnastics has never been healthier. But he also knows how much better it could be with more backing.

Speaking to BBC Sport at a fund-raising lunch for SportsAid in Milton Keynes, Hall said: "We've come through some tough times but we now have good coaches and the facilities are getting better.

"We must coordinate these things and concentrate our resources on the talented athletes we've got so they can peak in London."

Louis Smith at the 2006 Commonwealth Games
At 17, Smith won gold at the 2006 Commonwealth Games
Hall first met his prodigiously-gifted charge when Smith accompanied his older brother to Hall's Huntingdon gym. The youngster's talent was immediately obvious and a partnership was forged that has become crucial to British gymnastics' ambitions.

Smith is Hall's star pupil but he is by no means the only kid in the class. They may have to share the gym with recreational gymnasts, tumbling tots and ante-natal yoga classes, but Hall's Huntingdon hotbed provided three of the nine-strong GB squad in Beijing, one of the reserves and two of the coaches.

But bigger premises are badly needed if Hall is to continue to balance the needs of running an elite programme and the community-based leisure business that subsidises it.

"We did a very difficult job in Beijing," said Hall. "I'm proud we have been able to win an Olympic medal in those circumstances.

"Funding for men's gymnastics was cut after a disappointing result at the World Championships in 2003, so we've been operating on a shoestring since then. We had to pay for things from our own pockets and we have struggled.

"I have seen what happens in China. They centralise their gymnasts and put them in a perfect environment with one-to-one coaching and everything at their beck and call. Our situation has been nothing like that.

"But because of dedicated coaches and people going beyond the call of duty, including the likes of Louis Smith and (fellow Olympian and Huntingdon product) Daniel Keatings, we were able to produce some amazing results.

"That cannot be maintained unless investment comes in and filters through to clubs like ours."

A good result at London 2012 will have such a massive knock-on effect on grass-roots sport - role models are vital

Louis Smith's coach Paul Hall
Redevelopment plans exist for the gym and Hall is determined to push on with them, despite the difficult economic situation.

Smith is keen to help, however he can, but his prime focus is on delivering a gold medal in London.

As an Olympic medallist his funding is secure but it hardly constitutes gravy-train status. He still lives with his mum in Peterborough and his post-Beijing treat was a caravan holiday with his mates in Great Yarmouth.

"The money (from UK Sport) is vital," said Smith, who won a World Championship bronze in 2007 and Commonwealth gold in 2006.

"It might not be enough to help me live my life the way I'd like, but it got me through times when I was struggling and that little bit of support helped me get my bronze medal."

Smith receives an "athlete's personal award" of just under 15,000 per year, which is two-thirds of the full amount as he is under 21.

This seems harsh on somebody who competes in a young man's game but Smith is reluctant to complain, particularly as this time last year he was on 200 a month. Smith would rather see more youngsters funded than getting further support himself.

"What would happen if we were able to pump some more money in and help more athletes?" he said.

606: DEBATE
BBC Sport's Martin Gough
"We have some amazing gymnasts but some of them can be great in training and then not deliver the goods in competition.

"If they had more competitive experience it would really help but we struggle to send more than a couple of unfunded people to an event.

"If we could send more people to big competitions, more of the team would get used to competing under pressure."

Hall agrees and also points out the trickle-down effects of Olympic success.

"When I had my first big success with a British champion, I remember the phone started ringing, the media took notice and the waiting list at the gym doubled," he said.

"The whole sport gains as a result of that investment in a small group. A good result at London 2012 will have such a massive knock-on effect on grass-roots sport. Role models are vital."

For Smith, London 2012 is the chance of a lifetime to achieve his own personal goals; for his sport, it is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to find a few more Louis Smiths.

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see also
Smith wins gold in pommel event
02 Nov 08 |  Olympics
Medallist goes on caravan holiday
24 Aug 08 |  Cambridgeshire
Smith wins historic bronze for GB
17 Aug 08 |  Gymnastics
Smith and Keatings reach finals
09 Aug 08 |  Gymnastics
Britain's gymnasts on the rise
07 Aug 08 |  Gymnastics
Louis Smith Q&A
30 Jul 08 |  Gymnastics


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