Evening Standard

Holding role: Lord Moynihan at the BOA’s Soho offices, where the focus is on London’s Games. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

If Gareth Bale still wants to play in the London Games come the summer of 2012, then the Wales star will have no bigger supporter than chairman of the British Olympic Association, Lord Moynihan.

Last week, the Football Association of Wales spelt out that they will oppose any moves by their players to be part of the Great Britain side, fearing it could jeopardise the status of the home nations teams.

However, given that only appearance Wales have made at a major tournament was the 1958 World Cup, it is not surprising that Bale — his country’s biggest attraction — would love to be on the stage the Games offers.

“The Olympics would be a great opportunity for a young player like me to play in a major tournament,” the 21-year-old said earlier this season. “We all know Wales don’t tend to qualify for too many of the big occasions.”

Today, Moynihan explains why Bale should be able to fulfil that dream, believing the Tottenham player could sue the FAW if they tried to block his appearance.

Target: Gareth Bale has spoken of his desire to play in the Olympics. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

“If Gareth Bale is eligible for selection and if the FA determine that he is the best for the team, then he’ll be selected — I would expect him to be,” he says.

“If they [the FAW] take sanctions against a player, then the player would have recourse to the courts on discrimination grounds. If players felt they were being excluded for any reason other than merit, they would absolutely be able to challenge that decision.”

The BOA are ultimately responsible for Team GB at the Games and Moynihan, who has been in regular touch with England’s Football Association, has been assured that the best young British football talent will play in 2012.

Scotland and Northern Ireland share Welsh opposition to a British team and Moynihan is “sympathetic to concerns” that a joint side would lead to demands for a similar team in the European championships and World Cups.

“I want to do everything I can to help alleviate those concerns,” Moynihan says. “That means making sure there are unequivocal statements from FIFA, UEFA etc . . . I have intervened with FIFA to make sure those assurances are provided. If we need to get more assurances in writing, we will.”

Moynihan even thinks there could be long-term benefits for footballers from these shores playing in the Games. “I think we in Britain have missed a trick in football in recent years,” he says.

“Look at how Argentina and Brazil focus on the Olympics. It’s a predominantly Under-23 team and they take that team and expose it to a multi-sport major event. The Olympics is a great training ground for the top footballing talent of the nation, a stepping stone towards the World Cup. 2012 will pay dividends for future English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland teams at the World Cup.”

This is not the only problem football is causing 2012; there is an even more explosive battle between Tottenham and West Ham over the post-Olympic use of the stadium.

Tottenham’s proposal to tear it down and provide for athletics at Crystal Palace has provoked the wrath of UK Athletics. Moynihan neatly ducks taking sides but makes it clear that: “One of the important bid book commitments was that there should be an athletics legacy at the Olympic Park. That is very important to the BOA.”

The Olympic Park Legacy Company will make a recommendation at the end of the month but the ultimate decision is with London Mayor Boris Johnson and the Government. Moynihan may sit on the Olympic Board with them but confesses: “If the Mayor and the Government have reached agreement on the subject it would be technically impossible to overturn.”

Whoever wins the stadium contest, Moynihan’s greater concern is that 2012 delivers a sporting legacy. “I want to make sure we don’t have the Wimbledon phenomenon of people taking their tennis rackets out and playing for a month and then letting them gather dust for the rest of the year,” he says.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The London Games will only be a great Olympics if there is a major sports legacy for generations to come.”

For London 2012 to do that, and achieve what no previous Olympics has managed, Moynihan needs to convince ministers to make it a legal requirement for local authorities to provide sport opportunities and facilities.

“At the moment it’s discretionary spend in England but not in Scotland. And the level of facilities in England has fallen back over the last 10 years by comparison to Scotland. When budgets come under severe restrictions, it’s the discretionary spend that falls away first. That will not deliver the 2012 sports legacy.”

Moynihan concedes that achieving that in a climate of cuts is not easy and adds: “We’ve got a long way to go.”

What encourages him is how sport in this country has changed since the 1980 Moscow Olympics, where he won silver as cox for Britain’s men’s eight.

“Everybody else had their boats flown in,” the former Conservative Sports Minister says. “Our boat was driven to Moscow overland, because we were regarded as the weakest crew in the sport, including the women’s entries. So, our training camp was in a borrowed boat and on the River Thames at Pangbourne in the middle of the summer. We could only get in about 10 strokes before we had to stop for a holiday cruiser coming past throwing up a wash. Even then we got a silver.

“The difference Steve Redgrave made was that the British rowing squad believed in themselves. This belief in your ability to win is generational. It takes a huge amount of time before you have in place everything around the athletes. Now the world has real concern when they face a British rower. They don’t want to race the Brits.”

A month ago, on a trip to Scotland, Moynihan sensed that “same belief” in gymnastics. “The sport has been transformed in 10 years. We have a world champion in women’s gymnastics [Beth Tweddle] who’s still on form. The gymnasts are a small sample of what I believe will be a much stronger 2012 team in many of the 26 sports.

“We’re looking very strong in boxing, both women’s and men. We’re going to see outstanding podium results from judo and shooting. In triathlon, we’ll do much better. Women’s swimming is very strong, hockey’s looking very good, women’s football has a real chance for outstanding medal success.”

However, the 55-year-old warns, it is not just a question of turning up at Stratford and winning a medal.

“The idea that we’re going to go to London and breeze into fourth in the medal table [the position in Beijing] is the most absurd idea I’ve heard. The challenge of delivering fourth place in London is massive.”

He then lists the countries to fear. “There will be a battle royal for top spot between China and the United States,” he says. “Historically, the host nation does better at the following Games. China will come here relaxed, one Games smarter and better than they were in 2008. Russia had a very bad 2008 and will be stronger. Vladmir Putin’s total commitment to sport will have addressed that. Japan will be strong. We are also seeing a very strong German team.”

But it is with Australia, fifth in Beijing, that Moynihan sees the big fight. “The Australians will want to make a massive point here. In 1908, the front page of the Daily Mail called the first Games in the capital the Battle of Shepherds Bush — that was America versus the Brits. I think you’ll read a great deal about the Battle of Stratford between the Australians and the Brits.”

When I remind Moynihan of the Australian taunt that Britain won in Beijing only when they were sitting down, he says: “Clive Woodward [the BOA sports director] made this point after Beijing, that we were heavily reliant for coming fourth on a small number of sports. We have to have more medal success in more sports to match that result in London and he has concentrated on that.

“Clive is inspirational. I saw him walk into a room full of winter athletes, all teenagers, and make a presentation for a couple of hours. He kept on challenging each of those athletes to know more than their coach.”

The way Moynihan talks, you get the impression this is a plea to Woodward not to leave for his old haunt, Twickenham. Last week’s decision by the BOA to put Woodward’s coaching programme on hold until after 2012 comes as the Rugby Football Union look to fill the new post of performance director.

“I hope Clive wants to stay. If he wants to go, I’d be very sad. But I’m not anticipating a call from him saying he is off to Twickenham.”

With 18 months to go to the Games, one issue that is already troubling Londoners are the Olympic traffic lanes. Moynihan accepts: “There is a communication issue here. These lanes are to make sure the officials get to and from the venues.

“None of them is housed in the Olympic village. They need to be there on time, rested and ready to give the performance of their life as a referee or as a judge.”

Moynihan will feel he has given the performance of his life if two days after the closing ceremony he is standing alongside a BA check-in agent at Terminal 5 “and I hear the Zambian team say that they’ve had an experience of a lifetime. Then I’d sleep well.”


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