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We need to inspire a new generation of Olympians
When Steve Ovett flew to Brighton from his home in Australia last month the great Olympic gold medallist thought he had been all but forgotten in his home town.
He had to wipe away a tear or two when councillors of all parties were unanimous in praising him as he received the freedom of the city.
And his children were amazed when a crowd of several hundred enthusiasts gathered in Madeira Drive later that day to welcome him.
After a statue by Pete Webster had been unveiled Ovett spent a long time chatting to the crowd, realising he is still a hero.
After Ovett’s triumph in the 1980 Moscow Games councillors capitalised on the surge of interest in athletics by renovating the running track at Withdean where he had spent so many hours training.
He was delighted to be told by Mayor Bill Randall at the freedom ceremony that the track is to be re-laid once more.
My first taste of Olympic fervour came in 1956 at the Melbourne Games when Chris Brasher most unexpectedly won a gold medal in the steeplechase.
It was a rare British victory that year and the Royal Borough of Kensington, where Brasher lived, started a fund to improve sporting amenities.
Despite being launched with a fanfare the fund failed to flourish and I found by the time of the next Olympics it had reached the grand total of £180.
I applied to the borough for permission to spend the money on a minibus for the local cricket club I was running at the time and it agreed.
It was great news for hard up cricketers but hardly the kind of sporting legacy envisaged by either Brasher or the borough.
Ever since then I have heard Government ministers and local councillors say more must be done to encourage sport.
When the Prince Regent swimming centre was built in Brighton the council announced an impressive programme of building sports centres and swimming pools in each neighbourhood.
Only one sports centre, Stanley Deason in East Brighton, was ever built and no pools were started at all.
Neighbouring Hove, home of the Albion and Sussex County Cricket Club, grandly declared itself to be the sports capital of the south.
But as the Goldstone ground closed and new buildings covered school playing fields this proved to be a hollow boast.
The trouble with sport is that it is an optional amenity for councils and government. It is easy to axe when times are hard.
Major sports such as football are big businesses under commercial control. Minor sports have small support as people have found when attempting to encourage activities like baseball and BMX bike racing in the Brighton area.
And when genuine sporting attractions are proposed they are often strongly opposed, as happened with the last attempt to rebuild the King Alfred leisure centre in Hove.
All the debate over housing needed to provide finance for the centre obscured the fact that it would have been one of the best in Britain.
National fervour stoked up by Britain’s unprecedented success in the London Olympics has led many people to say we must make sure future Olympians have somewhere to train.
Katy Rice took a sceptical look on this page two days ago at how schoolchildren might be encouraged to take part in sport.
At least youngsters have schools with their physical education lessons and sports afternoons to give them incentives.
I am more interested in persuading thousands of hugely unfit and obese adults that they might live healthier lives if they took up sports even in the most modest of ways.
Too many tennis courts have been closed by clubs and councils. High charges have led to a decline in club cricket.
Often the solution can be simple – such as improving the lighting along the prom in West Hove at night so that more adults feel it is safe to run there on dark evenings after work.
The legacy can include art such as the Ovett statue. Madeira Drive, scene of many sporting triumphs, seems ideal as a location for more sculptures or trails.
Steve Ovett was an exceptional athlete. If he didn’t know it before he is still an inspiration to many people in Brighton.
Scores of medallists in the current Games are creating great joy and admiration in this amazing Olympic fortnight.
I hope they encourage a new generation of future Olympians. But even more I’d like them to make more ordinary people delight in playing sport rather than simply watching it.
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