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When it comes to knowing what is best for sport, listen to the sportspeople

The message last Thursday could not have been briefer but I was pleased to receive it because of who it was from.

UK Sport's funding decisions will have repercussions for Team GB basketball, and the Scot Kieron Achara. Picture: Getty Images

"Great article," it read simply. John Beattie and I have known one another for a lot longer than either of us would care to remember and, while our backgrounds are a bit different, our career paths have intersected many times.

His approach is rather more consensual and there are times when we have not seen eye to eye, yet I have considerable respect for him because I believe we have the same driving motivation to create a better sporting environment in our homeland.

I responded by suggesting that the column - it was essentially an analysis of how the motivation for too many sports administrators is making it easy for themselves to justify their existence - would make little difference to those on the gravy train. "Nope spin is all around," John replied.

Two days later The Herald printed a letter from one Vanessa Wilson, director of commercial and communications at UK Sport apparently, who was complaining about the very article John had praised. Perhaps tellingly, it was the first time I had encountered her name. However, both upbringing and professional training mean that, as readers who email know, I always take care to respond to any suggestion that I may have got things wrong.

In essence, Vanessa's defence of UK Sport's so-called 'no compromise' approach to investment in public funds is that they have created a "high performance system that is the envy of the world".

Really? In the sports we hold most dear in this country, have we created world-beating systems in football, in tennis, in golf, in cricket, in rugby, in track and field athletics?

However, let's give Vanessa the benefit of the doubt and accept that what she really means is sports that are not commercially strong enough to survive without public funding and examine her argument on that basis.

The sub-text of the words 'no compromise' is that it justifies the way that UK Sport provides funding for some of these sports and not others. It suggests that those who gain funding are current or future prize contenders.

So how does 'no compromise' sit with a return of four British medals from among the 57 competitors we sent to the most recent global sports gathering at the Winter Olympics in Sochi? Our northern European neighbour, the Netherlands, with far fewer natural advantages when it comes to preparing for winter sports and a population of around 17 million to Britain's near 60 million, sent 41 athletes who brought home 24 medals . . .

As to Vanessa's objection to my view of UK Sport's lack of understanding of elite sports people, let me elaborate. When it comes to judging athletes individually on the basis of height, weight, hours spent in the gym or speed of movement, anyone with a capacity to understand basic arithmetic can make assessments of current ability and potential.

What requires real skill, particularly in team sports, is assessing the various factors which generate the elusive chemistry that results in effective team dynamic. Team sports are those that have been most critical of UK Sport.

When spending public money, all of that must, meanwhile, be set against the background of what benefits the greater good. To that end we know that team sports are those that have the greatest potential to impact beneficially on the maximum number of lives.

Yet, in its blind pursuit of prizes, UK Sport has increased the funding for easy successes with over-investment in sports contested by a relative few, such as skeleton, rather than global games, like basketball, that can be played in the street and parks, and so can attract our more deprived youngsters.

Meanwhile, we repeatedly read headlines about the obesity crisis affecting our youth, while people are finally beginning to ask serious questions about the ridiculously disproportionate numbers engaged in professional sport in this country from the ranks of private schools as opposed to state schools.

Given the difficulties Westminster has had lately in trying to define Britishness, let me just say that the priorities pursued by UK Sport, slavishly supported by the power brokers in Scotland's sporting agencies and federations, feel decidedly un-Scottish, with a self-serving middle-class elite looking after its own.

In that context, whose message should we all be taking more seriously?

I acknowledge readily that praise and criticism are the twin impostors of journalism, to be treated with equal levels of caution. Yet one message was the response from a five nations grand slam winner and two-time British and Irish Lion, former head of the Scottish government's physical activity task force, a qualified accountant and engineer. He is also among Scotland's leading broadcasters and remains in direct contact with modern sport through his son Johnnie, an international rugby player, and daughter Jenny, an international footballer.

The other came from one of the ever-growing army of faceless public relations advisers whose role is to seek to justify and defend the behaviour of their bosses through an array of tactics employed by the Alastair Campbells and Andy Coulsons of this world.

In my book the bloke who, like his kids, was helped towards sporting success by a very expensive education but campaigns for others from less-privileged backgrounds to be afforded similar opportunities, has rather more credibility when it comes to identifying what young Scottish sportspeople need.

And Another Thing

The Lance Armstrong Story, broadcast on Sunday on BBC Four was a welcome reminder of why newspaper scrutiny matters. The same day David Walsh, the journalist who won all sorts of awards for exposing modern sport's greatest scandal, expressed his views on UK Sports funding. Did you miss it? I recommend a wee web search . . .

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Sport

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