The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at the UK Sport 25th Anniversary – 11 May 2022

The speech made by Sir John Major at the Guildhall in London on Wednesday 11 May 2022.

I’m delighted to be here in this beautiful former Guildhall Library – to celebrate the 25th Anniversary of UK Sport. And so grateful to be talking about sport – not Covid, or Brexit, or Politics.

Sport has been a big part of my life since my sister introduced me to cricket at the age of three. As I grew, so did my fascination for the whole wonderful range of sport.

I had the dreams small boys have: today, as women’s sport grows, I am sure small girls will have them too. I was going to run faster than Roger Bannister, score more runs than Peter May, box better than Randolph Turpin. No sport was safe from my ambitions. My dreams were multi-talented: unfortunately, it turned out that I wasn’t.

Those dreams were never realised, but they were precious to me, and remain so. And I learned a lesson: even if you can’t win you can still love sport and – often – many who most love it have little talent.

I comfort myself that winners can only win if there are losers – and so we lesser-talented sports-lovers are an essential part of the pyramid of sport.

Throughout history, Government has under-estimated the importance of sport – and the arts. In the 1980s, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, I saw at first hand how little public money was diverted to those two dominant interests of the British public. Sport simply could not compete for scarce resources with the demands of health, education, defence and social care.

A year or two later – out of that recognition – I set up the Department of National Heritage and, a little later, the introduction of a National Lottery to fund good causes, including sport – and to do so in addition to the Government’s contribution.

One great supporter of this initiative in Government was Virginia Bottomley, who I am delighted to see here today.

To date, the Lottery has distributed over £45 billion pounds to good causes, of which over £8 billion has gone to Sport. I should like to offer my congratulations to Camelot for all they have done to maximise receipts for sport and all the good causes. We owe them a great deal.

Hugh Robertson, the Chairman of Camelot, has been a tremendous supporter of sport generally – and the Olympics specifically. Hugh: a very grateful thank you – from me and so many others.

The Olympics have shown us how well the governing bodies of sport have used Lottery money: we have become winners – not also-rans – across a wide range of sports.

And winning matters: it is not the be-all of sport but – at the elite level – it truly matters for the nation as well as elite athletes. We British love to win. It cheers us up. We feel proud. Historically, we have been good losers. More recently, we have become proud winners. I know which I prefer.

Winning is the ultimate “feel-good” factor. I still remember – 67 years on – Chris Chataway beating the great Vladimir Kuts over 5,000 metres at the White City. The amateur beat the professional. The underdog won. It was a very, very British moment. Simply unforgettable. A prelude to the great Coe-Ovett rivalry that was to follow.

It was also one of the great races, and the crowd sang “Chataway went that-away” in sheer exhilaration. It was joy unconfined, as sport so often is.

All sport has developed and grown since then, but nowhere more than in Olympic and Paralympic sport, and in Women’s sport. For me, 2012 in London will always be the greatest Olympics.

I was lucky enough to see Katherine Grainger win her Gold on the waters at Eton. But – sadly – I was at Glyndebourne for a Ravel double bill on that magical Saturday evening when Greg Rutherford, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Mo Farah all won Gold in a single hour. I heard the results on the way home, and knew that – much as I loved the opera – I had missed the memory of a lifetime.

Paralympian sport showcases mental and physical courage as well as talent. In my early 20s, my sport ended after a motor accident in Nigeria: for a long time, it seemed possible I might lose a leg.

I lay in hospital, wondering how my life would change, but many Paralympians faced far worse – and yet reached the highest levels of sporting endeavour: truly, they are remarkable role models, in sport and life.

In the last 20 years, sportswomen have broken through more glass ceilings than the Crystal Palace ever knew. Elite athletes like Paula Radcliffe, and Tanni Grey-Thompson have become folk heroes of their sports. It has taken a long time for the talents of half the world’s population to be noticed but, at last, recognition is underway, and women’s sport is in the vanguard of one of the great social changes of history.

We can be thrilled that we are one of the great sporting nations of the world, but – when you think of it – that is fitting, because we British invented many of the sports the whole world now plays.

But there is more to be done. In our inner cities and rural areas, there is undiscovered talent lost to both elite and recreational sport. Millions still lack access to a range of sporting facilities – whether swimming pools; or tennis courts; or velodromes; or gymnastic halls.

This is a social, as well as a sporting, loss. Sport brings happiness – one of the finest of human emotion and much needed in all our lives. It is an antidote to lack of fitness; to mental illness; to boredom; to loneliness. It brings people together at all ages because of a shared interest.

Sport can turn gangs into teams. It can create a love for life that is never shed. I can say – with perfect truth – that a love of sport has enriched my life and, in my very last moments, I shall want to know the latest results and the close of play score.

There is a lacuna in sport that has worsened over the years: I refer to sport in schools. Among public schools, sport – with good facilities – is widespread and plentiful: that is not so in the State sector. That loss to children is palpable – they should be as entitled to enjoy sport as they are required to study mathematics.

Our country needs our schools and universities to turn out scientists, and doctors, and men and women of every skill, but a well-rounded education, a character-building education, an education that is truly for life – must surely include recreation. “A” grades in schools are academically important, but they cannot be the sum total of education for life.

One final thought. Sport lingers. It leaves memories for life. I can close my eyes and see again Compton and Bedser, Matthews and Finney, Kelly Holmes and Seb Coe, Andy Murray and Virginia Wade, Chris Hoy and Laura Kenny … and so many more.

And who could forget Ellie Simmonds and David Weir? I wonder, as every Winter Olympics approach – is there another Christopher Dean and Jayne Torvill out there? I do hope – one day there will be.

UK Sport is twenty-five years old: that is a good age to plot ambitions for the future. That has been done: a ten-year strategy has been designed to:

“Create the greatest decade of sporting moments; reaching, inspiring, and uniting the nation”.

That is a towering ambition but one which I hope and believe can – and will – be met.

To tell you about that, it’s my pleasure to introduce one of the true icons of British sport. Katherine Grainger has had a stellar career of many triumphs – including winning medals at five successive Olympic Games. Not even small boys dare to dream about that! But small girls clearly do…

Dame Katherine is in her second term entrusted with the leadership of UK Sport: it is, in my view, in very safe hands.