TONY BLAIR yesterday urged the North-East to be inspired by next year’s Olympics into becoming involved in sport.

After playing basketball with children at the Newton Aycliffe leisure centre, in County Durham, where his votes were once counted, Mr Blair said his sports foundation wanted to ensure that there were enough sports coaches to help all the young people enthused by the Olympics.

He launched his Coaches for Clubs campaign, which aims to get 365 people in the region to volunteer before the start of the Olympics. He said: “The Olympics seem like it is all down in London, but it will be a huge national event – the world’s greatest sporting event happening here in our country.

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The best legacy will be to encourage participation in sport, and my foundation will help facilitate that. It cannot be done by governments and local authorities – it has got to be done by people, and they need to be inspired – which is what the Olympics will do.”

He diplomatically side-stepped the local row over Durham County Council’s cuts to five leisure centres, including one in Ferryhill, in his former Sedgefield constituency.

He said: “All countries are facing financial challenges, but preserving the sporting infrastructure is vitally important for the country, I really think that.”

The council-run Aycliffe leisure centre is the home of the Durham Wildcats, who will start the new basketball season for the first time in the top national league. Club owner Quentin Sloper said six of the Wildcats’ professional squad were County Durham born and bred.

Mr Blair said: “Sport is a huge liberator.

This time last week I was in Sierra Leone, possibly the poorest country in the world, where one in six children dies before they reach the age of five, and the one thing in any community that they organise is sport. Last night, I came in from the Middle East, where the one thing that you can do to get young Palestinians and young Israelis together is playing sport.”

The Tony Blair Sports Foundation was formed in 2007. Since then, 10,000 North-East children have taken part in foundation-run sports events and 800 people have signed up to help organisations such as the Wildcats run their teams.

For more information about volunteering, go to tonyblairsports