IN the heart of Middlesbrough town centre yesterday, an Olympic long-jumper appeared to be diving in to a swimming school inside an athletics stadium. It is not what athletics fans or every day shoppers along Corporation Road would normally expect to see from Chris Tomlinson.
This was for a reason. Wearing his Great Britain colours, Tomlinson helped to celebrate 20 years of National Lottery funding just a few weeks before he is due to compete in the sand rather than water for gold at the Commonwealth Games.
The 32-year-old, like so many sportsmen and women up and down the country, has been a huge beneficiary from the funding, so had no qualms about walking in to the middle of his hometown to pose on a huge piece of 3D pavement artwork to mark the anniversary.
“I’m here to help people recognise that we have had 20 years of funding because they have given me a lot of help across the board,” said Tomlinson. “There’s a lot of money that goes to the grassroots in the different sports, to provide the backbone.
“We all look at the top end of sports, the elite part, and that’s obviously quite entertaining but obviously all those at the top end have come through from the grassroots. You don’t just walk on the track and run nine seconds or jump eight metres. We all have to come through a system and that should be recognised.”
When the National Lottery was created in 1994 the vision was to give this country a lift in seven different areas, sport being one, as well as creating overnight millionaires who had bought a ticket from their local shop. The Lottery might have been criticised over the years from certain quarters, but there can be no disguising the impact it has had on sport across the UK.
More than £33m is raised every single week through National Lottery players and it helps to fund more than 1,300 elite athletes. Over £6bn has been invested in sport to date, with Great Britain athletes like Tomlinson benefiting since 1997. On a North-East scale, £180m has worked its way in to many of the region’s projects including redeveloping sports pitches and playing fields in the area.
It is a staggering amount of money which has also brought with it other rewards. Since 1996, Team GB has risen from 36th in the Atlanta Olympics’ medals table and up to third two years ago in London when more medals were won than at any other Games in the last 100 years. And a total of 120 Paralympic medals was also won during the same summer.
Gold medallists like Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah, Sir Chris Hoy, David Weir and Greg Rutherford have all received funding from the National Lottery in the past, as has Tomlinson as he prepares this summer to try to add a Commonwealth gold to his list of achievements.
Tomlinson said: “The main thing what the National Lottery offer to a lot of the top athletes in the world is the medical support. If you pick up an injury you have the top doctors and physios looking at you. They send you for an MRI scan, you can get ultrasound scans, so they gear everything towards getting you back as soon as they can.
“The financial support is decent, so there are a lot of people who miss out on that because it is all means tested. It becomes very important when required, especially for young athletes coming through the ranks. That’s when it is really important.
“Now that the credit crunch has hit a lot of countries, like Spain, Greece, Ireland, in years gone by people would go and compete in these countries for decent amounts of money. Now more people have to rely on the lottery funding. It has been fantastic for athletics and sport in general.”
When the home nations compete in Glasgow, the National Lottery’s funding will have played an integral part in the medals won by England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’s competitors. Having missed out on a medal at the 2012 Olympics, Tomlinson hopes to be one of those celebrating on the podium north of the border.
“It’s a big deal for me, going to the Commonwealths,” said Tomlinson. “It’s a funny competition in all honesty because in the athletics world it’s not as recognised as it could be. You can win the Commonwealth Games and certain countries might not give you medical support or certain competitions like the Diamond League won’t even give you a lane as a Commonwealth champion.
“It doesn’t grant you huge things in the athletics world, but from a personal point of view, I would rather win a Commonwealth than European. It means a lot more. It’s in Scotland this time around and there will be a huge atmosphere out there.”
Having finished a frustrating sixth in London in 2012, Tomlinson hopes to perform better this time around. He is keen to add a gold/silver to the bronze he won at the European Championships in Barcelona in 2010.
To do that he might have to reclaim the national record he held up until the controversy surrounding Rutherford’s 8.51m leap in San Diego in April, when Tomlinson claimed it was ‘a very dubious jump’ as footage suggesting his foot was ‘four or five centimetres’ over the line emerged. Tomlinson is keen to just move on and thinks performing in front of a British crowd once more will be special.
“It was not a thing where it was me against Greg,” he said. “All I was saying is look at the facts. It’s like anything in sport, people like to build up head to heads. I understand that. I understand that sells the events. If they want to do that then fine.
“What we want in this country is two world class sportsmen going head to head and really going for it. We want British athletes really going for it. That ultimately sells the event more than anything else, so it is fine. It’s plain for everyone to see, I just have to let that ship sail now.
“It is the Commonwealths for me now. It’s the personal pride ultimately of trying to win a Commonwealth medal. People want to do it because it means a lot to them on a personal level. Everyone knows once it is on that it’s a big competition, everyone will be packed inside roaring everyone on. I’m really looking forward to it.”