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Who wants to compete for a millionaire?

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Ollie Williams | 08:44 UK time, Friday, 27 November 2009

Imagine going through your post to discover a letter from a wealthy stranger offering you thousands of pounds, for no return, to help your career.

No catches, he writes. Just be a good role model and don't take anything illegal. Let him know what you want and, if he thinks it's a reasonable demand, it's yours.

You would need time to digest this, and you would certainly have questions. Who is he? Why choose me? What does he want back from me?

Those were the questions 15 top British athletes posed themselves when insurance entrepreneur Barrie Wells got in touch. One said it felt like "a fairytale-type scam" as her eyes glanced down the letter.

But now, her doubts brushed aside, she is "his" athlete, topping up her standard funding with up to £8,000 from his wallet each year.

Who has Wells chosen, why did he choose them, and how has one man become an Olympic cash machine for our stars?

Katarina Thompson with Barrie WellsWells with one of the London 2012 prospects he chose to fund, 16-year-old heptathlete Katarina Thompson

This is an odd arrangement. UK Sport, the government agency which distributes sports funding, is unaware of anyone else privately backing athletes to anything like the same extent. Wells, who made his money in commercial insurance, expects to commit some £2m in total, funding both elite athletes and a charitable foundation.

UK Sport has a Team 2012 initiative encouraging individuals to donate in this way, but it has barely launched - and Wells turned down the chance to join it. Instead, he wants to go it alone and says his motivation is "being part of the journey".

"I was wondering what to do with my cash," he tells me. "Then, when I was in Beijing for the Olympics, it struck me: why don't I do something for sport, which is what I really enjoy?

"I'm a football fanatic - I'm a Liverpool supporter, I go to every home game and all the away European games - but football has enough money in it. I was interested in Olympic sports, the top one being track and field, then swimming, and also cycling."

Wells came back from China and approached the relevant British governing bodies. As you can imagine, they didn't lose much time getting back to him. "British Swimming rang me up, flew to meet me, and said 'we want our share'. They were committed from the start, so a third of my 15 athletes are swimmers," he says. "Cycling, on the other hand, didn't need the money because it was that well-run."

Wells picked a few more sports, based on no more complex a rationale than "the ones I'd be prepared to travel anywhere in the world to watch", and assembled his squad of 15.

Top of his list is Jess Ennis, the world champion heptathlete. Wells has apparently fought off the attentions of Usain Bolt to woo the 23-year-old and install her as patron of his new foundation. She is joined by top swimmers like Liam Tancock, a number of runners, two modern pentathletes and several triathletes. Wells is funding one of British Triathlon's performance programmes in its entirety, down to the house the athletes live in.

Some might argue Ennis is not the best choice for this additional funding. While she says Wells paid for her physio to travel to the World Championships, she can expect to earn far more in terms of sponsorship than many colleagues. But other beneficiaries, like 19-year-old pentathlete Freyja Prentice, are already allocating every penny.

"Pentathlon is a very expensive sport - fencing blades cost up to £100 a time and they break quite regularly - but I'm trying to put it into my swimming, which I need to work on," she says. "I've been looking at doing underwater filming and going to training camps in Hungary, which would help my fencing improve.

"You can get certain things from the governing body but the funding I get from UK Sport just covers general living. Barrie's extra money takes away the stress and pressure of worrying about the money side of things."

Again, you might suggest modern pentathlon is hardly the world's most inclusive pastime, and may not be the most deserving sport out there. So how did Wells select his athletes?

Freyja PrenticeFreyja Prentice wants to use Wells' cash to improve her swimming

"I told the governing bodies I only wanted reliable role models. They gave me names and I looked at their track record, then talked to the governing body about their relationships, both with their parents and their coaches.

"I interviewed every one and asked how the money would make a difference, and it was also how they engaged with me. I told them, 'I'd expect you to text me if you break a record, I'd expect you to come back and tell me about it.' I want to be part of their journey right up until 2012."

Can that be all Wells wants, though? Whatever your thoughts on altruism, even the least cynical among us have to ask what a millionaire throwing money at top athletes, with a PR team in tow, is hoping to get out of the exercise. Where's the profit? What must the chosen few do in return?

"There are no targets at all for the athletes," he insists. "I don't want to judge on targets. The only rule is if they get bad publicity, or start not training or there is any drug abuse, I drop them right away.

"And this is of no value to me commercially. I'm not doing anything commercial any more, I'm concentrating on this. I want the publicity to attract grass-roots clubs and schools to apply to my foundation for grants. If clubs feel they are needy they can apply for funding."

He is adamant all he wants is access to athletes who might come good at London 2012. He wants the odd call during a world championship, a text when they get a medal, and a few publicity appearances a year at clubs his foundation helps.

Katarina Thompson, a 16-year-old heptathlete, is funded to the tune of £6,000 a year by Wells. As a fellow Liverpool fan, he took her to Anfield as a reward when she won world youth gold in Italy.

One of the youngest to be selected, she sounds giddy as she says: "We've written down a list of what we need - gym membership, accommodation, and travel, because my mum doesn't drive so we have to go on public transport a lot.

"He writes a cheque and says, 'Here you go, pay for your gym membership, or this and that,' and the money's there for us to use.

"I want to take him on the journey. He doesn't want to hand over the money then ignore us - I want to make him as involved as he wants, and use all this money to get good results for him."

Barrie Wells' elite team in full: Hannah Miley, Liam Tancock, Caitlin McClatchey, Lizzie Simmonds and Anne Bochmann (swimming); Sam Weale and Freyja Prentice (modern pentathlon); Jessica Ennis and Katarina Thompson (heptathlon); Michael Rimmer, Stephanie Twell and Jodie Williams (running); Adam Bowden, Charlotte Roach and Katie Ingram (triathlon).

Do you agree with his choices - and, for that matter, with the principle of what he's doing? If you were in his position, who would you pick to fund?


  • Comment number 1.

    It's good to see somebody who has made a fortune bypass their love of football to help a sporting cause which often gets overlooked.

    People always ask the question what's in it for them.... surely investing some of his money in this way will mean less goes to tax man for a start!

  • Comment number 2.

    You could argue that all sports take dedication but it seems apparent that the particular sports Barrie Wells has chosen are all sports that are not particularly popularist but take a hell of a lot of dedication to compete in. I can understand why Jessica Ennis has been chosen as the top patron for his campaign - even though you could argue she might not necessarily need the money anymore. Had Barrie got his wish and chosen cycling then I'm not sure that the makeup of his team would have been right - as the most successful cyclists get funded very well and the competition for places (and funding) has bred the success of the cycling team. My personal opinion is that I would have loved to see a couple of young badminton 2012 hopefuls in there as badminton is the no.1 racket sport, is cheaper to take up than many of the sports chosen and could possibly inspire more children to take it up. I do think that it's a fantastic initiative though and if the motives are to provide a set of role models that inspire people to take up the typically less glamorous sports then it has to be applauded.

  • Comment number 3.

    Has any of this money been made available for the GB Paralympic team or as usual do they just get ignored?

  • Comment number 4.

    An uplifting story from the oceans of media banality.
    Good on yer Barrie.
    You've bought into the greatest philosophy.
    Its always better to give than receive......although the recipients in this case are the thoroughly deserving.
    I salute your efforts.

  • Comment number 5.

    This is just fantastic.

  • Comment number 6.

    Way to put a downer on things KennyH1. Have a look at the list of 15 and you'll see Lizzie Simmonds name on there so I would guess that the Paralympic team have equal opportunity here. Sorry I do understand they don't get as much press and that really is a shame. But here's a guy trying to do some good and it's also a shame that one of the first posts appears to be trying to have a little dig. Sorry if that's not what you meant but that's the way it's come across to me. Why not try to focus on the positives of the story as there's a lot of positives to come from it? It's not this guy's fault that the Paralympic team don't get the amount of coverage they should do.

    Anyway great story Ollie and thanks for highlighting it for us. It's always good to read about someone trying to help out in this way. These athletes could be the role models of the future for many more young people who want to get involved in sport.

  • Comment number 7.

    What a legend!

    Does he fancy putting a bit of money into my Sunday League Team, we are honest, hard working, never get bad publicity but unfortunately talentless. However, if he feels like helping us out I will let him know how much we lose by every Sunday with a call or even better, he can come and watch us as our guest honour.

    Great story, I hope a few stars come out of his generosity.

  • Comment number 8.

    Sponsorship in sport is not a new concept but this kind of philanthropy is to be warmly applauded...well done Barrie Wells. It begs the question tho; if Britain had a bottomless pit of money to draw on in sport, would we be able to produce a crop of world beaters as a result, and therefore how much money is actually required to produce these world beating athletes?. I suppose that all we can ask for is a situation where every athlete is properly funded and then we can judge performance 'on a level playing field'....Money alone does not breed success, just look at football. You need to have the hunger, and a wee bit of ability goes a long way too, and maybe Barrie's money will help bring out the best.

  • Comment number 9.

    Well put SublimeSuperSpur, you do something nice and someone has a pop!

  • Comment number 10.

    Sounds like Sir Eddie Kulukundis. He's apparently given UK athletes around £2m over the last 25 years. I've met a couple who would have given up without Eddie's help.

  • Comment number 11.


    While I agree in general with your comments, must point out that you seem to be confusing Lizzie Simmonds with Ellie Simmons.

  • Comment number 12.

    3. At 10:51am on 27 Nov 2009, KennyH1 wrote:
    "Has any of this money been made available for the GB Paralympic team or as usual do they just get ignored?"
    If the Paralympic team are ignored, by sports funding, how do you explain the minor detail that team GB came second only to China in the medal table at the Paralympics?

  • Comment number 13.

    Congratulations Barrie... It is a marvelous thing to assist people in their endeavours to become great athletes... Too often the dedication and talent is not supported as it should be... particularly in this country.

    I am no longer shocked based on my own experience by the fact that the first thing many people cynically say is what's in it for him... I helped a family anonymously in an extremely difficult position in 2000, giving them use of offices and all the logistical help they needed along way from home... I remained anonymous for 6 years.. But I was shocked when a very senior journalist at the BBC asked me why I was doing it and why anonymously... I was extremely saddened and felt the fact he asked the question was more of an indictment on him than on me... The answer I gave was simple; Why wouldn't I ? Because I could, I did not need to get permission from anybody... and I would like to think someone would do it for me if ever I was in the same position..

    He wanted to know why I wanted no publicity when everyone else around the case was getting loads... My answer was that I did not ever wish to make PR out of anyone else's misfortune... and in this case it ended tragically..

    So please Barrie do what you feel you want to do... help who you want to.... and spend your hard earned cash as you want to...pilanthropy never did anyone any harm and yours should be celebrated and admired..

    Enjoy the ride I personally feel it will be tremendously fulfilling for both yourself and your athletes... I will follow your project with keen interest and I further hope it will inspire others to follow your example in even a modest way..

    Once again congratulations and good luck to all your athletes...

  • Comment number 14.

    I don't think it really matters who his chosen list is. The very fact that he is prepared to dig into his pockets (which admittedly are deeper than most) to improve the chances of some tallented youngsters has to be a good thing. If only more people who are able to thought like this and returned some of their earned wealth think what else could be improved!

    Any idea if any of our highly paid premier league stars do any similar work for sporting hopefuls?

  • Comment number 15.

    He seems like a genuinely generous guy. It's good to see someone who has done well for themselves putting money into a sport that they love for little return, except a little help to encourage future generations.

    I am also pleased to see the events that he has selected, and his stringent rules, hopefully this will result in 15 good role models for future generations.

  • Comment number 16.

    Top bloke. Also good that he/cycling realised that cycling was already well organised and funded so his money would do more good elsewhere. Come on Messrs Sugar, Branson etc. why not match this idea and give more young people the chance to shine whatever disadvantages they may or may not have in their background.

  • Comment number 17.

    Certainly beats the hell out of using the money just to gain interest and more money. Good on you, sir, and i'm sure your help has guided some of these athletes to the top of their respective fields (Jess Ennis and Liam Tancock being the obvious leaders).

    I'm sure the Paralympic squads do receive such help from both the British Government and other anonymous benefactors, but it is the benefactors' choice where he decides to invest in the future of British Athletics. He should be applauded for investing at all, not criticised.

  • Comment number 18.

    What I like is that Barrie talks to the parents as well as the individual.

    So many parents (not pushy) make huge sacrifices to overcome the lack of facilities and infrastructure around UK sport to give our kids the opportunity (not the right) to compete and improve themselves even at basic club level.

    The parents deserve and hopefully appreciate this generosity as much as the kids.

    Here's hoping for a legacy for 2012 and beyond for Barrie and the parents.

  • Comment number 19.

    Cheers #11 eskimo roll for clearing up the error in my post. But as you say the point still stands that its a shame when someone does something so positive and you get someone trying to focus on a negative. Really does illustrate the point perfectly that you can't please everyone.

  • Comment number 20.

    I think what Barrie is doing is great! If he ever wants to take on more athletes, I would like to suggest some of our skiers. Winter sports seem to get forgotten, they cost a lot more to take part in as the athletes have to spend the summers in the southern hemisphere and equipment is very expensive.

  • Comment number 21.

    I have a 13 year old daughter who ski races ( SL and GS ) she won the British indoor champs at the age of 11, the following year the British chaps on the plastic slopes + the Welsh cup & the inghams grand prix for the year & the Salomon exscape series for the year, the following year 2nd in the english champs in Northern Italy + podiums in the SL and GS in the BARSC champ on the Austrian Sloveian border and podiums in the Britsh & Scottish champs in the 3 valleys in France. Can i get any funding!!! so far £100 pounds which would not even pay for the wax. She does fittnes at least 5 nights a week and would like to get to the Olympics in the future.

  • Comment number 22.

    well done barrie its always nice to see someone with a lot of money give it to something that want to help improve i cant think of a better way of you putting your money to better use

  • Comment number 23.

    It seems every news story in 2009 has been bad news but with only 2 weeks left the year has been saved.
    Brilliant, just brilliant . There is a vacancy for this sort of guy but I doubt he wants to be Prime Minister.


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