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Catching up with the not-so-secret millionaire

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Ollie Williams | 06:47 UK time, Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Taxis to school, driving lessons, an evening with Steven Gerrard, the keys to a Bentley, and some of the highest-quality beef.

In the pursuit of Olympic excellence, Barrie Wells has shelled out for some odd things. But, a year after first publicising his scheme to help fund the 2012 dreams of a handful of British Olympic prospects, the multi-millionaire is convinced it has been worthwhile.

Wells, who made his money in insurance, started this in mid-2009. He set up a foundation to give some of his money away to worthy sports clubs around Britain, but also selected around 16 elite athletes - in sports he enjoyed, primarily athletics, triathlon, modern pentathlon and swimming - to receive extra cash towards their training.

On top of the money they receive from their sports' governing bodies, these athletes have managed to persuade Wells that parting with thousands of pounds of his own cash, to cover expenses they cannot meet with their own funding, is going to reap rewards: if not financial, then in the priceless terms of making him a part of London 2012 and their fight to represent Britain.

A year ago, I asked Wells what was motivating him to give away his cash like this. He told me he wanted to be "taken on the journey". As 2010 reaches a conclusion, is his unique experiment working out that way? Where has the money been spent, and what's he getting in return?

Let's start with the beef. It was wagyu beef - the ultra-expensive Japanese stuff - and the grateful recipient was one Jessica Ennis, the world and European heptathlon champion.

"I went to watch Jess in Berlin last year at the World Championships," explains Wells. "She won and she'd never had wagyu beef before, so I took her to a Michelin-starred restaurant for that as a reward.

"Jess rocketed to fame when she won there. That was a big step-change, she became real public property as a face of 2012. I'd arranged to meet her for this Japanese meal but I thought she'd probably cancel because the media and sponsors were crawling all over her.

"But at 7.30am a text comes in, saying: 'Don't forget our lunch at one o'clock'. I would have understood if she'd asked to rearrange it. But that's what the trust is about, really. That was touching."

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

Clearly, the beef isn't much of a training aid. Not everything Wells offers "his" athletes - Ennis being at the top of the tree, as the patron of the foundation - has any sort of direct impact on their training and performance. Often, he uses his cash to procure fun incentives for Britain's finest to raise the bar.

Backstroke swimmer Lizzie Simmonds got the keys to the Bentley, if only for one afternoon, as a result of her 200m victory at the European Championships in August.

The chance to meet Liverpool skipper Gerrard, alongside striker Fernando Torres, fell to teenage heptathlete Katarina Thompson after an impressive performance at the junior World Championships. Wells, a keen Liverpool supporter with his own box at Anfield (usually used to offer terminally ill children the chance to see a game), has the connections to make that happen.

But these are publicity stunts as much as rewards for the athletes concerned, designed to prove as attractive to the media as they are to the athletes. What matters more is the day-to-day support Wells has been able to offer to young athletes, injecting vital cash to remove some of the stresses which accumulate when training intensively in punishing circumstances.

Schoolgirl by day and swimmer by evening, 17-year-old Anne Bochmann has just finished double physics and is about to head into a chemistry lesson when she answers the phone. She successfully convinced Wells to support her last year, and has since spent around £8,000 of his money - on taxis to and from training.

"It means I can train with my coach, who's the same one I've had since I was 12," she explains. "I need to stay with him to reach my potential. I moved from Norwich to Leeds for swimming and, without Barrie's money, I wouldn't have been able to do it."

Wells adds: "Anne will be up there as a finalist in 2012. We'll pay for driving lessons for her now she's 17, and look at getting her a car. Then, nearer the Olympics, I'll pay for her to have an apartment in Leeds to be near her coach."

These are costs which most, if not all, British governing bodies would balk at paying. As they are accountable to funding body UK Sport and - in a slightly less tangible sense - the public, they must be seen to spend only on what is absolutely necessary for success in 2012.

Wells, who can use his money how he likes and on the sports he likes, has no such worries. He picks UK Athletics as an example, saying: "They need to have a mechanistic funding strategy - if they're funding hundreds of athletes, it needs to be formula-driven.

"But I can look outside that formula and do things they couldn't do because they're driven by rules for everybody. I'm just about to fund Jenny Meadows, the 800m runner, who got bronze in Berlin last year and silver at the World Indoor championships.

"She's coached by her husband, who has given up his job to work with her full-time. Previously, she'd wait all day for him to come home, then start training in the evening. I met them for lunch and they explained their situation to me. I said I'd support them until 2012."

Since the start, Wells has been clear about what he expects in return. Athletes receiving his help must spend three or four days talking to students in schools on his behalf (they all gladly do - it's a small price to pay). Similarly, the slightest hint of drug or alcohol abuse would get them dropped. They are expected to become first-class role models.

However, axing athletes is the last thing on Wells' mind. It is more common that his freedom to flout the usual rules of Olympic sport funding, where success and progress are key, means he continues to support athletes who lose the financial backing of their governing bodies.

Promising triathlete Charlotte Roach had only just joined the Trigold scheme, which moves athletes from other sports into triathlon and is entirely funded by Wells, when she was involved in a road accident. Wells takes up the story:

"A 4x4 went over her and she was about 15 minutes from dying; she was in a total mess. She clearly had no way of getting back for 2012 and British Triathlon stopped her funding - and they were right to do that, their funding is for 2012 but Charlotte needed at least nine months to recover.

"Now she's going into schools and telling the story about how she came near to death, but came back and finished fourth in a World Cup event. It's a wonderful story. She's not a 2012 prospect, let's be realistic, but I want her to carry on being an ambassador."

Seasons don't have to take such drastic turns for athletes to worry about funding. Katie Ingram, another young triathlete battling up the rankings ahead of 2012, had a bike crash over the summer which put her out of racing for a chunk of the season. Naturally, she wondered if Wells would think twice about investing any more cash.

"I rang him because it meant I needed to compete in extra races to up my ranking, and that obviously costs money. He immediately asked what he could do to help," she says.

"Barrie's just been amazing with all these extra costs. I had volcano disruption, too - I was in a race in Mexico then got stuck in Houston because of the ash cloud, and had to spend an extra two weeks there. I sent Barrie an email and he sent cash over to help me out and paid for my accommodation.

"A lot of people ask about the pressure, but I just see it as help. It's someone helping me do what I've always wanted to do: a sport I love."

Wells has been to Qatar, Germany, Hungary, Spain and Canada with his athletes, so he is a familiar face to many British governing bodies. If they are at all concerned about this character wandering into their sports and throwing money at athletes of his choice, they don't show it. And it is no surprise that the presence of a millionaire philanthropist is met by unqualified approval from the man clutching UK Sport's purse strings, chief operating officer Tim Hollingsworth.

"I think Barrie is one of life's good guys and what he's doing is having a genuine benefit and impact, not least because he's attached his support to the principle of athletes being role models, which is hugely productive," says Hollingsworth.

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Lizzie Simmonds, Wells' tip for 2012 gold, wins at the Euros (UK users only)

UK Sport operates its own scheme, Team 2012, which seeks to attract entrepreneurs like Wells and match them with Olympic sports in need of cash. Five individuals with money to burn, including Dr Chai Patel (the former chief executive of Priory Healthcare), have signed up for Team 2012 and invested at least £250,000 in Britain's Olympic sports. A further 25 have contributed between £100,000 and £250,000, with more coughing up smaller amounts.

Wells, however, operates on his own. Ignoring UK Sport's overtures means he must do extra legwork to get his money into the right places, but he also gets to choose exactly which places those are. Hollingsworth must, publicly, advocate the more carefully managed Team 2012 approach, but in practice UK Sport will raise few complaints no matter how Wells chooses to lob money at British Olympic hopefuls.

Hollingsworth adds that all necessary background checks on Wells have been completed. After all, if you must nominally prove you are a "fit and proper" candidate to own a British football team, your cupboard ought to be clear of skeletons if you're on the front line of Britain's Olympic programme.

Quite how involved Wells now becomes is up to him, but he has no shortage of offers. Word will always spread of a multi-millionaire prepared to invest in anyone meeting certain criteria.

"I get approached all the time, by athletes from all sorts of sports. Last week, I had a letter from the world's number two in taekwondo, a girl from Liverpool," he says, naming no names (but a bit of searching and a trawl of taekwondo's world rankings won't take you long).

"I know nothing about taekwondo - I don't understand it as a sport, so that may be a move too far. Normally I would have turned it down.

"But I've gone on the web and checked up on it, and I've also forwarded her letter and CV to two of my athletes, Michael Rimmer and Katarina Thompson, and asked if they've come across her. So the jury's out on that one."

That prevarication evaporates when you ask him which of his current recruits he backs for 2012. If all the cash he's ploughing into Olympic sport were to be staked on one Wells athlete winning gold, who would it be?

"Jess Ennis is up there but of course, she has to stay healthy. For swimmers, it's much tougher to get injured. It has to be Lizzie Simmonds."


  • Comment number 1.

    One of the better blogs I've read for some time, thank you.

    My hat goes off to Mr Wells. It would be good to see more people like that supporting British athletes. That includes the media.

    Why these positive role models are not reported about more is a mystery to me. Surely we want to hear about these sorts of people striving for success at all costs rather that overpaid so called elite sports men who spend their time in the back pages for all the wrong reasons.

  • Comment number 2.

    I remember reading this story on here when he first started and I must say it's great to get an update and see the good work that he's doing. I won't go as far as to call him one of life's good guys as he works in insurance (tongue in cheek there), but he's certainly using his money to good effect and giving something back. It sounds like the scheme has some excellent ideas too, it's not just about success and gold medals but about being role models and giving something back at a grass roots level. Getting athletes to talk to children and schools about their experiences is brilliant and really can inspire the next generation.

    Great work Mr Wells hope you keep it up and the whole scheme is a success.

  • Comment number 3.

    I agree with nickfrench - this is a very good article, and Mr Wells should certainly be applauded for his efforts.
    It seems to me that there are two main issues with reporting this kind of philanthropy: (1) the media and sometimes the public are often cynical about the motives of the donors; and (2) partly as a result of this, many "real" philanthropists often shun, or at least do not court, publicity (although it's not obvious from the article where Mr Wells sits on this spectrum).
    However, surely Mr Wells should be given the benefit of the doubt? He can do what he likes with his own money, and if his largesse leads to more Olympic golds for Team GB in 2012, that'd be fantastic as far as I'm concerned.
    Finally, there is a tangible social benefit from this kind of activity - sport is of great interest for large sections of the population, and it's crystal clear from the recent past (witness the over-achievement of our Winter Olympians in Vancouver versus the perennially under-achieving footballers at the World Cup) that public morale is directly affected by the performance of 'our' teams on a global stage. Frankly, if I had his resources, I'd like to think that I'd try to do the same sort of thing!

  • Comment number 4.

    Great to see an update on this. I just wish more millionaires would give back like this.

    Hope to get more updates in the coming months & years.

  • Comment number 5.

    In this day and age Houours are given out to almost anyone. Surely this chap is someone who actually deserves a gong. OK, he has the cash but it is his choice to help others with it. Make him a KBE I say.

    Good on you Mr Wells.

  • Comment number 6.

    Its easy to be cynical. I haven't seen Wells crop up in the mainstream media much at all so he obviously isnt in it for the publicity. There's also the comment about terminally ill kids in his Liverpool box so he has wider horizons than just supporting athletes. The main thing is that he is putting in a lot of his own personal time. That actually means something, giving up time means much more than money when you are rich. Writing a cheque is easy. I'm pleased that Wells has decided to help out, and this kind of approach is very likley to make a real difference. Well done.

  • Comment number 7.

    People like Barrie Wells deserve respect for their selfless input. They deserve more accolades than they get.

    Like 'nickfrench' said hats off to them.

  • Comment number 8.

    Barrie is away in Australia at present so I would like to make a comment on his behalf.
    Thank you for the really positive comments. As much as Barrie enjoys being on this exciting journey and has built lasting friendships with the majority of these athletes, his passion for grassroots is a huge focus and we have so far had phenomenal success through the Foundation's Sporting Ambassadors scheme... experiencing how inspiring these sports people are to many young people. With the many changes being made to school sport, we really feel that this scheme can have such a positive effect on school sport activities in the spirit of the 2012 legacy and we are lucky to have 17 very positive and influential role models acting as our Ambassadors. Our Sports Grants scheme also continues to grow in order to make a difference to club sport with the aim to attract more kids to physical activity outside school hours.
    A quick point to make is that the Liverpool Box 4 Kids is also a Wells Sports Foundation scheme and is solely dedicated to taking along disadvantaged young people whose dream it is to attend a Liverpool match at Anfield, focusing on young carers and young people that are very ill. On experiencing the initial success of the box, Barrie's ultimate vision is to drive other club's to attract like-minded individuals to do the same as well as corporate box owners to offer this type of opportunity once or twice per season and we have already set off exploring this notion. Our grassroots schemes will continue to grow and as Barrie constantly tells us in the Foundation's office, "we are only limited by our imaginations"... a lovely attitude to work around where philanthropy is concerned.
    Please follow us on Twitter (username - @WellsSports) for updates on our ever growing Foundation.
    Thank you Ollie for your support.
    Amy @ Wells Sports Foundation ;-)

  • Comment number 9.

    It's great to hear of support for athletes like this.

    I have tried to get sponsorship for my daughter who is in the Scottish Athletics Development squad for 2014 as yet without success.

    Out with the lottery funded athletes there is little support for up & coming talent. It is little wonder when atheletes reach the age for University & work that many are lost to the sport. We have to travel around 50 miles round trip to access training session with our coach and winter training involves 6 sessions a week. With petrol costs spirralling this is getting more & more of a drain on our finances. She has been invited to warm weather training in Portugal with the Scotland squad but again we have to fund this ourselves.

    So again well done Barrie, keep up the excellent work.

  • Comment number 10.

    Thanks for the comments, all - glad you enjoyed the blog.

    I just wanted to add that in the 24 hours since we published this blog, I've had athletes from a number of Olympic sports get in touch with me looking for Barrie's contact details! So Amy (comment eight), expect the phone to ring...

  • Comment number 11.

    Another quick response on behalf of Barrie and the Foundation...

    Thank you for the heads up, Ollie. This tends to happen a lot off the back of media coverage. To provide a bit more info... Barrie currently personally sponsors these athletes, across 4 sports, (not the Foundation) who all initially underwent an in-depth recruitment process where he also talked to national governing bodies and many parents and coaches in order to ensure that the athletes met with both Barrie’s own and the Wells Sports Foundation’s objectives. Whilst he may consider increasing this sponsorship in the future under private circumstances, I do know that he will not be considering this for the time being as he currently has his hands full with concentrating on the development of the Wells Sports Foundation’s projects which include our Sporting Ambassadors scheme, Sports Grants scheme aimed at the North West and the Liverpool Box 4 Kids, whilst exploring other avenues of how we can make a difference at grassroots.

    We are really, really keen to push our Sporting Ambassadors scheme in various parts of the UK such as the North West, Leicestershire, Bath and Aberdeen and would welcome contact from more people in relation to this. It is such a unique opportunity and a great way of schools adding value to 2012 related events, contributing to a legacy for sport. We are also keen to make a difference to more sports clubs in the North West that are desperate for funding to sustain their development and increase participation so please all spread the word and get involved!

    Amy @ Wells Sports Foundation 


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