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Foster aims to keep north-east in running
Mike Aitken, The Scotsman, 6 February 2001
As a long-distance runner, Brendan Foster knew all about
loneliness. What the former Gateshead Harrier found more alarming when he hung
up his spikes was the sense of isolation which gripped his home in the
north-east of England. The region was an international sporting wasteland.
When he points to a map outlining the location of all
Britains major sporting events, theres a void between Headingley
and Turnberry. Its called the north-east.
Twice a world record holder who claimed European and
Commonwealth gold medals, the driving force in Fosters life since he left
the track to form his own company was a quest to put the north on that map.
Like many Geordies, he couldnt pick out a lob wedge
from a 5-iron, even if Nova International does organise the Compaq European
Grand Prix at Slaley Hall. "Im still too young for golf," he grins. Yet
the BBCs athletics commentator is streetwise enough to understand that
the Ryder Cup is one of sports crown jewels.
Thats why Nova is using the expertise which made the
Great North Run such a success story, to take on the Scots and the Welsh in the
struggle for the 2009 match between Europe and America. The English are
regarded as outsiders and Foster fears that devolution might again leave the
north-east on the outside looking in.
"The Scots have a blue and white one. The Welsh have a red
and white one. But what we dont have is a flag because were not a
country in our own right," he laments at his office in Newcastle. "In this
bidding process, two countries are competing with a region and once again we
must be at the back of the queue.
"One of the reasons we embarked on this process is because
were always at the back of the queue. We dont have Six Nations
matches here. We dont have Rugby World Cup finals. We dont have
World Cup soccer matches. And we dont have the Open golf championship
every other year.
"In short, we dont have anything. Thats the
inspiration for us to try and bring the Ryder Cup here. Our regular mission as
a company is to focus on the north-east. This is a neglected area with a bad
image. Economically, its always at the bottom of the pile.
"You could say that the one thing weve got going for
us is ambition. Maybe the Ryder Cup is wildly ambitious for us. But no-one
should be able to tell us because we dont have a parliament or a flag
that we cant at least throw our hat in the ring.
"Devolution was great for Scotland, but the worst thing for
us. Before devolution, at least ourselves and the Scots were out of the loop
together. Now were isolated.
"I also know how much the north-east needs a shot in the
arm. Of course we cant have the Olympics or the World Athletics
Championships. The biggest possible event in world terms we can stage is the
In his Ryder Cup mission, Foster can draw on the experience
of a varied and successful career. After a degree at Sussex University and
entering the teaching profession, he went into sports management with Gateshead
council. When Nike needed someone to launch their business in Britain, they
took on Foster. He repaid the favour by making them millions.
When he branched out on his own with Nova and the View From
sports clothing firm, Foster not only turned in a profit but did so on the back
of a business which was unashamedly centred in the north-east.
"I once had a conversation with the Prime Minister, Tony
Blair, and told him about when I was a kid growing up," he recalls. "In those
days you didnt see great runners in the north-east because they never
came here. They went to Crystal Palace or Glasgow or Edinburgh. Living in the
north-east, you could become a great footballer, but nothing else.
"When I became a good athlete I wanted to know why I
couldnt run nearer my home. Thats why we opened a new stadium at
Gateshead. As a result of that initiative, the athletes who came after me,
Steve Cram and Jonathan Edwards, didnt have to go anywhere else to do
"From there, we went on to establish the Great North Run.
Instead of all the big events in athletics happening elsewhere in the world, we
tried to bring them here. In that respect, our motivation was driven by emotion
rather than business."
Foster was able to underline his point to Mr Blair about
the need for greater investment in sport with a series of bleak statistics. The
north-east has the highest level of youth crime in the country, the highest
death rates from cancer, the highest suicide rate among men over 45, the second
highest unemployment rate and the lowest attainment levels in both GCSE and A
While it would be unrealistic to expect any sporting event
to alleviate the social problems, the feel-good factor attached to winning the
Ryder Cup, not to mention the economic benefits, would have a positive impact.
If its not hard to understand the reasons why it would be good for
Northumberland, Foster is quick to explain why the north-east can also be good
"We have an area of the country which is as big as Scotland
and Wales, but is underdeveloped in golfing terms. Part of our strategy is to
put golf on the school curriculum and give every kid a chance to play.
"I can remember going on holiday to Dornoch and seeing
youngsters carry their clubs through the streets to the course. That
doesnt happen much here. Our ideal is to put ourselves in a situation
where a raggy little kid hears about the Ryder Cup coming, learns the game
through this initiative and eventually makes the team in 2009.
"You might smile and think thats nonsense - but all
were asking is a chance to make it happen. I suppose it might sound a bit
like a scene from Billy Elliot. To have a young golfer from this region come
down the 18th with Tiger Woods in the Ryder Cup at Slaley Hall. But thats
our dream. And our bid document shows how we plan to fulfil that dream."
Foster, who lives near Hexham, admits feeling a stronger
affinity with Scotland than the south-east of England.
Nevertheless, he would happily frustrate Scotlands bid
for the Ryder Cup on the grounds that the north-easts need is so much
"The impact the 2009 Ryder Cup would make on golf here,
compared to golf in Scotland, is huge. Thats because youre already
near the top and were starting from the bottom," he argues. "I dont
see how the Ryder Cup could have any more of an impact in Scotland than the
Millennium Open. How do you get any better than that?
"You cant improve on the scale or the power of that
event. To have the Open in St Andrews, to have Tiger Woods win and to have
Dougie Donnelly interview Tiger afterwards. How could you ask for more?"
Fosters features light up in a broad grin at this comic reference to his
BBC colleague. But the point is seriously made.
"Golf has already made its mark on Scotland," he insists.
"The Scots have the Open every other year, but the north-east has nothing - so
give us the Ryder Cup."
If theres a tendency to dismiss the north-east as
dreamers in this process - the Ryder Cup committee make their first assessment
next week - Foster is confident their bid will stand up to scrutiny.
"Were backing up our promises with £24
million," he says. "Weve promised to invest that sum in the game,
including a £5 million Ryder Cup legacy fund which will build a state of
the art academy.
"You cant stop us from dreaming. We know were
not in the lead, but if you give us a chance me might surprise you. Jonathan
Edwards, one of our two Olympic athletics champions, comes from here. Alan
Shearer was the England football teams captain and Newcastles Jonny
Wilkinson is Englands top rugby player. We can do it if you let us have a
As someone who once took home a bronze medal from the
Olympics in the 10,000m, Foster knows all about sticking around for the long
haul. If Slaley Hall misses out on the Ryder Cup this time round, dont
expect the north-east to go off in a huff.
"My dad first took me to watch Newcastle United when I was
seven," he recalls. "That season they won the FA Cup. Im a lot older than
seven now and they havent won anything since.
"So if you live in this part of the world, you get
accustomed to waiting. Were used to being at the back of the queue, but
were not leaving." more Ryder
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