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There's really nothing more heart-warming than seeing the smile on a child's face when they've caught a ball; New head of Sport Wales reveals her goals.

Byline: Martin Shipton

LAURA McALLISTER started playing football at the age of four, when it wasn't seen as a girl's game.

Now, 40 years later, the former Wales women's football team captain has taken over as chair of the Sports Council for Wales.

Professor McAllister, who is from Bridgend and teaches politics at Liverpool University, sees no conflict between her academic role and her new position in charge of the Sports Council, which next month will be rebranded as Sport Wales.

She said: "Sport is not only a hugely important part of Welsh life - it also plays a crucial role in helping the Assembly Government achieve its goals.

"It has a bearing on health, education and training, social cohesion and regeneration. "We would argue that every pound spent on developing and encouraging sport has a cascading effect on the Welsh economy and community well-being.

"It's easy to demonstrate the positive impact on the Cardiff economy when there's a Six Nations match at the Millennium Stadium. But the benefits to Wales of sporting activity go well beyond that." Prof McAllister said her ambition is for every child in Wales to participate in some kind of regular sporting activity, and to become hooked on sport for life - even if they aren't the conventional "sporty" type.

"We have programmes in both primary and secondary schools that encourage participation - Dragon Sport for 7-11 year-olds, and 5x60 for students in secondary schools. We want to encourage every young person to engage in some kind of sports activity five times a week for 60 minutes.

"It's not about trying to turn everyone into a budding Colin Jackson or Nicole Cooke. There's nothing more heart-warming than seeing the smile of pleasure on a child's face when they've caught a ball or hit a ball with a bat."

When Prof McAllister went to school in Bridgend, there was no encouragement for girls who wanted to play football. It wasn't until she was a student at the London School of Economics that she was able to play in a proper team - Millwall Lionesses. When she moved back to Wales she spent 12 years playing for Cardiff City and won 24 caps for Wales.

Although she is a long-standing season ticket holder at Cardiff City, she says she enjoys watching Swansea and Wrexham, as well as matches played at community level.

"Sporting bodies like the WRU and the FAW play a great role in sporting and Welsh life, but so do clubs at the grassroots," she said. "The significance of a sports club in keeping community spirit alive cannot be underestimated."

As well as nurturing sporting activity at its roots, the Sports Council helps sports stars develop through its elite programmes. Around 40 Welsh athletes in non-Olympic sports are currently being helped through Elite Cymru, while a further 80 involved in Olympic sports are helped through a UK-wide scheme.

"Welsh athletes are certainly punching above their weight, as the number of medals won by our athletes shows," she said. "And our disabled athletes are doing better than their counterparts in the rest of the UK.

"Over my three-year term of office, I expect to be judged by the success we achieve against our performance and participation targets.

I relish the challenge, because unless sponsored public bodies like ours can add value, there's no point in having them."

Heritage Minister Alun Ffred Jones said: "This is a key appointment, not only for sport in Wales but for the state of the nation's health. Sport Wales has a key role in motivating people to be increasingly active and healthy and I want people to not only feel part of Wales' sporting achievements, but feel motivated to take up the challenge themselves and get active, whether it's joining a sports club or just walking or cycling instead of taking the car. I wish Laura all the best in her new role and the challenges ahead."


KEY ROLE: Professor Laura McAllister PICTURE: Liz Pearce [umlaut]
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Feb 12, 2010
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