WHEN Jessica Ennis skips down from the podium next weekend, clutching her gleaming new heptathlon gold medal and wiping a tear of joy from her eye, don’t be surprised to see her reach for her phone – she’ll probably be texting Barrie Wells to say thanks.
Wells is the Merseyside self-made millionaire who has personally funded around 20 of Britain’s best medal hopes at London 2012, including Ennis, 400m hurdler Dai Greene, gymnast Beth Tweddle and a host of swimming talent headed by 50m world record holder Liam Tancock.
For budding pole-vaulter Holly Bleasdale, his cash has provided longer poles; for 800m runner Jenny Meadows – a surprise omission from the Olympic squad – it was to employ a full-time coach; for young modern pentathlete Freyja Prentice, Wells hired a sports psychologist.
Some of the athletes in his stable missed out on central funding – Ennis was in this bracket when he first took her on – while most benefit from a top-up or help with unexpected costs that Wells believes could have a decisive impact on their success.
The project, he says, costs him approximately half a million pounds a year – a hefty whack even for a man who sold his business for an eight-figure sum – so it is hard, in these cynical times, not to ask: why do it?
It makes sense to begin when Wells sold his commercial insurance start-up Premierline to industry giants Allianz in 2006, having grown its value to £30m in four years. Already in his sixties, he bought a Bentley but didn’t want another house. “I had all this cash, and I’m not going to die being worth incredible amounts of money. I wanted to leave my kids a decent sum but I also wanted to use it properly.”
At first he thought of giving to charity, and made minor donations to schools in India and water projects in Africa as he researched where his windfall might be best used. “For 18 months I was going round in circles. I thought: ‘I don’t want to give it to a charity; I want to see where it goes; I want to feel, smell, touch what’s happening with it’.”
In 2008, while watching the Games in Beijing, the penny began to drop. An amateur 400m runner and ardent Liverpool fan whose grandfather once held the pole vault world record, Wells had a long-standing affinity with sport. He wanted to encourage children to be active and tried giving grants to clubs, but gave up because well-drilled applicants shouted louder than needier, less organised set-ups. “One club had half a million in the bank and were giving grants themselves!”
He decided on recruiting elite athletes to his foundation, to reach out to young people in return for financial help. He targeted those who had slipped through the funding net somehow, with Ennis his first recruit. “Jessica had been injured, didn’t go to the 2008 Olympics, wasn’t a world champion, but I knew there was this extraordinary talent.”
Four years later, he has funded 21 in total, mainly in the four disciplines he knows best. He demands a quarterly business plan to justify their average £8,000 annual funding, and that they each spend six and a half days a year visiting schools.
There is no doubting the altruistic motivation behind Wells’s endeavour, and it is not his only such project. He hopes his funding model will inspire other wealthy individuals to found similar programmes, in the arts or other sporting disciplines. He has also created Box 4 Kids, a venture dedicated to taking seriously ill or disabled children to sporting events. From persuading Kenny Dalglish to help establish the first at Anfield, he now has one unnamed UK bank offering each of their corporate boxes once a year. He has appealed for more companies to join the scheme and aims to take 2,000 children on such days out next year.
Yet there is something in all this for him too, naturally. His donations buy, for want of a more elegant term, a small stake in his athletes’ careers – and a front-row seat from which to enjoy their numerous and notable triumphs. “I had to be on their journey. I’m not just giving them the money. I had to say: ‘I want a business plan from you. What will you spend the money on and why will it make a difference?’”
He calls Ennis’s coach every fortnight and travels to Sheffield to watch her train. He does the same for Bleasdale and Rimmer in Manchester. He clearly revels in having an excuse to globetrot from one far-flung sporting event to another. He has watched his athletes compete in Montreux and Buenos Aires and will be on the sidelines when they vie for gold in London over the coming days. “In 2010, between mid-June and late August, I was home for about a week. That was just zig-zagging around the planet,” he says. Don’t his family mind? “Fortunately my kids went along with it. Dai Greene did say to my son – in a nice way – ‘I think your dad’s mad’.”
He caps the number of beneficiaries because he enjoys playing such an active role in their progress. “I restrict it to 17 or 18 because I want to be able to follow them, talk to them about their training and understand it. If there’s many more I couldn’t.” His greatest satisfaction comes when one of his projects bears fruit. “It’s just amazing when Steph Twell wins a cross country championship, runs through the tape and hugs me.”
Three years ago Bleasdale, 20, was yet to even try the pole vault; now she is a leading Olympic medal hope. Her story captures what Wells achieves – and what he derives from it – perhaps best of all. Last year she asked for a grant to buy longer poles, as her existing apparatus was limiting her jumps. He paid £1,500 for four longer poles and she promptly set a new British record. “Within about 20 minutes I had a text,” he smiles. “It’s that kind of thing.”
Age: 26; Sport: heptathlon
26; 400m hurdles
20; pole vault
27; 50m & 100m swim
22; 200m & 400m individual medley swim
26; 100m & 200m freestyle & relay swim
18; 200m & 400m swim
30; modern pentathlon
20; modern pentathlon
21; 200m backstroke & 100m relay swim