The millionaire business tycoon who funded Team GB’s only Olympic athletics medal winner in Tokyo so far has hailed Keely Hodgkinson’s “incredible” achievement.
Liverpool-born Barrie Wells sponsored the 19-year-old student, who took silver in the 800 metres, after she failed to win official funding and was reliant on her parents.
Hodgkinson missed out on British Athletics funding after they decided not to add any more people to their world class performance programme in 2020, amid the pandemic.
Athletics fan Mr Wells, who has made millions creating and selling on financial companies, stepped in to allow Ms Hodgkinson to prepare for the Olympics.
Mr Wells told the PA news agency: “Somebody described me this morning as the Fairy Godfather or Fairy Godmother, I’m not sure which.
“I never expected her to win it, but I thought she could get second or third because she’s just fearless and she’s got great finishing speed.
“She finishes faster than anyone in the world. Incredible achievement.”
Mr Wells sponsored 18 athletes for the London 2012 games, including Jessica Ennis and Katarina Johnson-Thompson, but the philanthropist and his charity the Barrie Wells Trust then concentrated on another initiative, Box4Kids, providing corporate boxes at sporting events for seriously ill children and their families.
He was alerted by Jenny Meadows, a former UK 800 metres runner whose husband Trevor Painter is Ms Hodgkinson’s coach, about the exciting youngster who first started training at her local running club Leigh Harriers in Greater Manchester.
Mr Wells said: “They said: ‘This kid is so special,’ so I watched her race a couple of times.
“I saw her win the UK indoors at Glasgow when she was 18 in 2020, I saw her win the UK outdoors, so I knew all about her but I wasn’t going to fund her until Jenny Meadows and Trevor Painter told me that UK Athletics didn’t put her on Lottery funding in the December, and she was without funding.
“She was basically being funded by her mum and dad, who had three other kids as well, and I thought: ‘This girl is so special, I’m going to become the National Lottery.’
“I just couldn’t believe she wasn’t being funded, ‘Oh My God’, because this girl, after Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina (Johnson-Thompson), to me, she was maybe the next best possibility of a medal.”
Mr Wells matched her £15,000 a year Lottery funding, allowing her to go to Florida in April with her coach for a month’s training in preparation for Tokyo. While there, the pair would swap texts about training sessions and running times.
Mr Wells said: “I really wanted to be on their journeys, the journey was the big thing for me. I wanted to know what training they were doing, who their main competitors were, how they felt before a big race.”
He did have accreditation for the Games and planned to go, but pulled out due to Covid restrictions on travelling and instead watched Keely win her race at home in Lancashire, where he was “leaping around like a bloody idiot”.
The 81-year-old, himself a former club, county and national championships 400 metres runner, is still sports-mad, and instead of carrying on in business, decided in 2008 to put his money to use by sponsoring athletes.
He added: “It’s stupid to die rich, when you can get immense enjoyment giving your money away.”
Ms Hodgkinson, a student at Leeds Beckett University, is due to fly home this weekend but has more races scheduled in Belgium, Switzerland and the US.
After her season finishes in September, Mr Wells will fulfil his promise on the “incentive” he gives to each athlete.
Mr Wells added: “I said to Keely, well what do you want? And she said: ‘Well I’ve always loved the old Aston Martins, which was used in James Bond films, I’ve always loved them.’
“So I said: ‘Yeah, OK. You make the final, and I’ll get you one of those, because you can hire them.’
“That’s my top objective, I’ve definitely got to deliver that because I do this with all the athletes I sponsor.
“I’m researching into various options on that.
“They are not inexpensive but you can hire them, so I will definitely deliver that.”