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Barrie Wells didn’t get much sleep on Tuesday night. First was a day of celebration after Keely Hodgkinson, 19, won silver in the 800m. “I was jumping around like an idiot, shouting ‘yes, yes, YES!” says Wells, who can’t be at the Olympics in Tokyo himself because of Covid restrictions. “The room was packed with the staff from my charity. My son Matthew wanted to put the video on social media, but I wouldn’t let him, because I looked like an idiot.”
Then he stayed up until 1.30am to watch the heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson win her 100m hurdles heat. The high jump was at 3am. Sadly, within an hour of finishing this interview, KJT pulled out of the heptathlon after sustaining a calf injury during the 200m and hobbling off the track. Wells hasn’t had a chance to speak to her yet, simply saying “it’s such a shame” when he hears the news.
On barely 90 minutes’ sleep, he now plans to spend the day looking for a vintage Aston Martin for Hodgkinson to drive – a treat he’d promised her if she made the Olympic final. “I’m hunting it down,” he says. “People are now telling me that I really should buy her one.”
Wells, 81, who lives with his wife Heather in Slyne, Lancashire, has been sponsoring British competitors since the Beijing Olympics in 2008. It’s hard to find a word that describes his input: it’s more “mentoring” than mere sponsorship, because he also becomes involved in the athletes’ training and gets to know their families.
“I don’t just write a cheque and go away,” he explains. “I need to know exactly how they are going to use the money, and what the tactics are. I’ll interview the athletes. If the hurdler doesn’t know how many strides they take between hurdles, they’re not deserving of the funds. I also have to like them.”
In the lead up to the 2012 London Games, Wells gave half a million pounds to 18 athletes including Jessica Ennis-Hill, the “face” of the games who went on to win the heptathlon gold medal, setting a British and Olympic record in the 100 metre hurdles in the process. He now concentrates mainly on his charity Box4Kids, but is still involved on a pastoral level with a number of high-profile athletes.
Hodgkinson is the only one he is actively backing: he has given her £15,000 since she was turned down for lottery funding in November last year. “I thought that was ridiculous,” says Wells. “The kid is so talented. So I told her: ‘I will be your National Lottery.’”
Liverpool-born Wells has made tens of millions as a businessman, but athletics runs deep in his veins. His maternal grandfather, Ernest Latimer Stones, was a pole-vaulter who won the 1889 British Championships with a jump of 3.53m (the current men’s world record is 6.18m). “They landed on sand, back then, not a cushion, and the metal pole didn’t bend,” he says. “My grandfather missed the first Olympics of 1896 by less than 10 years, even though it was won by a jump of a lower height.”
Wells never met his grandfather, but grew up with the stories and medals. At Merchant Taylors’ school, he ran the 100, 220 and 440 yard dashes, and competed in the relay event in the national championships. Not good enough to turn professional, he then made his fortune – as he puts it – “having creative ideas in insurance” then selling the companies on for a profit. In 2008, he sold his business PremierLine, to Allianz, for a sum of millions.
“I asked myself, what do I do next?” he says. “I’ve always planned not to go part-time until I’m 95, which is another 14 years from now.” Inspired by a trip to Beijing, he set up the Wells Foundation, which was rebranded in 2015 as the Barrie Wells Trust.
His wife, says Wells, “buys into all this absolutely”, as do his children, a son aged 46 and daughter aged 44 – he also has three grandchildren.
“I told my children, I’m going to give away your inheritance,” he says. “They didn’t mind at all. Matthew is a triathlete, so he understood entirely. Fiona, my daughter, said: ‘As long as there is a bit left for me.’”
Wells’ first “client” was Johnson-Thompson, of whom he was made aware at the age of 15. “But I couldn’t just turn up on her doorstep in a Bentley,” he says. Fellow Scousers, they hit it off: Wells calls her “The Kat”, which is how she signs her regular texts to him. He began by paying for her transport. “Kat had to carry six lots of equipment,” he says. “She had to take two buses to training after school, so I paid for to go by taxi.” When KJT turned 17, he funded her driving lessons and three-quarters of a car.
He’d take her to his box at Anfield, where he introduced her to friends as a “future world champion” – and sure enough, in Doha 2019, she obliged. Wells notes this victory as his highlight, both as an athletics fan and sponsor. “I’d known Kat for 11 years by then,” he says. “After every injury, everything else that’s happened to her before and since, that really stood out.”
KJT was rewarded by an introduction to the footballer Steven Gerrard, a treat Wells says took a year to arrange. He is known for his quirky post-victory gifts. When Ennis-Hill won the gold at the 2009 World Championships in Berlin, he promised her wagyu beef, a rare Japanese delicacy. “It comes from special cows who are fed beer and given massages and costs about £140 a plate,” he says. “I found and negotiated a restaurant that would open just for us.”
It’s not a one-way street: Wells athletes are expected to “give back” and do so with enthusiasm. “I told each of my 18 athletes in the run up to 2012 that they had to each give me six half days to go into schools and motivate kids,” he says. “They reached 30,000 children between them.”
Such charity endeavours now take up most of his time. In 2010, he launched Box4Kids – providing opportunities for seriously ill children to enjoy sporting and entertainment events from private boxes donated by the venues.
“The Jockey Club has given boxes at 14 race days, and we take 300 children a year to the Farnborough Air Show,” Wells says. “Some children recognise each other from when they were having chemotherapy on the same ward: now they see each other again in this wonderful environment. That gives me an enormous amount of pleasure.”
He believes that other benefactors should behave the same way: either in supporting sport, or a charity of their choice, so they can experience the same joy. “I was sitting on a big pile of money, and wanted something I could get really involved with,” he says. “What’s the point of dying rich?”