Scottish athletics is winning the battle to get school children back on track. Linda Low, athletics co-ordinator for Sportscotland, acknowledges there is still work to be done but is optimistic about the future of her sport. In her experience, she says, if children are given structured activities to do, they will respond.
Her remit covers introduction, participation and development, and there are initiatives in place which will identify talented youngsters and funnel them into enhanced coaching.
Scottish Athletics has set up major developments for under-17s and under-20s, which involve part-time co-ordinators supporting the best athletes and their coaches and regular squad sessions. Through sponsorship from the Bank of Scotland, there are opportunities for young athletes to travel to competitions and even to warm-weather training.
About 120 young athletes are currently involved in the scheme. A regional squad system supports it and feeds through the most promising athletes.
The Sportshall scheme, which has been running in Scotland for more than five years, has been important for increasing youth participation in athletics. It involves putting children through different disciplines in a game environment, helping them to develop basic athletics skills.
"The school children love it. It's a fun thing to be part of and it's indoors, which makes sense in this country," says Miss Low.
"It has been aimed at under-15 and under-13 levels so far, but now we want to take it into primary schools, as we have had such a good response.
"Schools are keen on it as it promotes good health. Now we have to look at ways of taking it forward so that schoolchildren can bridge the gap between Sportshall and more traditional track and field. We are still finding - as all the sports are - that there is a drop-off in interest among girls once they get to S2 level and that's something we have to address."
Miss Low is working with the new school sports co-ordinators who are being installed through National Lottery funding. There are now 213 employed throughout19 local authorities in Scotland, 15 more have been announced and Alastair Dempster, the chairman of Sportscotland, says every secondary school should have a co-ordinator within three years.
Scottish Athletics sees this as a significant development and has already seen the benefit in terms of participation levels.
"This is a huge benefit for us. There has always been a problem with giving athletes a high level of athletics at secondary school, due to the timing of the Standard grade and Higher Still exams," says Miss Low. "Schools co-ordinators can only help with structuring after-school activity. We are linking schools with clubs so that they have the benefit of coaching, and I think there is a better framework of coaches in place.
"We have to be careful that as we develop young athletes, the clubs have the facilities and coaches to take them on board and provide a pathway for them to progress.
"But I'm very upbeat about the future. The tide has turned and participation levels have increased, but we still have a long way to go."
Meg Stone, who was appointed as performance and excellence manager for Scottish Athletics just over a year ago through the Scottish Institute for Sport, links closely with Miss Low on developing athletes and is involved with the Bank of Scotland scheme. The former Miss Ritchie spent 18 years in the United States after competing successfully for Scotland and Great Britain. Now her focus is on the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, which she will use as a yardstick of progress for Scottish Athletics.
l Around 1,200 pupils took part in the the British Aerospace Primary School Cross-Country Championships at Kirkcaldy High school last month, down by about a third on the 1,800 that entered two years ago, but that was due to regional differences in school Easter holidays. The Scottish Schools' Athletic Association had to compromise on the date.
"It's just one of those things," says SSAA secretary Linda Trotter. "The entry nosedived because of the difficulties with the holidays. In a lot of cases we had to rely on parents bringing their children rather than teachers. But hopefully it's just a one-off and we'll be back to normal next year."