THE schools athletics championships, which put Paula Radcliffe on her track to stardom, face extinction because they cannot find a financial backer.
The English Schools Athletic Association needs to find pound;200,000 in the next nine months to ensure that its events, which include the cross-country championship, continue beyond 2004.
Paula Radcliffe, world marathon record holder, said: "The start these championships gave me when I was at school has helped me throughout my career."
More than 1,500 potential stars will take part in the English schools track and field championships next month at the Don Valley stadium in Sheffield.
The sports minister will be guest of honour.
But despite the Government's decision to back London's bid to host the 2012 Olympic games, it has so far refused to bail out the competition which has acted as a stepping stone for past champions.
A spokesman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said the sports governing body should bail out its schools counterpart. "If that competition is so vital then we would expect the money to come from the pound;40 million we are making available to UK athletics over the next five years," he said.
Olympic 1500m champions Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, triple jump gold medalist Jonathan Edwards and 400m hurdler Sally Gunnell are all past winners at the track and field championships.
Sally Gunnell said the event gave most international athletes their first experience of a major event. "I was among the many who benefited," she said.
And Jonathan Edwards said: "Without this championship I probably would not be an athlete today."
The schools athletic association has been without a sponsor for six years after its previous arrangement with the former TSB bank ended. It has failed to win lottery funding that is reserved for spending on infrastructure, and has also been overlooked when funding for school sports was allocated by ministers.
The track and field championships cost the association about pound;100,000 per year. Other competitions include a track and field cup for teams from individual schools.
The association's David Littlewood warned that the loss of the national championships could prove the thin end of a larger wedge.
About 40,000 young people will this year take part in county-level school athletics competitions in England.
But many of the county associations which run them are also mired in financial difficulties, with some reporting they cannot afford to send teams to Sheffield.
"The situation is desperate. It is a very depressing picture," said Mr Littlewood.