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Fears for young athletes' safety

National sporting ambitions are being put before the interests of children, says risk expert

Britain risks sacrificing the safety of its elite child athletes in a bid to recover its lost sporting reputation, international sports officials will be told.

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children says it is investigating complaints of harm to children at football academies or national sporting academies.

Professor Celia Brackenridge, a leading child safety expert and former Great Britain lacrosse captain, will warn that national sporting ambitions are being put ahead of children's interests.

Sexual violence, physical and verbal abuse, doping, child trafficking and intense over-training have tarred the image of youth sports in other countries - but all of them occur in Britain too, she says.

Professor Brackenridge is working with UNICEF to identify the extent of violence suffered by child athletes around the world. She is to address a sports conference in Hong Kong next week, attended by Beijing Olympics organisers.

She will tell them that training delivered to hundreds of thousands of UK sports coaches has improved child welfare. "However, some elite coaches and some sport managers have been reluctant to accept these measures, arguing that they interfere with performance goals," she will say.

The British Government is seeking to recover its "lost reputation in the global sporting landscape" through the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics, she says, but there are hazards for the elite child athlete. Professor Brackenridge led a study that revealed that 41 per cent of young club footballers suffered verbal bullying, and 23 per cent physical bullying.

As a result, the Football Association is to put child welfare officers in every county FA, The TES has learned. It will also extend a scheme that requires clubs to provide a designated child welfare person and to put all staff through Criminal Records Bureau checks. Nearly 30,000 of the country's 38,000 football clubs will be expected to meet that standard by 2012.

Professor Margaret Talbot, chief executive of the Association for Physical Education, said that teachers were sometimes concerned about their pupils' health and safety when they were headhunted for sporting academies.

"PE teachers are in a dilemma," she said. "They want their children to do well, but they also have their wellbeing at heart."

The NSPCC has commissioned research into the prevalence of abuse of children in elite sports, said Steve Boocock, director of the organisation's sport unit.

"Some sports have applied their adult development programmes to children, without recognising their physical and physiological needs."

Derby County, the Premiership football club, has 130 boys signed up to its academy.

Kevin Thelwell, the academy manager, said that football academies in England observed FA rules to prevent pupils from over-exercising - even though those limits might reduce the country's competiveness.

He said sports scientists believed a young person needed to practice for 10,000 hours - equivalent to 20 hours a week for 10 years. But his academy was careful not to let pupils practice that much, obeying the FA limit of 30 games a season.

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