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Future stars in need of sponsors

The next generation of Olympic stars was to be seen in Sheffield at the weekend. Almost every top athlete - including Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram - has taken part in the English Schools' Athletics Association championship, and this year there were 1,650 potential stars to spot.

This year - the 67th championship, and the last under its major sponsor - the top counties were Essex, Staffordshire and Cumbria.

Jodie Swallow, from Essex, and Staffordshire-based Matthew Sutton, are two of the many stars to keep an eye on.

Jodie, 16, repeated her last year's success by winning the 3000m intermediate girls' title in a personal best of nine minutes, 47.84 seconds. She is awaiting her GCSE results from Coopers' Company and Coborn, a grant-maintained school in Upminster, which attracts youngsters keen on sport. Jodie is also a swimming champion and has already represented England in both disciplines. She hopes to go to a university with good sporting facilities, perhaps in America.

Matthew, 15, from Codsall High School near Wolverhampton, was the intermediate champion hammer thrower with a 63.30 metre shot for Staffordshire. Matthew, who won the junior championship last year, wants to go on to do something involving PE.

The championship is a masterpiece of organisation, all done by volunteers. It involves 105 track and 45 field competitions for 12 to 19-year-olds in running; hurdles; high, long, and triple jump; pole vault; javelin; shot putt, hammer and discus. The competitors are drawn from around 150,000 pupils in 44 counties.

David Littlewood, secretary of the association, said: "This entails a massive amount of goodwill on the part of schools because they have to cover for absent colleagues." At least 400 local teachers and a similar number of pupil helpers take part, as do 160 technical officials and 300 team managers.

This year's finals were particularly fraught as they had to be re-arranged at the last minute. Each region takes turns to organise the event; planning begins three years in advance. But the West Midlands found that its stadium was double-booked, so South Yorkshire, last year's hosts, stepped into the breach just before Christmas.

Almost the final straw, according to Mr Littlewood, was a concert at the Sheffield stadium. The rubbish left behind by 48,000 Michael Jackson fans had to be cleared before volunteers could begin to organise the course on Thursday morning - 14 days' work was completed in under 48 hours.

Apart from that, accommodation had to be found for 2,000 people. In the past, athletes have stayed with local families, but now parents are reluctant to let children stay with strangers, so they usually go to halls of residence, said Mr Littlewood.

This costs the association an extra Pounds 70,000 to Pounds 80,000. It gets no money from either the Government, the Sports Council or the National Lottery, but only from its sponsor of six years, TSB, which is pulling out in December. "A great blow," said the secretary. "We are looking for a new sponsor as we need Pounds 300,000 a year, otherwise we will have to reduce our services and scholarships to the counties."

Costs to the athletes to take part in the championships vary around the country. Richer county organisations might charge a nominal Pounds 25 but others more than Pounds 70. But parental support is one of the main keys to success, as Jodie Swallow and Matthew Sutton would testify.

Her parents spend about Pounds 5,000 a year on hotels and travelling, she reckoned. Matthew's family help with specialist coaching and weekly trips to Perry Vale stadium in West London for winter training.

Derek Redmond, the middle-distance Olympic runner, gave competitors encouragement. "I entered these championships twice, it's the biggest thing I ever competed in, and I never won. So don't give up."

* Havering narrowly beat Redbridge, last year's winners, in the London Heathrow Youth Games held at Crystal Palace last weekend. Dubbed the "Mini Olympics", the event attracted more than 10,000 youngsters representing 33 London boroughs in 35 sports.

Havering girls' football team won the Key Squad award for outstanding effort for coming 5th-22 places higher than last year. Tony Banks, the sports minister, attended the opening ceremony and, despite his suit, joined in an aerobic warm-up session with 3,000 children.

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