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In hot pursuit of the athletic elite

. . . Nicholas Pyke visits a borough trying to encourage grassroots sport whose efforts are to be rewarded with Pounds 3m of lottery cash.

The London borough of Hackney may be one of the poorest places in Britain, but it has its middle classes too; and they know a good deal when they see one. Four days of coaching with an Olympic decathlete and two national-level performers, all for Pounds 17.50, is certainly a bargain.

It is also cheaper than a child-minder, as one of the staff from Hackney's sports development team put it. A little cynically perhaps, as few, if any, of this well-spoken gang of children were there unwillingly. Far from it. They sustained an improbable level of enthusiasm as the tatty grandeur of the local Clissold park baked brown in one of the hottest days so far.

Many, in fact, are serial schemers and have attended football, water-sports and basketball already. Like they did the year before.

This week the theme is athletics, a sport with a strong and ever more lucrative national profile. Yet the simple help on offer with putting the red and yellow shots, or scaling the gaudy foam hurdles is sadly rare, says guest coach Greg Richards.

He had a small taste of life at the top representing Britain as a decathlete at the Seoul Olympics, and has just returned from coaching at the World Championships.

But the money now pumped in at the glam end of athletics, he says, has bypassed the basics of the sport, children in particular. If anything, life for the average would-be sportsperson has become harder with a few top clubs increasingly the preserve of the well-known. Twenty years ago, local kids could pop over the fence to have a go for themselves. Now, perhaps understandably, they are told to get lost.

Athletics in Hackney has long been in a weak position. There is no major athletics centre, let alone a prestigious club such as Haringey in the neighbouring borough. Moreover, according to Ricci de Freitas, Hackney's assistant director of education and leisure, large proportions of the borough's population, particularly minority groups, do not use such facilities as do exist. Hackney's reputation was not helped when it withdrew its schools from London-wide competition, complaining about elitism.

But things are looking up. Hackney is competing again and one of its schools, Homerton House, is national champion in both hockey and basketball. The council is trying to create specialist centres or "academies" for these sports on the school site.

And now plans to build the Pounds 4.8 million New Clissold Sports Centre, adjacent to the park, have been backed with nearly Pounds 3m of National Lottery money, theoretically providing just the sort of focal point now lacking.

It could be a giant stride, says Greg Richards, providing the major clubs join in. With schools hot on participation but low on time and coaching skill, it is up to them to help sustain the sport at its roots.

Three days a week he gives up mornings or evenings to work with promising pupils - for no money, the standard basis on which British athletics has worked for years.

"There's so much talent in this borough, it's unbelievable," he says. "But where can they develop? I see a lot of kids and I just know they'd be good if they were given the opportunity."

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