The future of international competitions for young athletes is in grave danger as the national associations face financial crisis. It could even dash our Olympic hopes, writes Roddy Mackenzie
The future of the annual athletics internationals between Scotland, England, Ireland and Wales are in serious doubt because of lack of finance.
The schools' athletic associations of Scotland, England and Wales have all experienced financial difficulties in recent months and there is no sign of the situation easing. While all of the countries are committed to ensuring the international fixtures go ahead in 2003-04, there is a question mark over what happens after that.
The Schools Pentathlon International Championships will take place at Glasgow's Kelvin Hall on December 13 and the two other major international events - the cross-country championships in Irvine and the track and field championships in Wales - will take place in March and July.
Last season, Wales decided to pull out of the Pentathlon International as the Welsh Schools' Athletic Association could not afford the cost of a bus to bring athletes north to compete, but a private company, Gordon Woodlands, which sponsors the Scottish Schools' Athletic Association, came to the rescue at the last minute. This allowed the event to go ahead with a full complement of competing countries. However, it highlighted how difficult the associations were finding it to make ends meet.
The WSAA has now secured additional funding from the Welsh Assembly and Ireland is financially secure because it has a major sponsor. But Scotland and England face some tough decisions if the situation does not ease.
"Our domestic events will still be OK as they more or less break even," says Linda Trotter, secretary of the SSAA, "but it is the international fixtures that are causing concern.
"This is likely to be the last year of the pentathlon international unless a sponsor can be found.
"The international events are very expensive to put on and none of the four countries has a major sponsor apart from Ireland.
"We have been assured by Scottish Athletics that there is money there if we need it, which is reassuring, but they have their own money crisis just now, so we just don't know."
The SSAA has limited sponsorship from Gordon Woodlands but the deal is in its final year and attempts to attract a major sponsor have been fruitless so far.
The English Schools' Athletic Association has posted an appeal for donations and sponsors on its website, in which distance runner Paula Radcliffe says: "The start the English Schools' (Athletic Association) gave me when I was at school has helped me all the way through my career."
The ESAA points out that the Great Britain Olympic team in Sydney in 2000 boasted no fewer than 34 former English schools' champions.
ESAA treasurer Laurie Alcock admits there is a cloud of uncertainty hanging over the future of the association. He says it has been digging into its reserves for the past six years but the money will not last beyond 2004-05.
Schools athletics enjoyed considerable sponsorship in the 1980s and 1990s by the Dairy Council and the TSB and the ESAA was able to filter down pound;1,500 of support to each county every year. Those days are long gone.
"We've still been able to go to the three home countries internationals - the summer track and field event, the cross-country and the pentathlon event - but we've not been able to attend International Schools Federation events for the past six years."
With the Government now making more of a contribution to school sport through the Youth Sport Trust and with the schools sports co-ordinator programme, there is renewed hope that the financial situation will ease, but nothing is being assumed.
"When push comes to shove, the first thing that would go would be the international programme. There's no doubt about that," Mr Alcock says.
"While it is important to give young athletes the chance of international competition, our domestic programme has to be protected first.
"The one factor in our favour is that, with the Government supporting the 2012 Olympic bid, many of the athletes who will compete then are still in school now. If the current structure is taken away, where does it leave Great Britain?"
When the British Athletics Federation went into receivership in 1997 after the court case involving England's former 800m Commonwealth champion Diane Modahl, the schools associations were forced to become independent and be run as charities. This means there is no protection from the governing body if there is ever a financial shortfall.
"None of the associations can incur debt as they are registered charities," explains Mr Alcock. "As treasurer of the ESAA, I'd be personally liable.
"If one of the schools associations runs out of money, we would need to assess the situation and whether it is worth keeping the international programme with three countries, or maybe even only two.
"Our aim is to give schoolchildren their first experience of international competition and give them the first step on the ladder.
"There is a lot of will to ensure the survival of schools athletics but how it happens and how it is organised are the big issues.
"If the senior athletics body allows the schools associations to cease to exist because of the financial situation, it would lose the broad base of volunteers who keep athletics going at schools level. They have been the cornerstone of schools athletics."