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Youth athletics in race for cash

A major youth athletics competition that acted as a springboard to international success for gold medallists Paula Radcliffe and and Sebastian Coe is under threat after failing to find a new sponsor.

The English Schools Athletics Championships, which took place last weekend in Gateshead, has been told by accountants it only has enough money to last until Christmas next year.

The games have struggled since sponsors TSB Bank pulled out after merging with Lloyds in 1995.

A vital platform for future Olympic athletes will disappearif the event folds, says the English Schools Athletics Association which has run the competition for 74 years.

The fear was highlighted as Britain announced the smallest Olympic athletics squad in 28 years for the games in Athens next month.

Limited funds to keep the championship alive have been pledged by the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers and UK Athletics, the sport's governing body, is also expected to announce support.

At last weekend's gathering 1,700 youngsters aged between eight and 19 from nearly 800 schools took part in a variety of athletic competitions.

But Edna Beveridge, chair of the association, said unless a major sponsor came forward soon the future of the event was in doubt. She said that pound;250,000 a year was needed and that it was wrong such a prestigious event was struggling when ministers were emphasising the benefits of exercise and warning of increased obesity.

The association has appointed a marketing expert from the British Heart Foundation on a voluntary basis to help highlight its plight.

* Paula Radcliffe and sprinter Darren Campbell are among a number of athletes lending support to a campaign promoting drug-free sport to schoolchildren.

The drive, called Start Clean, was launched this week by UK Sport and aims to encourage youngsters to believe in their natural abilities instead of relying on performance enhancements.

Ms Radcliffe said: "We need to continue to test rigorously and punish those who are shown to be taking banned substances. We need to ensure that young athletes who are just starting out also get the message, whatever the sport in which they compete."

The programme is backed by a website containing guidance to youngsters and teachers on promoting drug-free sport.

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