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Primary Education News
News After the Olympic glory, cash crisis hits athletics clubs
Membership is rising but funds are drying up at the grassroots, where coaches see Olympic legacy fading
The Olympic triumphs of Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis and other British stars have inspired a new interest in athletics, with clubs reporting record numbers of new members. Last year, the number of athletes over the age of 11 affiliated to English clubs rose by almost 10,000, to 130,000 – but an investigation by the Observer reveals that many of those clubs are facing a crisis as their funds run dry.
The latest Active People survey, published by Sport England, the quango responsible for allocating lottery money, shows that two million adults now take part in athletics for at least 30 minutes a week. However, if you speak to people in the lower levels of the sport, a less rosy picture emerges. Many of the clubs, the incubators that produce the future Farahs and Ennises, are struggling.
Most have always operated on a shoestring, relying on the goodwill of volunteers to keep them going, but there are concerns that money and volunteers are disappearing just when they are needed most. Last month Belgrave Harriers, which is based in south-west London – the Manchester United of athletics clubs – withdrew from the British Athletics League, saying that it was unable to find a suitable volunteer manager. Pointedly, the club said that the move would help it to save thousands of pounds.
"The issue for most athletics clubs after the 2012 Games is that interest has undoubtedly increased," said Tony Shiret, the chair of the England Athletics council for London, the body representing the capital's clubs and volunteers. "But the clubs have been underfunded for a very long time, the political will to support them has been lacking and the national governing bodies continue to be uninterested in volunteer-based clubs.
"In addition, tracks tend to be expensive to maintain and are increasingly seen as marginal in terms of fund allocation by cash-strapped councils."
The imminent closure of the Don Valley stadium in Sheffield has crystallised funding concerns. Cwmbran stadium in Wales has fallen into disrepair. This year Mansfield Harriers, in Nottinghamshire, has been forced to leave the stadium that it used for half a century, following a financial dispute with trustees.
Marshall Milton Keynes athletic club, which produced long-jump Olympic gold medallist Greg Rutherford, used to receive a £15,000 grant to manage its track at a local school, but funding cuts have led to this being reduced to less than £11,000. "After Greg's success, we have been working with the council and Sport England to try to raise £700,000 to build the Greg Rutherford Indoor Centre, a multi-purpose sports hall," said Mick Bromilow, the club's chairman. The club hopes the centre will be built within the next year, but it has been forced to make cutbacks in the interim. "For the last eight years, we employed a coach to work in schools with teachers and students to develop athletics skills. Until the beginning of 2012, this was a full-time post, funded in part by working with the School Sports Partnerships. We have had to reduce his commitment to two days a week for the last 15 months after that funding dried up. We are hopeful that the new sports funding of £150m a year from September for primary schools will allow us to employ him full-time again."
Chris Jones, the chief executive of England Athletics, the sport's governing body, disagrees with those who claim that there was little preparation to help the clubs cope after the Games. "The hosting of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games provided a unique and tremendous opportunity for athletics clubs in England and we have not been disappointed with the outcomes," he said.
"England Athletics worked to support clubs as they prepared for the huge increase in interest in athletics due to the 2012 Games. Throughout the period 2009-13, the work to increase readiness benefited greatly from Sport England funding."
Indeed, between 2009 and 2013, England Athletics established 52 networks to promote grassroots athletics. Each received between £20,000 and £30,000 a year. But this is now being cut to a maximum of £10,000 per network and will end in 2015. Sponsorship is another concern. McCain, the frozen-food company, has confirmed that it will not renew its five-year deal, that led to £5m being invested in the lower levels of the sport, when it expires this year.
Aviva, the insurance giant and main supporter of athletics in Britain, chose not to continue its own sponsorship deal when it expired in 2012.
Last year, in an attempt to generate income, England Athletics proposed a fourfold increase in members' annual club fees, from £5 a year to £20. However, the move provoked accusations that the organisation was seeking to "bleed the grassroots" and led it to institute a more modest increase, to £10. But this is not uncontroversial. "Before [the fee rise] the under-11s didn't have to pay; now it will be £10 for everyone," said Martin Smith, the treasurer at Droitwich athletics club, whose track has no floodlights, something that makes it unusable on winter nights. The fees to sit for senior coaching qualifications were also raised several years ago, from £170 to £365. The result was that only 300 coaches received senior-level qualifications in the first three years that the scheme ran.
As a result of the coaching shortage, well-run clubs are becoming the victims of their success. Highgate Harriers,correct which won the London Metropolitan cross-country league for the first time this year, has had to introduce a waiting list for children wanting to join.
Across the sport, there is the sense of a missed opportunity. "Our coaches and volunteers get no contributions for the time, effort or mileage they put in," said Iain Presnell, the chairman of Tonbridge athletics club, who estimates that his volunteer role costs him up to £3,000 a year in petrol and phone calls. "The Olympics has made little if any difference to the club as a whole. Numbers are up, but were rising anyway. The general feeling is that there is no Olympic legacy and, with the future of several local tracks under threat, this doesn't look likely to change."