In December 2006, UK:Athletics released its annual report outlining targets for 2007, among of which was to treble the participation in grassroots Athletics by 2012. However, is this a realistic objective? Traditionally, Athletics has had a large following, though the rise in popularity of sports such as Football, Rugby, Tennis etc, has resulted in a reduced interest in Athletics. With the London Olympics approaching, it is the job of the National Governing Bodies (NGB's) to revitalize the sport, and raise the profile of Athletics once more.
The first challenge for the sports leading NGB, UK:Athletics, is to increase participation at grassroots level. Steps were taken to address this issue in early April of this year, when Norwich union, the leading sponsor, extended it's commitment to UK:Athletics until 2012, in a deal worth nearly £50m. It is estimated that as a result of this increased investment, over 10 million children will be involved in various grassroots schemes by 2012. This deal will also allow investment in training for over 100,000 teachers in over 5,000 secondary and 20,000 primary schools, through the installment of a new teaching resource - 'Elevating Athletics'. This new resource, coupled with an extensive teacher training program will further contribute to the Government's vision of delivering more high quality athletics to schoolchildren. This initiative is also hoped to strengthen links between local clubs and schools, which is a fundamental factor in raising grassroot participation.
Current UK:Athletics grassroots schemes - shine:awards, star:track and sports:hall, all of which were acknowledged as being an integral part of the 11% rise in grassroot athletics participation in 2005, will all be developed and extended to reach even more youngsters across Britain in the coming years.
Once the Grassroot schemes are in place, the talented athlete must be provided with effective pathways to furthering their athletics careers. Figure 1 illustrates the basic pathway to junior international selection. There are many schemes currently set to be developed, to then take these junior international athletes to a world level. Firstly, as part of the UK:Athletics restructure during 2006, five Event Management Groups (EMG) have been put in place to control a significant budget and directly manage Athletes and Coaches who are performing at a prescribed level. This helps to offer elite performers direction and finical support.
A second scheme that has been set up was the appointment of four athlete mentors to assist current senior and junior athletes in their long term preparation for major championships and their lives as professional athletes. The appointment of the four mentors, Daley Thompson, Linford Christie, Steve Backley and Katharine Merry, is an integral part of the overall Performance vision of UK:Athletics and will help potential international athletes to gain the experience needed to compete at a world level.
In April 2006, The World Class Development programme was put in place. The programme caters for athletes who are within three to six years of reaching a World or Olympic podium. Athletes deemed closer to podium are normally funded at 'A' level. 'B' and 'C' level funding is issued to athletes 5 to 6 years from the podium. This funding allows athletes the finical support needed to compete on the world stage.
Besides UK:Athletics, there are numerous other NGB's that help govern athletics. The English Schools Athletics Association (ESAA), works with UK:Athletics to promote the enjoyment of athletics in schools, and grassroot athletics. It achieves this by organising some of the premier events in the Country, and by running an award scheme for school pupils of all ages.
England Athletics, previously called the Amateur Athletics Association, governs athletics in England alone, as oppose to the UK. Its 2007 'mission statement' is 'To increase the capacity of the sport and improve performance in every event at every age group and in every region.' England athletics receives the majority of its funding from sport England. Sport England recently provided more than £670,000 for a programme designed to get more people active and promote athletics at community and school level (grassroots). The funding was used to improve eight athletics facilities across England, under the Community Athletics Refurbishment Programme (CARP). This sum represents the final instalment of funding that has successfully invested in the upgrading and renewal of 87 community athletics tracks and stadiums across England.
The new Active People survey - released on the 7th December 2006 by Sport England - showed that only one in ten women (9%) take part in competitive sport, compared to one in five men (22%). However, Athletics is not reflective of this national trend. According to the UK:Athletics 2006 annual report, only 2.3% more males compete in athletics. Men and women are given the same recognition and are seen as equally successful. Indeed, the women's GB team has been significantly more successfully over the past 4 years at the European and World Cross-country championships. Such role models as Paula Radcliffe, Sally Gunnell and Donna Frasier have been able to inspire young female athletes to get involved in the sport.
In 2006 Athletics as a sport had the largest participation of paraplegic sportspeople in grassroot activities; almost 13% more disabled people participated in athletics than wheelchair basketball this year. This was as a result of a £16million investment from Disability Sport England that helped put in pace several regional centres that specialized in catering for disabled sportspeople, including the Picketts Lock athletics stadium. The investment in grassroots disabled athletics was a necessary requirement, given that the British Paralympics team in Sydney 2000 was 38.
Norwich Union, through its partnership with WheelPower, is also funding a series of events throughout the UK to engage children in grassroots wheelchair sport, including athletics.
In 2007, Ian Brittain, manager of the UK Athletics disability sub group, stated that he intends to allow the 22 part time disabled athletics development officers become full-time employees, and create full-time Disability Athletics development officer position in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.' These changes will help build upon the Paralympics success in 2004, where the British team finished second in the medals table to USA.
To conclude, it is clear that the prospect of hosting the Olympic Games in six years time has increased the funding and support of athletics, which can then be invested in grassroots athletics, facilities and the development of pathways for talented athletes to reach the top. However, the main criticism of the current system is that it fails to offer sufficient support to athletes finishing their education, and are considering professions. Money has to be in place to allow these athletes to become professional sportspeople. The reality is, however, that it is financially impossible to become a professional athlete with the funding provided by sports England alone.