ATHLETICS: Base of the pyramid needs more support: League season starts with scramble for money

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DAVID JONES has hardly been off the phone this week. As team manager for Swansea Harriers, who compete in the Third Division match at Bracknell today on the opening day of the British Athletics League, it is his business to ensure the strongest possible turn-out.

With only six teams in each division, two of whom go up and two of whom go down, there is little margin for error; and as Jones well knows, a bad start creates pressure all season.

It is a time-consuming business. Jones, a 45-year-old research manager for British Steel in Port Talbot, spends around 20 hours a week on the Harriers' behalf. Unpaid, naturally. His devotion is matched by many other club managers and secretaries.

For the rank and file of the British athletics world, despite the recent convulsions at the top of their sport which have seen the two dominant figures, Andy Norman and Frank Dick, depart respective posts as promotions officer and coaching director, life goes on.

'We are the future of British athletics,' Jones said. 'Most international athletes come through the club structure. The British League is tremendous in terms of competition. Since we got back into Division Five of the league five years ago, our performances have improved enormously, and we have the same club members by and large.'

For all its strengths, however, the whole edifice of the league system is potentially threatened. A financial fault line runs under it.

While the British League has been nobly sponsored for the last 18 years by Guardian (formerly Guardian Royal Exchange) and the national under-17 and under-15 league has a three-year deal with McDonalds, there is no sponsorship for the UK Women's League, the Junior (under-21) League or the area leagues.

The British Athletic Federation is plugging the gap - last year it contributed pounds 110,000 in club and league grants. Considering that their total income was over pounds 6m, and that pounds 1.3m was spent on administration, the contribution appears conservative.

And even that amount could be under threat if the federation's financial position takes a further downturn after the battering the sport's image has taken in recent months.

What is the view from the Third Division? 'Like most other middle- of-the-road clubs, we are already struggling for cash,' says Jones, who estimates that Swansea Harriers have an annual shortfall of around pounds 1,000.

'I sometimes look at the vast amounts of money that some of our top athletes are getting to compete and I think, just one of those payments would be enough for us to run our British League side and our women's side and our youth side for the year.

'When you consider all the money that is coming into the sport, it is not spread out as much as it could be. It is the pyramid that is important. The broader the base of the pyramid, the higher it goes. If you start to starve the clubs of money - and we are half-starving now - you eventually starve the whole sport.'

Unsurprisingly in the circumstances, Jones views the idea mooted by the federation to provide alternative funds, a registration scheme requiring perhaps pounds 10 or pounds 15 a year from each competing athlete, as a potential disaster.

'It would be a form of taxation for athletes. If you are at my level, you are trying to persuade guys to compete. If you then say to them they have got to pay another pounds 5 or pounds 10 on top of their club subscription and their javelins or running shoes, you are starting to put them off.

'The board would be expecting us to become tax collectors. It could be the straw which breaks the camel's back.'

Roger Symons, chairman of the British Athletics League, believes the grass roots have not been unduly trampled on in recent months. 'We have a good and a happy sport, and we must not let the top level have any effect on spoiling it,' he said.

So on they go, at Bracknell, and Bournemouth, and Wigan, and Cannock, and Crystal Palace. The future of British athletics is alive and well but could do with more help with the bus money.