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Athletics: Cash-stricken BAF asks amateurs to save jobs

Mike Rowbottom reports from Birmingham on the desperate plight of Britain's national athletics federation
To judge by the low key event it staged with such obstinacy at the Alexander Stadium yesterday and the day before, the Amateur Athletic Association is a body of waning power.

Appearances can be deceptive. Despite splitting its championships from the British Athletic Federation trials this year in acrimonious circumstances, the AAA of England now finds itself in a position to name its own terms, because it has something the sport's umbrella body is in desperate need of: money.

The BAF, which lost half a million pounds last year, has reached financial crisis. It is reported that a loan of pounds 500,000 is due to be repaid by the end of the month; now BAF has appealed to its bitter rival to bail it out until the pounds 1.4m of Lottery money it has been promised has been freed by the Sports Council.

"We can't let these championships die, and we can't let BAF die," Geoff Clarke, the AAA treasurer, said.

Clarke would not be drawn on what conditions the AAA - which has reserves approaching pounds 2m - might exact when their management committee meets on Saturday to sanction an offer of financial support. But other sources suggest the AAA's price would be the continuation of a separate championship - distinct from the main BAF trials - and permission to negotiate its own television rights.

Thus the fault line which currently runs through the sport will stretch on into the future. Next year, the AAA will hold its own England trials for the Commonwealth Games just three weeks before the BAF trials to select Britain's European Championship team.

According to a BAF spokesperson, the AAA have been asked to save the jobs of a number of development officers and all five national coaches. Without immediate assistance, Richard Lease, Bruce Longdon, Carl Johnson, Peter Warden and Richard Simmons would all face redundancy next month. The AAA have also been asked to underwrite administration costs.

The departure of Peter Radford as the BAF's executive chairman has done something to ease relations between the two bodies, but Clarke was scathing yesterday about BAF's financial management.

In 1991, the AAA - which, apart from times of war, has staged its own championships every year since 1880 - had reserves of pounds 2.5m. When BAF was set up in 1993, it took half of that amount, and 50 per cent of any subsequent surplus.

"BAF spent half a million on leasing its headquarters, Clarke said. "Other than that, they have lived beyond their means."

He criticised the payment of large salaries, such as the pounds 70,000 per annum that Radford received, and extra expenditure on forward planning. "The crunch has finally come," he added. "England has no alternative but to save British athletics. Nobody is prepared to say they have made a balls-up. But they have.

"It was suddenly dropped on us out of the blue. But we are not so bitter or so twisted that we won't help."

The AAA also maintains it has no alternative but to hold the Commonwealth trials in the first week of July. The Commonwealth Games Council for England needs early selections in order to organise attendance at a pre-Games holding camp being set up in Penang, near Kuala Lumpur.

BAF needs to hold its trials at the end of July, before the European Championships start in Budapest on 15 August.

Holding two trials within three weeks of each other is something which is bound to cause widespread dismay in the sport.

"It's deadly," said the national sprint coach, Richard Simmons, who will join the British Olympic Association this autumn. "It would be crazy to have two trials so close together. It is forcing athletes to decide between the Europeans and the Commonwealths. "The athletes should come first, and not be disadvantaged by having to fit into someone's timetable."

The timing of these Championships - which received 11th hour support from View From - could hardly have been worse, coming as they did at the tail end of the season and clashing with Sunday's UK Women's League matches, the World Student Games and BAF team visits to Switzerland and Germany.

A gathering of little more than a thousand purists witnessed a meeting which must have been a sweet reminder to some of the old AAA guard present of how things used to be before the days of appearance fees and shoe contracts

The view from the stand was less than captivating. Few top ranking athletes were present, and those who were - such as Angie Thorp, Judy Oakes - who earned a record 15th AAA title - and Robert Weir encountered little opposition.

Steve Halls and Cathy Beeson, who have attended every AAA Championships for the last 10 years, were less than impressed. "Even we are struggling with some of the names today," said Halls.

Ian Cross, who had brought his wife and three daughters from Northallerton to watch, said he was disappointed at the way the championships had been split from the trials.

"It makes it very difficult for people who want to follow the sport," he said. "It means an extra weekend away. This internal tussle between the AAA and BAF is not going to help anyone."