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Athletics: Young athletes face tough road to recognition

"See where they're standing?" Les Mars said, as the Under-17 girls prepared for their sprint relay at Sunday's UK Athletics Young Athletes League meeting. "Back from the line. See? That's where I tell my girls to stand, so they are already accelerating when they take the baton."

The girls in question represent Enfield and Haringey Athletics Club, event hosts for the day, and Mars, the club's sprint coach, hopes they might challenge the national age record of 48.9sec. The weather - leaden sky and a chill wind at the New River Stadium - is against it.

But the talent of the Enfield and Haringey quartet - 15-year-olds Rachel Telfer and Tanine Nicholas and Mars's 14-year-old twins, Shadein and Shaliena - offers a tantalising possibility. After all, two weeks earlier they had set the fastest time of the young season with 50 seconds dead.

As British athletics struggles to put its house in order, these young athletes are the reason the sport must get it right. Should London secure the 2012 Olympics, they could be running on home ground at the peak of their careers.

Running should be simple for them. But it isn't. Even if the sport sorts itself out at national and regional level, there remain local political problems which could yet hamper them.

Club vice-president Michael Spinks, whose bid in The Independent's auction earned the Hope for Africa appeal a tidy sum and secured the services of a sportswriter and photographer for the day, explains.

Enfield and Haringey have been offered first option to use the High Performance Centre to be built at Pickett's Lock with funds offered by the Government to help ease the pain of the aborted bid for the 2005 World Championships. But not all of the club's 500 members could be accommodated at Pickett's Lock, and their old base at Enfield's Queen Elizabeth II Stadium, still used for training, is being increasingly run down by the local council.

Competitively, the club is flying. The men were second in the opening British League fixture on Saturday. The boys team has won the Young Athletes title every year since the Enfield and Haringey merger five years ago and the U20s have been champions three years running.

But Enfield and Haringey AC is still without an obvious home. Two years ago its main clubhouse at Enfield was firebombed by vandals, and although insurance money is available the local council is only prepared to offer a short lease on a new building. Would it be worth putting another clubhouse up in Enfield? Time will tell - but time is also pressing. A decision on Pickett's Lock needs to be made within three weeks. What will give Spinks enduring hope for his club, however, is the patent dedication of these young athletes.

In what Mars acknowledges is a "tough community", the sprinters turn up four times a week, encouraging each other to stay the course. That is the bond which ensures the continuing presence of talents such as Luke Fagan, winner of the U17 100m, and runner-up David Telfer, Rachel's twin.

Rachel, studying for nine GCSEs, knows the benefits of such commitment. "I think it's good discipline," she said. "I feel good about it because I know I'm keeping healthy and competing, and getting noticed."

"The society out there doesn't know that this is happening," said Mars as he waited for the relay time. "It's a shame. A real shame." Then official word arrived. "49.9," Mars said. "A second off. I tell you, later in the season, as soon as the sun is shining, that will go. We will smash it to smithereens."