School Sport: Games the Government cast adrift

Caborn stands accused as popular Panathlon is forced to face its last hurrah
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The Independent Online

Some of Britain's putative 2012 Olympians are displaying their athletics potential in the English Schools Track and Field Championships in Gates-head this weekend. It is an event which has been saved by the bell, which otherwise would have tolled for the last lap. The rescuers are Sainsbury's, their three-year, six-figure sponsorship secured at the behest of the Sports Minister, Richard Caborn.

Similarly the first UK School Games, to be held in Glasgow in September, now have a long-term future, the Youth Sports Trust having been awarded funding to organise them until 2011, the year before the London Olympics.

They are backed by £6 million from the Government, £1.5m from the Lottery and sponsorship from Visa. In both cases Caborn brought in Fast Track, the promotional organisation run by the former Olympic athlete Alan Pascoe, to help set up the deals. Good thinking.

It seems a shame, though, that the minister could not have given a little more thought to helping to save another inspirational schools event, the popular Panathlon Challenge, which now seems likely to be held for the last time next weekend, having run out of cash since their commercial backers, Royal & SunAlliance, pulled out three years ago.

This is a terrific enterprise which gives school-kids, many from deprived backgrounds and inner-city areas, the opportunity to compete as teams in Olympic-style multi-sports events throughout the year. It has involved more than a quarter of a million youngsters in competitive schools sport.

After we revealed its plight in these pages in April, the minister went on BBC Five Live and promised to do his utmost to find sponsorship and financial support. The result? Zilch. Not a penny. Not even a meeting or a phone call with the Panathlon people. Understandably, they are not alone in believing they have been let down.

John Hymers, the Pan-athlon chairman, says that letters to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport have remained unanswered; this despite him having sent a petition with more than 5,000 signatures from teachers, parents and school-children pleading for the event to be saved. "This lack of response seems very unprofessional," says Hymers. "Either that or they couldn't care less."

Ashley Iceton, an able young man who does a brilliant job in almost single-handedly organising the Panathlon, is set to be made redundant at the end of July unless some financial succour can be unearthed. Perhaps the minister or one his minions would care to pay a visit to the sports complex at Liverpool John Moores University on Saturday to see 500 youngsters from five schools in Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Plymouth and London (represented by Hackney Free from the 2012 Olympic heartland) compete in the 10th, and almost certainly, last Panathlon final.

This comprises nine disciplines: badminton, basketball, chess, cycling, football, netball, orienteering, athletics and table tennis - a broader range than the forthcoming UK School Games. It also embraces a Fair Play Charter which every contestant must sign, promoting sportsmanship and good conduct.

The Panathlon is also the holder of the Sportsmatch Award for the Best Sports Disability Scheme - presented by the minister himself in 2003. It was also named last year by the London Development Agency as the Community Organisation of the Year.

Why the Panathlon should now be left to founder is hard to fathom. Could it be that it does not fit into the Government's grand design for school sports, or is seen as an irritating distraction with the advent of the Chancellor's new baby, which he mistakenly called the Schools Olympics when he announced the funding?

In Glasgow, hundreds of youngsters will compete as regional teams over four days, mirroring the Oly-mpics with opening and closing ceremonies and village life. The Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, says: "These are part of our Olympic dream, building on the rebirth of competitive sport in schools across the country." Fine. But the Panathlon has also has been doing that for a decade.

So it is curious that similar efforts have not been made by the Government to help find a backer, or infuse a fraction of the cash now going the way of the Youth Sports Trust for something equally worthy. One wonders why.