Ronald Atkin: Championing a good cause for 2012

'With child health and obesity problems, this could be saving tens of thousands of pounds 20 years down the road'
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The Independent Online

The initiative, titled Champion 2012, is the work of Westminster Council, offering primary-school children between the ages of nine and 11 the opportunity to develop skills in some of the lesser Olympic sports and, over the next seven years, become good enough to represent Britain when London hosts the Olympics.

Five sports were chosen by Westminster. Judo, fencing, canoeing and table tennis already have Olympic status, and although dance sport did not gain acceptance for London, it is hoping for 2016. There were two main reasons why these minority activities, rather than athletics and swimming, were selected: they do not require much space in existing facilities and, in the case of canoeing, there are enough canals, lakes and ponds in Westminster's 2,204 hectares to accommodate young beginners. And, being lesser sports, their governing bodies were more inclined to get behind the idea.

Belying Westminster Council's reputation for a harsh approach to social problems, the scheme is being targeted at the most deprived areas of a borough mistakenly assumed by the vast majority to extend not a lot further than Big Ben and Buckingham Palace. Two wards, Queens Park and Church Street, are the most deprived in all London, and it was at the Moberly Sports Centre in Queens Park that the 14 children were being coached in table tennis by Charles Ho.

The scheme, offering children coaching in after-school hours, was inaugurated two years ago and has brought an overwhelming response, with 26 of Westminster's primary schools providing more than 600 participants every week. The results have been spectacular, too. Ashley McKenzie, one of the early converts to judo, came third at the European Junior Championships in July, while St Joseph's, which two years ago did not even play table tennis, is now the best primary school in Middlesex County, and two 11-year-olds from the initiative are competing for Britain's Under-13 squad. To provide a development pathway, Champion 2012 is being extended into secondary schools, with plans also to set up after-school sports clubs.

With sufficient funding, the programme will be placed in all Westminster's schools by 2008. Though the sponsorship provided by the Mercers' Company of an annual £50,000 for the first two years is coming to an end, Westminster's Lord Mayor, Tim Joiner, himself a canoeist, is negotiating further backing from what are called "blue-chip companies". Sport England have been taking a close interest, while Government backing or Lottery funding are possibilities.

The award to London of the 2012 Olympics has provided a huge boost to the popularity of Champion 2012, but Sarah Richardson, the council's cabinet member for Leisure and Lifelong Learning, stressed: "The overriding ambition, to improve levels of fitness for young people and also to produce a Olympic champion for 2012, was already there. We hope to extend the scheme into other sports with more funding, because with present-day child health and obesity problems, this could be saving tens of thousands of pounds 20 years down the road."

Richard Shwe, head of the council's sports unit, is proud that Lord's is in his borough, but less happy that Westminster has only 33 sports clubs. All the more reason, then, for Shwe's happiness at the response from so many youngsters. "This initiative is about increasing participation," he said. "You don't have to be a sports jock to achieve. The dancers put on a performance in Leicester Square which was sensational."

If the thought of sub-teens in tuxedos and spangly dresses seems bizarre, Shwe reports that the children, spurred on by television's Strictly Come Dancing, are busy buying their own outfits and dance shoes. "It is proving a really good way of encouraging them to do something other kids can't. I thought dance sport wouldn't succeed, but I was wrong. This shows them there is more to music than rapping. You can't waltz to rap but you can tango, and I have seen it happening."

Is Shwe, then, looking forward to canoeing gold in 2012? "For us, success would be to get just one athlete from the 14,000 who will have gone through our scheme to compete for Britain at the 2012 Olympics. That would be an amazing achievement. And if he or she got to a final, that would be out of this world."

You have to hopethat there will be a medal to ensure that Champion 2012 has lived up to its name.