The English Schools Athletic Association again finds itself without a sponsor and in financial crisis as its centenary anniversary looms, writes Chris Cohen

Schools Athletics is rightly held to be a hugely important part of the landscape of the sport in England and across the UK. The centenary of the English Schools Athletic Association (ESAA) is fast approaching, having been founded in 1925 by foresighted teachers and with the support of members of parliament, aristocrats and even a future king. The Duke of York, later to become King George VI, was the first President of the organisation and took an active part in its founding, with Lords Desborough, Lonsdale, Castlerosse and Percy as Vice Presidents. Although we no longer have royal patronage, the Association is still entirely volunteer-led with nobody in the organisation taking any salary from its activities, but a large group of teachers and retired teachers still working for the benefit of young athletes and their love of the sport.

Covid has brought many organisations to their knees – and it could herald the end for the ESAA. Despite working incredibly hard to produce an amazing championship under difficult circumstances in 2021, despite not receiving any sponsorship funding from their title sponsor, New Balance, which had its own challenges, and receiving reduced funding over the previous couple of years from England Athletics, the future looks bleak. New Balance has announced that their sponsorship agreement for funding the track & field and cross-country championships will not be renewed.

Many people who understand these things agree that the senior sport in this country would not have been so successful over the years had it not been for the existence of the ESAA. Valuable work has been done in recent years highlighting the high numbers of athletes who competed at the Schools Championships and went on to both represent their country but also to win medals at the highest level, at Olympics and World Championships, as well as those who have gone on to be successful in other sports.

The first of these was Mary Milne, who won the English Schools high jump title in 1925 and went on to finish fourth at the 1934 British Empire Games (forerunner of the Commonwealth Games) with the same height as the bronze medallist. Two years later the first ESAA champion won an Olympic medal, also in high jump. This was Dorothy Odam, who later won an Empire Games gold and went on to hold the world record at 1.66m.

The first Olympic champions from the English Schools Championships were Mary Bignal (later Rand) and Ann Packer, who each won gold in Tokyo in 1964. In 1976 the first athlete from the Schools’ Championship won Olympic gold in another sport, when Danny Nightingale won gold in the modern pentathlon.

Daley Thompson (Mark Shearman)

When the sport started holding World Championships, ESAA was quickly represented among the champions when Daley Thompson and, a day later, Steve Cram, won gold in the first edition in Helsinki in 1983.

In addition to track & field and cross-country championships, the first Combined Events Championships was held in 1988, with Kath Merry winning the junior event and then going on to Olympic 400m bronze behind Cathy Freeman at Sydney 2000.

In total, 135 ESAA athletes have won European Championship medals, 35 of them gold; 278 have won medals at British Empire or Commonwealth Games, of which 81 have won gold. ESAA has produced fourteen Olympic champions and 77 medallists, with Mo Farah the most recent, as well as 71 World Championship medals, of which 13 were gold, the most recent being Dina Asher-Smith and Katarina Johnson-Thompson in 2019.

Dina Asher-Smith

The effects of the loss of a title sponsor will be hard-hitting. The track & field championships, normally held over two days, require the athletes to arrive and stay as a county team, meaning that almost 2000 athletes and their team staff need accommodation for two nights, along with over a hundred technical officials. ESAA has always subsidised the cost of accommodation for the athletes, meaning that well over £100,000 is spent annually on hotel costs, leaving the athletes to find another £100,000 plus. Clearly, the overnight stays could be reduced or removed but this would take away the huge educational benefits for all the young people and especially the first away-from-home experience for young athletes taking their first steps into sport that could take them to higher levels.

Many top-class athletes talk fondly of their first experience at the championships and what they learned by being away from home in a team setting. Keely Hodgkinson was recently asked what the English Schools Championships did for her career. Her answer gives some idea of their importance.

“The English Schools Athletics Association Championships was always the first thing I would put on my annual competition calendar each year as a young developing athlete,” she said. “It’s basically the Olympics for kids!

“I loved my experience at this competition over the years. It was the first time I felt like a real athlete as we stayed overnight with the team and I had to learn how to prepare for heats and finals. I also had to learn new skills like knowing when to focus and when to relax, when to eat and what to eat and to communicate with others and make new friends.

Keely Hodgkinson (Mark Shearman)

“All these things have stood me in good stead for when I then went on to represent Great Britain & NI at junior level and then senior teams. The English Schools ‘Kids’ Olympics’ fuelled my desire to make the actual Olympics.”

Other than the Track & Field Championships, ESAA also hosts an annual cross-country championship (on March 19 this year in Kent) with six races of over 300 athletes in each from all 45 counties and areas of the country, from the Isle of Wight to the Isle of Man, from Cornwall to Cumbria, a Combined Events Championship, again with all three age groups represented by up to 45 athletes in each event, a much bigger turn-out than any other similar national event.

On the same weekend, the national Race Walk Championships are held, giving athletes in all aspects of the sport an opportunity to test themselves against their peers and to vie for an opportunity to gain selection for the English Schools teams at the Home International events that are an important part of the calendar and, in years when the World Games take place, to be at the pinnacle of schools’ athletics.

READ MORE: Class of 2021 show their talent

In fact, England are the world champions, having achieved this status when the boys finished second to Brazil and the girls’ teams won their team competition. They were also runners-up in the most recent edition of the World Schools Cross-Country Championship.

Representation at the top level is not all that ESAA stands for though, and, in fact, its Schools Cup competitions in track & field and cross-country, attract many thousands of young people from hundreds of schools every year to compete firstly in local events within their county, reaching eventually to the national finals, hosted across the country at the end of the summer and autumn terms respectively. This is in addition to the hundreds of thousands who take part in the area and county rounds of the national championships.

READ MORE: 2021 English Schools Cross Country Cup coverage

Without adequate funding, all of this is at risk, both the opportunities for the masses and the first steps on the ladder for future Olympic and world champions. Hopefully, there is a company out there that sees the benefits that come from a link with a hugely successful and well-organised youth sport. Past sponsors like TSB Bank were very positive about the benefits they gained from their link with the Association in terms of long-term account-holders who are still customers years after opening their accounts when the bank hosted county and school events.

As the Association moves closer to its centenary in 2025 it is essential a way is found to fund its activities properly to allow our young people to continue to have the opportunities they have had in the first hundred years.

» Chris Cohen is a Vice-President of the English Schools Athletic Association, was competition director for athletics at Tokyo 2020 and will be Technical Delegate at the next World Championships in Eugene, Oregon

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