altAPRIL 4 – BRITISH ATHLETICS was celebrating today after signing a record six-year £50 million sponsorship agreement with Norwich Union that will allow the country’s top competitors to prepare for the 2012 Olympics in London.

It is the biggest deal in British sport outside football and is half the money that the Chancellor Gordon Brown called for in his Budget last month from private business to pledge towards helping the country’s top sportsmen and women train for the Games to go alongside the extra £200 million the Government is putting up.

The new deal with Norwich Union, who have been backing athletics since 1999, covers four areas - elite performance, junior athlete development, investment in the sport at grassroots levels and a “Legacy for 2012” which will be aimed at preparing British athletes to win medals at the London Games.

Training for more than 100,000 teachers in more than 5,000 secondary and 20,000 primary schools to coach athletics, will also be provided. 

Central contracts will be introduced for the first time which will force top athletes to commit themselves to competing for Britain in major events and the country’s top televised meetings on BBC.

In return they will receive funding and medical support that will help them prepare more thoroughly for major championships than ever before. But the UK Athletics performance director Dave Collins has warned if they do not honour their side of the deal, funding could be withdrawn.

Kelly Sotherton, the heptathlon gold medal winner at last month’s Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, welcomed the new influx of money to the sport along with the central contracts.

“It’s important for us all to know exactly where we stand and what is expected of us,” she said at a launch in Mile End in Tower Hamlets, one of the London Borough’s that will host the Olympics in 2012.

“With the structure of support being put in place, thanks to the additional funding from Norwich Union, we can focus on the preparation for our future challenges. The sport is accountable for our performances and it’s only right that we should also be individually accountable too.”

The additional backing was also welcomed by Dean Macey, the Commonwealth decathlon champion. “Norwich Union's continued and increased support for athletics means that the British team will be able to receive the best possible preparation support for major championships,” he said.

“Athletes like me will have an excellent programme of domestic meetings to check our progress against the best in the world on home soil.” 

The new agreement, which commences on January 1 2007, will place more emphasis on the preparation of future champions while also widening the appeal and availability of athletics to an increased number of children. Investment in grassroots athletics will almost treble and UK Athletics estimate that more than 10 million children and 1.5million families will be involved in the various Norwich Union grassroots schemes by 2012.

Additional funding will allow the sport to grow in communities and involve more families. 

David Moorcroft, chief executive of UK Athletics, said: “We have been thrilled with the support Norwich Union has given the sport since 1999 and are delighted they are to continue the partnership,” he said.

“The current crop of very talented juniors is testament to the long-term foundations provided at grassroots level, and with Norwich Union’s long-term commitment announced today, the sport will be able to build on this platform by boosting participation, increasing the talent pool to prepare future champions to reach our medal targets in 2008 and 2012.”

Free festivals will run five of the seven cities hosting Norwich Union televised events. Focused on engaging the local communities, the aim is to generate excitement in the lead up to the events and provide a platform to showcase the Norwich Union’s commitment to grassroots athletics.

Allied with the support to schools across the country, Norwich Union claim it is the most comprehensive sport sponsorship deal in the UK, influencing and helping all levels of athletics.

Patrick Snowball, executive chairman of Norwich Union, said: “It’s not all about the elite. Not all children can be world or Olympic champions but sporting activity can help prepare children from all backgrounds with vital life skills such as improved confidence, discipline, motivation, behaviour and even academic attainment.

“Schemes such as ours develop teamwork and leadership skills together with all the associated health benefits of being active. With athletics being the root of all sports, we are in unique position to champion the cause.”

The deal is also a major boost for Brown, whose call for private industry to contribute £100 million towards helping support Britain’s Olympic hopefuls in the 26 sports that will make up the programme in London in 2012 had been ridiculed by the marketing industry as an “unachievable” target.

With half the sum needed already agreed, the Chancellor and UK Sport, the Government responsible for elite sport, will be feeling confident that British industry will rally to the cause to help make London’s Games a success on the field, as well as off it.