This week the celebrated Birmingham athletics club Birchfield Harriers launched a campaign aimed at smashing its own Olympic record and sending 12 athletes to compete at London 2012.
Over the next two weeks the Birmingham Post will be profiling 12 of the club’s brightest young talents with a view to persuading local businesses to sponsor an athelete and help them fulfill their potential. Reporter Anna Blackaby looks at why the local business community should get involved.
It is an athletics club that has boasted such luminaries as Denise Lewis and Kelly Sotherton but Birchfield Harriers is hungry for more success.
This week the Perry Barr-based club launched its 12 for 12 campaign, a programme supported by club sponsors AGA Rangemaster in an attempt to surpass its previous record of sending nine athletes to one Olympic Games.
It is calling for businesses from the region to get behind one of the 12 athletes it has identified as having the potential to make London 2012.
Andy Paul, chair of the business group at the club, said the support of local businesses would make a world of difference to the club’s Olympics hopefuls.
“What we have recognised in the current climate is to really give those athletes the very best we have to invest a little bit more if we can,” he said.
“We don’t have the resources to do the very best job at the moment.
“We have great coaches and commitment and great passion but the business support we are looking for is about adding real resources to that passion.”
The club, based at the Alexander Stadium in Perry Barr, has a proud record at the Olympics – it has been represented at every summer games since 1908 with just one exception.
Birchfield Harrier’s illustrious group of international athletes since 2000 includes Olympic champions Denise Lewis and Mark Lewis-Francis, Paralympic champion Deborah Brennan, Paralympic Silver medallist Mickey Bushell and Olympic Bronze medallists Katharine Merry and Kelly Sotherton.
Mr Paul explained how the sponsorship would make a difference.
“One of the things we would invest in is medical insurance,” he said. “At the moment it’s down to the individual athlete to look after their medical support and they wouldn’t even necessarily have insurance.
“We are trying to have a longer-term programme to have medical insurance to enable us to plan effectively.
“It would also provide them with equipment. One of the lads is a decathlete so it would provide him with new poles and the equipment to train with for example. Also we could provide access to training facilities.
“At the moment some of the athletes have to pay to train for a number of their sessions so it would offer a contribution to their costs and travel.
“Also it’s about living – we are trying to make sure their diet and lifestyle are conducive to performing as well as they can and sponsorship would give them the ability to buy the right quality of food and nutrition.”
One of the region’s most historic companies AGA Rangemasters has sponsored Birchfield Harriers for 25 years.
William McGrath, the company’s chief executive, explained why the 12 for 12 initiative was so important for local businesses to get involved with.
“Everybody wants people to root for. If you look at the club there is a new generation of athletes coming through and sometimes that extra support will make a hell of a difference.
“I think it would be of interest to those businesses that have a lot of Midland connections and strong community connections like ourselves.
“The company and the people that work for the company will be proud to support athletes that represent the region and the country.
“I think it’s such a great club in the area – it has been described as Birmingham’s largest youth club.”
Mr Paul said local businesses deciding to sponsor one of the athletes would enjoy a visible association with top-class sporting performers.
“Birchfield Harriers is the biggest-profile club in the country in athletics so there is an association with a health sporting environment. They are associated with performance, individuals and with looking after their community.”
Louise Hazel, one of the 12 athletes, said: “Birchfield are really leading the way and have faced up to their responsibilities to help young talent.
“Birchfield has a long tradition of achieving success at the Olympic Games and we really hope businesses across the Midlands will get behind us. There is no doubt that it is tough in athletics to hold down a full-time or part-time job. As a young athlete, this support will definitely make a difference.”
Paralympic thrower Kieron Murphy added: “This is a brilliant initiative from Birchfield and I’m proud to be one of the 12 athletes. It is really important for me to get recognised. As a disabled thrower we don’t much profile, but I can’t wait to compete in London 2012.
“This additional funding is really important to the athletes and a great step forwards for a club with such a long history of success.”