Rotherham Olympian Peter Elliott tracks decline in junior athletics numbers

ROTHERHAM'S medal-winning Olympian Peter Elliott has voiced concern at the falling numbers of young athletes taking part in the sport.

Eight years after London 2012, talented kids are still coming through the system and the very best will go on to compete at the top level and even try to emulate the exploits of the likes of Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill.

A gold medallist at the 1990 Commonwealth Games and silver medallist at the 1988 Olympics, Peter was part of the great Coe, Ovett and Cram era of middle distance running.

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In those days the elite track and field section of athletics was backed up by good numbers of kids competing at grassroots level.

But Peter, who is the president of the South Yorkshire Schools Athletic Association, has noticed a fall-off in participation levels among young athletes despite the sterling work done at grassroots level by clubs like Rotherham Harriers.

He told the Advertiser: “What I have seen over the years as president is a slight decline in the numbers.

“The cream will always rise to the top and athletes will also come through and go on and be successful if they have the commitment, the talent and the right coach, but I'm comparing it to when I was competing in schools competitions.

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“In the South Yorkshire Schools Championship you would always have two from Rotherham, two from Doncaster, two from Sheffield and two from Barnsley competing in pretty much every event and now those numbers have dwindled.

Peter at the South Yorkshire Schools Athletics Association (SYSAA) presentation evening at Rotherham Town Hall. The Mayor and Mayoress of Rotherham, Cllr Jenny Andrews and Cllr Jeanette Mallinder, presented certificates and goblets to students who had represented the County three, five or ten times, at National or International level. Seen with their prizes (left to right) are: Callum Hay, Sheffield; Keiva Rennocks, Rotherham, Wales High School;  Rupert Gardner, chairman SYSAA; Erin Lobley, Sheffield; Jodie Hill, Sheffield and Emma Ball, Rotherham, Wales High School.  

“You still have the talent and youngsters in South Yorkshire who are being successful and winning titles and finishing in the top three, and some of those are Rotherham athletes as well, but it is interesting that the numbers aren't as many as in my day.”

Peter, honoured with an MBE, is still actively involved as director of operations at the English Institute of Sport in Sheffield.

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He admits the issue is not exclusive to athletics and that other sports have experienced similar trends. He also concedes it is partly a social issue.

“There are more choices for youngsters today but the social media side of things is having an impact,” he said.

“If you look at Rotherham Harriers and their results, they have some very successful young athletes.

1990 Commonwealth Games 1500m gold medallist Peter Elliott during his running days.

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“Youngsters  genuinely interested in the sport and see it as a way to compete for Britain, they all come through the system without a doubt, but it's the numbers. They certainly have dwindled from what I've noticed over the last ten years.”

It is not all bad news.

Peter noted the popularity of the weekend Park Runs which attract big numbers up and down the country.

And if a reminder of the young talent in the ranks was needed, it came last week when he presented certificates to youngsters who had represented South Yorkshire at national level.

As for a solution, there is no easy one.

“It's what happens in schools with PE lessons and finding athletes and getting them to a club and with the right coaches. Opportunities do present themselves,” added Peter.

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“Clubs like Rotherham Harriers and Kimberworth Striders — Harriers especially with their range from toddlers up to senior athletes — they are doing a great job, as are the other clubs in South Yorkshire to try and address that. Parents can take their youngsters down knowing they're in a safe environment and they're getting good coaching.

Shining light...Wales High School pupil Mellissa Coxon was one of several young athletes recognised at the recent South Yorkshire Schools Athletic Association awards.

“As I have said, there are a lot of choices out there for youngsters and something like track and field, especially running, it is a hard individual sport and there is no hiding place.

“I always say, if you're playing in a football team you can have a bad game but still win but when you're an individual athlete and you have a bad race, it is there for everyone to see.

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“It is the same with all individual sports, they are tougher than team games.

“At the presentations last week, in the room were those who had competed for South Yorkshire at the English Schools, which is the Olympics for any school kid. It is the pinnacle of what they can achieve at school age so it was still great to see how many kids had competed on more than one occasion.”