As the London Olympics draw ever closer, Alex Lewis takes a look at an organisation that gives out grants to St Albans youngsters with sporting talent.

"THE days of the strip cartoon character Alf Tupper, who just needed his vest to become a champion runner, are over.

Geraint John was telling me about the 948 Foundation, which hands out £20,000 every year to promote sporting excellence in the St Albans area.

He said: "The world has changed. If you want to really achieve in sport, you have to spend money - on equipment, coaching and the costs of getting to and staying at events.

"Lewis Hamilton was lucky enough to have a father who was right behind him from a very young age.

"For most people, unless they have sponsorship or rich parents, it is very difficult."

"Where are the Olympic champions of the future going to come from? There could be a Tiger Woods living just round the corner, but unless he gets help to develop, we will never know.

"Golfers need proper professional clubs, and they might need to travel to Europe for a championship.

Since 2003, the foundation he heads as chairman has handed out £120,000 in grants.

Much has gone to support sport in local clubs and schools, but the trustees are hoping for more applications from individual youngsters with international potential.

People like Lucy Yates, Joseph Strohm, Dominic Easter and Aaron Gould, all from the St Albans area.

Thanks to backing from the foundation, 800-metre specialist Lucy has won an athletics scholarship to a leading US university, disabled runner Joseph won gold at last year's Special Olympics in Beijing, nine-year-old Aaron is a world karate champion, and Dominic is competing against cross-country rivals from top private schools The foundation helped Dominic accept a sports scholarship from St Albans School - which took its first pupils in 948AD, hence the trust's name.

Professor John, an architect by profession, said: "At St Albans School, Dominic has had all the benefits of being in a proper cross-country team with proper coaching.

"There is just no way he would be doing so well if he had not gone there."

He bemoans the decline of competitive sport in state comprehensives, which has shifted the emphasis of developing talent onto local sports clubs like Old Albanians.

The foundation is funded from a £500,000 capital sum, profit from the sale of the rugby club's old ground in the Beech Bottom area of St Albans.

This is now a housing estate, while since 2001 the club has superlative facilities at Woollams, off the Harpenden Road.

Professor John contrasts the difficulties faced by promising young British hopefuls with other nations where sport is far more deeply imbedded in the culture.

He said: "Look at New Zealand - with only three million people, they are beating us at cricket, which isn't even their number one game.

"In the USA, all the universities have sports scholarships.

"In Australia, their target for the Olympics isn't just to win some swimming medals - they want to win all the swimming medals."

In evidence, he called the Old Albanians general manager Neil Dekker, who comes from Ohio.

He told me: "There is a huge difference - school sport is far bigger there.

"Every school has a gymnasium with seating, a football stadium, a baseball ground and a soccer pitch.

"Even a small school has a gym that will seat 4,000 people.

"When I was 16, I played basketball in front of 17,000 people in a school gym."

In Australia, promising performers are given huge amounts of time off lessons, and every class troops out to cheer on inter-school contests.

Rival parents bandy records and statistics, while their precocious youngsters criss-cross the huge nation by aeroplane to compete against their peers.

Local sport has a far higher media profile, leading to plentiful opportunities for business sponsorship.

It's hardly surprising that despite our 60 million population, we are being outstripped at international level by so many countries and in so many disciplines.

Professor John said: "Many schools in St Albans don't play rugby now, and I don't think any do boxing.

"In my country, Wales, the demise of grammar schools has badly affected rugby - I hope temporarily.

"For the Sydney Olympics in 2000, every seat for every event was sold out well in advance, even for Patagonia playing Chile at table tennis."

But if would-be sports stars want cash to fund their dreams, why can't they, like anyone else in need of readies, fulfil their ambitions through gainful employment?"

Professor John said: "People don't realise how much time is needed if you want to get to the top level.

"Swimmers have to spend literally hours in the pool every day to be competitive.

"To do that with a full-time job is really difficult."

The foundation, which distributes grants four times a year, rarely gives more than £1,000 to any individual, however promising.

Professor John said: "We can't give very much, but we can give enough to enable people to take that first step.

"And as Chairman Mao said, the first step is always the hardest."

  • The foundation can be contacted on 01727 864476 or by clicking the link below.