Sunday, 16 December 2007

Bums on Seats

“You,” said the late Andy Norman, in that often mimicked, slightly rasping, fruity voice to the tall, majestic black man, who had just asked a favour, “you couldn’t fill a telephone box.” The recipient of this remark was the man who would become Britain’s greatest ever sprinter, Linford Christie and it delighted him to quite frequently remind Andy of his absolutely false prognosis.

“Bums on seats” though was an imperative of Norman and he mostly succeeded at various televised meetings around the country throughout the eighties. The most difficult to sell was the AAA’s with its interminable heats structure and a look at the 2007 meeting (now sadly renamed the UK Championships) at Manchester’s Sports City showed that things haven’t changed much.

It has recently been announced that the Olympic Trials and UK Championships will move to the piecemeal Alexander Stadium in Birmingham and memories have been stirred of some great championships there in the past. 1988 was a particularly vintage year: a baking hot weekend, large crowds, a star-studded cast and intense drama – all the ingredients that have made British athletics great in the past.

But it doesn’t matter where the venue is, if the structure isn’t right then the crowds won’t come. Indeed, if they become bored and restless they’ll not return and the numbers will swiftly fall away as they have done in Manchester. With nostalgia now dispensed with for expediency’s sake, it is the right time to look at the format of this 128 year old meeting.

The biggest mistake, in my judgement, has been to try and entice the public in over all three days by spreading a number of finals. What should be done is to run during the whole of Friday and Saturday an entire programme of track heats and semi-finals with field event pools/finals. Sunday can be then be a star studded affair displaying, within a 3 hour or so programme, the very best of our athletes competing in finals and for places in a major championships. Small adjustments could be made to the programme (perhaps semi-finals and finals for 100 metres on the Sunday) but that should be the general format. Such a programme would simulate, to a certain extent, a major championship with every track event except the longer distances having heats and semi-finals. It would encourage a greater entry.

The aficionados – coaches, relatives, officials – will attend on the first two days anyway but on the third day the publicity should be concentrated on attracting the general public, of selling the sport and filling the stadium. Even at this level of competition the emphasis is still insular: of pleasing ourselves, of doing everything as we’ve always done it and frankly of being somewhat smug about it. We have ignored the Hemingway dictum that as soon as a sport becomes enjoyable enough to the spectator for the charging of admission to be profitable, it becomes entertainment.

That great panjandrum of Performance, Dave Collins, should be persuaded that places at the Olympics et al are not solely his and his team’s patronage but are prizes to be won in combat. Athletes and coaches need to know well in advance exactly what they have to do to make teams; they should not to have to wait for the puff of smoke to emanate from Athletics House, accompanied by some tedious, clichéd homily. The paying public too deserve to know that if athletes achieve a qualifying standard and finish first or second in an event they will be going to Beijing or Berlin or Barcelona. It’s no good calling a trial a Trial if it appears to have no bearing on selection. In the past this cut throat part of the championships was a major selling point for the public.

And what about the two track walks that take up an inordinate amount of time in the programme? They have been there, in one form or another, since 1880 and when you saw such great world class exponents and Olympic medallists as Stan Vickers, Ken Matthews and Paul Nihill strut their stuff, they were tolerable. But their milieu was the open road over 20 and 50 kilometres and sitting for almost an hour watching even these men walking twenty-five laps around a track tested the patience and even the soul of spectators many of whom would decide it was the moment for a cuppa.

Today these events are pure tedium; the great days of great British competitive walking having long gone. Last year at 20 kilometres our top walker Dan King ranked sixth in the world; our second ranked walker, Andy Penn, came 73rd. This sounds great until you realise that I am talking about the women’s ranking lists. Penn was, at 20K, only a fraction under 2 minutes faster than our top woman, Jo Jackson. It seems to me that the various governing bodies should either get behind walking in a big way or put it out of its misery. It is a disgrace that these events are still on the programme and the 10,000 metres, once a great highlight, is relegated to some far flung outpost of the sport. If we must have walks then make them road walks with finishes in the stadium.

The argument against running the 10,000 metres in the main championships is that by omitting it you enable runners to compete at both 5 and 10K (not something that any current British runner would contemplate at World or European level). But British athletes, like Gordon Pirie and David Bedford, have achieved the double in the past, when the championships were run over just two days. The neglect of the 10,000 metres Europe wide is appalling and to paraphrase one of our greatest ever coaches, where there are no 10K races there are no 10K runners. Only ten British runners beat 30 minutes (and Paula’s record) last season. This event badly needs a showcase and it should be restored to the championship weekend.

None of this is rocket science. But, as with competition generally, there is a great lethargy about the national championships. Our sport has been in a deep slumber and woken to find it’s no longer as great as we thought it was. Hey guys (regretfully few gals) its 1670 days, as I write, and counting.

Don’t Mention Christine

Could we now have moratorium on Christine Ohuruogu? Can we all – athletes, coaches and administrators – adopt a Trappist vow on her drug case? It has raised more hackles and more debate than if she had actually failed a drug test. The problems have lain, not with the athlete but with those who have a visceral belief that anybody failing to abide by the rules is a drug cheat and should be banned for life. In Christine’s case (and with many others who are now admitting to missing tests) it is, as well as her own carelessness, the sheer inflexibility of the system that is also at fault.

It does not seemed to have dawned on those at UK Sport who administer anti-doping that if an athlete is into imbibing performance enhancing drugs he or she and whoever is monitoring their intake is going to be damned careful that they do not get caught evading tests. It is, to say the least, self-defeating as Konstadinos Kederis and Ekaterina Thanou found out in 2004. So the Independent Sampling Officers (ISOs) catch the careless and the great hullabaloo that has accompanied Christine over the past eighteen months ensues. More flexible arrangements of these matters would not ensure that those into steroids would get away with it.

The problem is that so many in our sport believe that there should be a lifetime ban for those guilty of a doping offence (not necessarily of doping). However when it comes down to the legalities and a little word called justice wiser heads prevail over emotions and over the decades the maximum sentences for doping have fluctuated between two and four years, with a lifetime ban for a second offence.

Many over-zealous administrators and sections of the media are, however, very unhappy with this situation and are constantly looking for ways and means to circumvent it. The British Olympic Association’s (BOA) pernicious bylaw that hands down a lifetime Olympic ban for doping is a classic example and, it appears, is also a means of subverting accepted sporting law.

Both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) rules do not go nearly as far and the former president of the latter, Dick Pound, went so far as to recently criticise the BOA (globally almost on its own with such a rule) for its sanctimonious insistence of continuing with it. He went so far as to suggest that if tested in a court of law the bylaw may well be found to be unlawful as well as unjust.

But arguments about all of this are for another day. I understand from a spokesperson for UK Athletics that Christine will shortly begin to receive the benefits she deserves from World Class Podium and will be travelling to South Africa next month on the excellent UKA preparation camp in South Africa. Good news at last for this most beleaguered of athletes.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

The Cautionary Tale of William Snook

William Snook
In 1887 a 25 year old Birchfield Harrier named William Snook, who was the greatest English distance runner at the time, lost his final appeal against a lifetime ban for “roping” (not trying). He notoriously became the first athlete to ever receive a lifetime ban from amateur athletics.

Snook was the sacrificial lamb in a harsh campaign conducted by the fledgling Amateur Athletic Association against what it considered to be the scourge of the sport, professionalism. Their thinking was haunted by a challenge match between two professional runners staged at London’s Lillie Bridge track during that same year. Thirty thousand people turned up to see the two fastest men of the day, Harry Gent and Harry Hutchens, battle it out over 100 yards. Bookmakers thronged the arena, but neither athlete started because each of their rival gangs wanted to arrange for their man to lose, and so the crowd set the stadium ablaze in their anger.

The major problem that the AAA faced was betting. Pedestrianism, where cheating was rife, had dominated the decades leading up to the AAA’s formation in 1880 and it continued to blight amateur athletics. Athletes were persuaded to lose races they could have won; professionals posed as amateurs; amateurs posed as other amateurs especially in the popular handicap races of the time. It was disorganised chaos and the AAA determined that if it was to have any credibility as an organisation it would have to severely implement the second of its Objects of Association: “to deal repressively with any abuse of athletic sports.” It also seemed determined that its repressions of order would not be sidetracked by any miscarriage of justice.

Lillee Bridge ablaze

It was a cold, bleak day in March 1886 with a hint of snow in the air when the runners gathered in Croydon for the National Cross-Country Championships. Snook, the defending champion, was odds on favourite to win by the numerous bookies that were present. Originally he had been a team mate of the great W.G. George at Moseley Harriers where their celebrated rivalry was intense. Walter, however, had moved over to the professional ranks to challenge its best miler William Cummings and Snook now ruled the roost. In 1885 he won four AAA titles in the championships at Southport, three on a Saturday and one, the 10 miles, in a record time on the Monday.

Snook did not win in Croydon though. He was overtaken in the closing stages of the race by J E Hickman of Godiva Harriers and finished second. A month later came a sensational announcement: Snook was disqualified for life from the amateur ranks by the Southern Committee of the AAA for “roping”. What had prompted this extraordinary move by the governing body to banish its leading runner?

Snook’s major problem was that this was not his first offence. In 1881 he was suspended for a year by the Northern AA for conniving at the entry of a professional at an amateur meeting at Southport. Snook continued to compete at meetings not affiliated to the AAA. The AAA then threatened any athletes who competed with Snook with suspension. The organisation would remember him when he again appeared before them five years later.

A month after his 1886 suspension Snook appealed. It was clear that, in contravention of English law, he would have to prove his innocence rather than the AAA prove his guilt. He said he was below his usual weight on the day and had suffered from sore feet in the closing stages. The AAA, already suspicious, did not believe him. Rumours had been rife that Snook had deliberately thrown the race to aid the bookies, presumably for some remuneration. His appeal was thrown out by 15 votes to 11. A second appeal, backed by the Midlands AAA, was lost by 13 votes to 12. Finally the matter was raised at the next AGM when, after a long discussion that went well into the night, a motion for reinstatement was lost by 26 votes to 16. Snook was finished as an amateur. The evidence against him had been subjective and circumstantial, but he could not disprove it. He provided the AAA with a major scapegoat to warn other amateur runners of the day.

The AAA continued on its draconian path. In 1882 it had financed the Northern AA to enable it to prosecute for fraud a professional posing as an amateur. He was sentenced to one month’s imprisonment with hard labour. Over the next twenty years there were many similar cases and imprisonment for six months with hard labour was not an uncommon punishment

Payments to athletes was the AAA’s second biggest problem after betting. Many top stars were paid by clubs to appear at their meetings to boost attendance. In order to catch miscreants it adopted the principle of Queens Evidence: indemnifying those willing to provide evidence. This meant that club secretaries who had offered payment to athletes often sat in judgment on them for accepting them. In 1896 six top British athletes were accused of receiving appearance money and five were banned for life. Others followed and by the end of 1897 the leading British runners for each event from 100 yards to 20 miles were disqualified from competing sine die. The next great distance runner Alfred Shrubb became so fed up with the AAA deciding where and when he could run abroad that he defied them by deciding to race in Canada in 1905. He was suspended for life in 1906 after an investigation into his expenses for the trip. Like all the others he turned professional.

Finally, in 1906, the AAA persuaded the government to introduce a clause into the Street Betting Act that would give power to sports promoters to control betting at their meetings, including calling in the police to deal with objectors. After a quarter of a century the battle was over.

Well, not quite. In the ensuing eighty years many fine athletes, including Paavo Nurmi, the Flying Finn and the Swedes, Arne Andersson and Gunder Hägg, fell foul of the amateur ethos and were suspended. The last great one was Wes Santee, the American miler who was banned in 1955 for abuses of expenses. By 1980, a century after the formation of the AAA, it was obvious that payments to athletes in the celebrated brown envelopes were rife. Two years later the IAAF passed an historic law that enabled athletes to receive payment for competing.

And what of William Snook? He dabbled at professional athletics for a while and then became the licensee of two pubs in Birmingham. Finally he settled in France where he continued running and won a celebrated challenge match in the Bois de Boulogne in 1891. Then he went off the radar until April, 1916 when word reached Birchfield that he was destitute and in bad health in Paris. Athletic supporters raised the funds for hospital fees and to bring him back to England but his health did not improve. He returned to Birmingham in October and was placed in the workhouse at Highcroft Hall where he died two weeks or so before Christmas. He was just 55. He was buried in Wilton Cemetery with few mourners. It was a sad end to a great runner and probably the greatest victim of the AAA’s repressive measures against professionalism.


The Official Centenary History of the AAA by Peter Lovesey, published by Guinness 1979
The History of Birchfield Harriers 1877-1988 by Professor W.O. Alexander and Wilfred Morgan published by Birchfield Harriers 1988 .

Friday, 30 November 2007

Crime and Punishment

Sporting authorities should not be at all surprised at the negative reaction from some sections of the media (and therefore the public) to Christine Ohuruogu winning her appeal against the BOA lifetime ban. Why? Because they have been crying wolf too often about “the drug menace in sport”.

Christine became the villain and then the heroine of a soap opera that has dragged on for eighteen months, severely damaging the image of athletics (especially as for weeks it was the only story). But with Jacques Rogue, Lamine Diack and other sport’s leaders hardly able to open their mouths on any unrelated topic without feeling the need to emphasise their commitment to fighting drug abuse in sport, the clearance of Ohuruogu tends, in many people’s minds, to actually suggest a lessening of will. Thanks to years of such propaganda the general public believes that athletics is a drug ridden sport.

The problem for everyone is that, from the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) down there is no idea as to how big a problem drug taking in sport is. John Scott, who heads up UK Sport’s drug abuse programme, could not answer that question a few weeks ago on Radio 5 Live. The only data available suggests that the menace is minuscule but that doesn’t fit in, as we noted in a previous Track Chat, with the need to find governmental finance for the over expensive WADA.

Drug testing in sport appears to be in chaos. There are inconsistencies around the world in methodology and punishment with various countries vying with each other to be the most draconian. Different sports have different rules, especially with regard to out-of-competition testing; some sports don’t have testing at all. Politics entered the frame with the European governments trying to postpone the election of Australian John Fahey as the new head of WADA. Of the 200 or more countries affiliated to the IAAF I would suggest that less than a quarter have an efficient drug testing programme.

And, of course, there is the British Olympic Association’s (BOA) bylaw, highlighted by the Ohuruogu case.

The problem with the bylaw is that it flies in the face of (in addition to natural justice) both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) ban and with that of WADA. Jacques Rogue announced in late summer that athletes handed doping bans of more than six months face being barred from only the next Olympic Games. Dick Pound, the outspoken former head of WADA, said that the BOA should fall in line with the WADA code, which would ensure that athletes, guilty or not, have only to face one quasi-trial; Ohuruogu had to face three (at some expense). Ed Warner, Chair of UK Athletics, is right to point out that inconsistencies of punishment lead to confusion in everyone’s mind and do not serve sport well. He’s wrong to say that the BOA bylaw catches drug cheats. It’s merely there to prove that the organisation is more macho about these matters than anybody else.

Some time ago I wrote, very much tongue in cheek, that tagging might be the answer to catching drug cheats. Now people are putting forward the idea that athletes’ whereabouts should be satellite monitored via their mobile phones. Who knows where that could lead? The late Arthur Miller wrote of the Salem witch trials that “the repressions of order were heavier than seemed warranted by the dangers against which the order was organised.”

Or, as Boris Becker more succinctly put it after a Wimbledon loss: “Nobody died out there,” he said. “It’s only sport for God’s sake.”

Paranoia rules okay.

All Change in Coaching?

The lamentations and hand wringing that have followed England’s (and all the home countries) failure to qualify for soccer’s European Championship have, in one instance, a distinct resonance with British athletics.

A poor standard of coaching in “the beautiful game” was frequently put forward as one reason in many for England’s generally poor Euro 2008 qualifying record but poor coaching per se is applicable across a whole range of sports in Britain. In athletics you only have to attend any school or club competition to realise that fundamental techniques in both track and field events are just not being taught. A decade or more of neglect of coaching by UKA has left its mark.

UKA at least recognised that the teaching of athletics in schools had deteriorated sharply over at least a couple of decades. The problem was that its solutions were derisible and swiftly condemned by experienced coaches, especially former national coaches, who had been exiled from the sport by UKA’s Year Zero policy in 1997.

The governing body’s failure to call upon the services of highly experienced former national coaches to design and implement an exciting, modern programme of teaching athletics in schools has had a disastrous impact. Such a programme needs urgent attention now.

The past decade has seen the emergence of two groups of coaches. The first is composed of those who qualified before the Fisher Report advocated a radical change in coach education and the second comprises those who qualified afterwards.

The first group, many of whom qualified some twenty to forty years ago, do not appear to have been given much opportunity to update their knowledge. Those that did either decided not to take up the opportunity or were disillusioned when they attended. Many appear to be implementing only that which they learnt back in the mists of time. And, as we all know, those mists can become hazier as the years go by. UKA has not, up until now and despite the revolution in communication methods, promulgated up to date knowledge to practising coaches. Indeed all the governing bodies that have misruled British athletics since 1960 have failed to communicate with qualified coaches at all. You learn, you qualify, you coach, you die.

The second group has gone through, at some expense, a series of weekend courses with appointed tutors. Some are questioning whether many tutors have the necessary hands on, practical experience to pass on to trainees. In other words has coaching become too much of an academic exercise? The mentoring system of Level 1 coaches which was supposed to provide such practical experience has been a complete failure mainly because it clearly assumed numbers of Level 2 coaches and above that simply were not there.

These may seem wide sweeping statements but what I see on training tracks and competition arenas and hear from a wide range of coaches it is obvious that something is radically wrong with coach education.

At the recent sprint conference held in Bath Tony Hadley told us that Steve Platt, one time coach to Mark Lewis Francis, was extremely ill. Steve (unceremoniously dumped, if you remember, as Mark’s coach by the Collins’ Performance regime) asked Tony to find someone at their training track to take over his group. “I couldn’t,” Tony said, “in all honesty, find anyone.”

The separation of Coaching from Performance has been a disaster. Former Director of Coaching, Frank Dick, also at the Bath conference, stressed how important it was that the individual coach be the lynchpin of the services that can now be provided to an elite athlete. It is the individual coach that in most cases braves all weather conditions, day in and day out, fifty two weeks of the year, who knows the athlete, knows his or her personality quirks and knows the social and family background that is best suited to lead a team that can produce an athlete’s ultimate performance.

Yet when it came to it UKA did not appoint a coach to head up Performance when Max Jones retired and so the dichotomy between Performance and Coaching has widened and the personal coach has been moved ever further to the periphery of preparation. This and the fact that coaches of international or near international athletes can never be sure if their charge will suddenly be whisked away to one of UKA’s team of professional coaches has caused considerable resentment.

You would not mind so much if the new squad system was proving successful but the statistics outlined in previous Track Chats indicate quite clearly that this is not the case. Unless you do what the East Germans did and move athletes permanently to a training school or camp, like the one they had at Brandenburg, you have to accept that training squads have a limited value and that the emphasis must shift to concentration on support of the individual coach.

What is coaching all about if it is not about performance? The experiment of demarcation has failed and must be rescinded. An overall, powerful Head Coach, heading a team of the best coaches in the UK, must be installed if 2012 is to mean anything for the future of our sport in this country.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

That Things Might Change or Cease

Jack Buckner highlighted some crucial points about the future of our sport in the introduction to his excellent work in progress, the Competition Review.

He said that:-
• athletics could easily dwindle and become a minority sport.
• that if change doesn’t happen the post 2012 environment for athletics will be very bleak indeed
• currently we are asking them [young athletes] to compete in a framework that has changed little in the last 30 years
• sports need to capture the imagination of young people.

British athletics has the opportunity to change, to turn itself around with the staging of the XXXth Olympics in London in 2012 but to do so radical reform of its competitive structures is required and the auguries, based on recent history, are not good.

The Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002, with its glamour and excitement also provided such an opportunity. Spectators and television viewers, enthused by what they saw, wanted more and kids wanted to take up athletics. What was presented to them were drab and dreary clubs taking part in drab and dreary competitions. The sport sank back into its comfort zone of not just 30 years but, in some cases, a century.

When Jack had the temerity to speak to young people about their attitudes to athletics he found that not only were we failing to attract young people but were losing them in droves. For today’s youth athletics is highly unfashionable compared with the other major sports.

Where I disagree with Jack is when he says: “The conclusions of this report are not critical of any individual or organisation.” I think he is wrong not to criticise because it is the attitude over recent decades of the many individuals and organisations that provide competition, along with the critical failure of the various governing bodies to address the issue, that have landed us in the dire position that we are today. As a sport we fear change.

So let us be critical (nothing new here then). Take, for example, the 38 year old British Athletics League. The BAL has not changed its format in all that time. In its early days it was sponsored and was, for a short period, actually televised. Its last sponsor was the Guardian Royal Exchange. The method of renewal was somewhat quaint. The League’s chairman of the time sat down annually with a GRE representative (usually in the hospitality tent at the end of the cup competition) and, after a short discussion, a glass of wine and a handshake, a metaphorical puff of smoke would emanate to indicate that all was well for the following season. Then, one year, inevitably, the metaphorical puff did not appear.

Since then the BAL hasn’t had a whiff of a sponsor and so a couple of years ago it announced an overhaul of its format to try and attract sponsorship. With a fanfare of trumpets the results of its deliberations were announced. The first division would become known as the BAL Premiership and the subsequent three divisions would be known as BAL National. That was it, apart from an, apparently, not over popular tweaking of their cup competition.

As you might possibly imagine BAL hasn’t exactly had to stem a stampede of would-be sponsors and you have to wonder how on earth the “hugely committed individuals with incredible energy and enthusiasm who run our sport”, as Buckner calls them, came up with such a crass solution to the League’s problems. What BAL needed, along with the rest of the leagues, and has done for years, is to plan for change with a clean sheet of paper.

As Jack has pointed out, to ignore the accelerating social changes that have taken place over the past couple of decades is a gross failure by administrators. League athletics, based on the false assumption that the sport is thriving is, especially in the lower divisions, not fit for purpose.

The spectacle of very young athletes travelling for hours on coaches to compete in one event and often against just one competitor and then await more hours before the journey home is a classic example of the problems being faced in the leagues’ lower divisions. Clubs delude themselves if they feel these are examples of fun or good practice. How on earth can they be classified as enjoyment?

Jack is right when he says that the majority of the sport wants big changes to the competition structures. It is not so much that I am concerned about his review that addresses those changes, but more about the ability and indeed the will of UK Athletics to deliver it.

When asked the 64 thousand dollar question as to what will be done with regard to competitions that refuse to fall in line with the plans, Zara Hyde Peters said: “Nothing is planned as, so far, all the competition providers have been willing to engage in discussions. The sport may end up deciding what its preferred competitions are and this "consumer driven" approach may be the best solution.” The best solution for whom? Not for athletes, who are never consulted, that’s for sure.

Not good enough and, frankly, a cop out. Why? Because the BAL, UK Women’s League, National Junior League, Young Athletics League and all the other sundry organisations are all examples of this “consumer driven” approach that has led us to the mass of disparate competitions that we have today. Central authority disdained organising club competition so clubs and individuals did it for themselves. As a result clubs have been sucked into a vastly expensive, complex competition vortex, involving thousands of miles of travel, from which, because of a lack of alternatives, they cannot escape.

County and territorial championships are continuing their steady decline. In the 2007 Cumbria county championships 42% of the entries were in the Under 11/13 age group, whilst only 17% were U20/Senior. Only 15% of track events required heats, all in the U11/U13/U15 age groups. 62% of the 16 uncontested events were field events. I suspect that many other counties display similar problems.

In the Northern Under 20 and Senior championships there were less than 5 competitors in 13 events, 11 of which were field events. Just over half were in the Under 20 age group.

Clubs, counties and regions and their representatives are in a strait jacket and only central authority can cut them out of it. UKA and the national federations have to grasp the nettle and recognise that if we are to arrive at 2012 with a modern, attractive sport that can entertain and deal with the massive interest that the Olympics will generate a wholesale reform of domestic competition is needed. They need to organise, drive through and invest heavily in radical competition change. A key question will be: at what level of competition should we be endeavouring to attract the public? Whatever level is chosen UKA has to persuade our top athletes to take part even if it requires financial incentives.

The above criticisms may seem harsh to some but we live, as Shakespeare put it, in “most brisk and giddy-paced times” and before we know it we will suddenly arrive on the eve of the XXXth Olympics in 2012 in London. If we are still appeasing the usual suspects who are still whinging to Athletics Weekly, listening to Luddites crying “back off!” and generally still pussyfooting around then we are as Shakespeare also put it “doomed for a certain term to walk the night.”

Friday, 16 November 2007

The Paula Factor

The Paula Factor

If Mara Yamauchi and Dan Robinson (with all due respect to both), our two best 2007 marathoners prior to the New York race, had entered and been our main representatives in the Big Apple would the BBC have decided to cover the marathon live and so extensively as they did? I think not. It was the presence of Paula Radcliffe, the only bankable superstar that we have, that did the trick.

Shots of post-race Paula, holding daughter Isla and seemingly swiftly recovered after one of her greatest races, made the front pages of most of the newspapers the next day, supplanting those of the mummified 3000 year old Pharaoh, Tutankhamen. At long last, after a very arid year, British athletics is making good news. Or, at least, one athlete is.

Throughout 2007 one has daily scoured the national press almost in vain to find news of athletics. The international season for us virtually began in late June and ended at the end of the championships in Osaka in late August. The other major sports - football, rugby, tennis and cricket - now have year round competitions but international track and field athletics for us confines itself, if we’re lucky, to eight or nine weeks. Indeed, for the majority of the general public, athletics in 2007 was just the week or so of the world championships.

This declining general interest is reflected by the seriously worrying UK viewing figures* for the major international championships between 2002 and 2006. These are important because all four major meetings were held in Europe and were therefore mostly within evening viewing times. They show a steady decline of total viewers from Munich (where Paula ran on the track) with
52, 530, 000 viewers, to Gothenburg (where she didn’t) with 23,680,000, a decline of 54.8%. The decline in peak viewing figures was even greater at 64.0%. A similar further sharp fall up to 2012 would surely see an appraisal of athletics by television and major sponsors as to whether it is a sport worth supporting any longer.

During its first ten years UK Athletics ignored its public and its fans. Poor appointments in the area of media relations meant that they were virtually non existent. Of course we didn’t have the track stars that made up the Golden Era – Christie, Black, Coe, Cram, Ovett, Budd, Gunnell, Lewis et al but right into the early years of the 21st century we still had mega stars like Holmes, Jackson, Macey, Edwards and Radcliffe, people with personalities that the public could identify with, people who you wanted to know more about, people who could very effectively sell the sport, keep it in the public eye; people we didn’t just ineffectively use but didn’t use at all. The only publicity emanating from athletics during what seemed to be an endless, barren decade of news and information came from Fast Track publicizing its televised meetings. UKA’s Athletic House was like a Trappist Monastery.

But it’s not just about poor communication and public relations; it’s also about image, the image that is presented by the competitions that we provide. Frankly it’s about entertainment or a lack of it.

Across Europe the one-day meetings hold sway. They are long past their sell-by date, churning out the same sort of fare that they have been presenting for the last twenty years – East Africans beating other East Africans; American sprinters beating other American sprinters in a sort of repetitive whistle-stop circus (everybody seemingly in the latest Nike vest) around the continent. Terrestrial television has long had enough and to see the IAAF Golden League meetings in Britain this year you had to switch to the Irish pay-to-view channel Setanta Sports.

Our televised meetings, part of the complicated and grandiosely named IAAF World Athletics Tour, are not immune from criticism. They too are beginning to have a jaded, we’ve-been-here-before look about them. Like the rest of the IAAF circuit these meetings lack a meaningful competitive edge and the relative decline in British standards means that the crowds that, in particular, flock to Crystal Palace once a year look in vain for British success. A sign of the times, if we needed one, is the fact that in the IAAF events staged at Sheffield and Crystal Palace in 2007 there were only three British winners in thirty-five events. Unlike say Switzerland or Belgium, the public here have come to expect more.

In addition there is a shocking neglect of throwing events. At Glasgow, Sheffield and London only three were staged, two for men and one for women. If our throwers can’t get international competition in Britain where else are they to obtain it?

It gets worse. When we go lower down the scale for our track and field competitions we find they are acts of sheer self-indulgence at regional and local level where the general public is deemed surplus to requirements. The word entertainment is not in the vocabulary of the event organisers. This is just as well, given the often day-long, turgid affairs (excluding many hours of travel), exhausting to athlete, official and spectator alike, that are inflicted on them. The good news is that you don’t have to pay to get in; the bad news is that you’d demand your money back if you did.

Buckner’s competition review (of which more next week) only tackles these matters at junior level and again the word entertainment is conspicuous by its absence. The idea, recently mooted, that our competitions should be “consumer driven” would drive us on a pathway to disaster rather than paradise.

Road running has grasped the nettle of social change and declining interest and combines serious competition with fun running to provide entertainment to the crowds who to turn out to run and to spectate. The three most popular athletics events on television this year have been the London Marathon, Great North Run and the New York Marathon. They provided exciting drama along with colourful entertainment from thousands of runners. On a much smaller scale there are hundreds of such races all round Britain. It may well be, if the present trends continue, that road running will overtake track and field in popularity (if it hasn’t already).

It’s not that the general public is tiring of track and field but rather that track and field seems to be tiring of the general public. Five years ago, although British athletics was not inundated with international success, our sport was on a high. The Commonwealth Games in Manchester drew excited capacity crowds every evening, who roared on competitors irrespective of nationality but reserved that extra effort for British athletes. TV mirrored the success with great viewing figures that extended into the European’s in Munich a week or so later. It was a euphoric and dramatic week; athletics went very briefly ahead of football in the popularity stakes, people wanted more. They didn’t get it. They didn’t get it then because British athletics wasn’t geared up to provide anything more than its usual uninspiring fare; they wouldn’t get it now for the same reason.

Unless UK Athletics grasps this nettle of providing, investing in and being responsible for, at every level, entertaining, purposeful athletics and sweeps aside the present mishmash of humdrum, repetitive competition, the sport is indeed in trouble. Paula won’t be running forever.

* - Sources: IFM International Sport Analysis and European Broadcasting Union


Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Hooray for Windrush

June 22 next year will see the 60th anniversary of a significant moment in the history of British athletics. On that day, in 1948, 492 passengers from Jamaica stepped on to our shores from the liner Empire Windrush looking for a better life in this country. It could be said that it was the most significant post-war moment in British athletics, a moment that meant that the sport in Britain would never be the same again. Why? Because future generations of those 492 passengers, and of those who followed them, would transform sprinting in this country beyond all recognition. The Afro-Caribbeans had arrived and unbeknown to them (and to us at the time) they brought with them a genetic legacy from their ancestry in West Africa, now acknowledged as the original home of world sprinting.

Currently the Afro-Caribbean population of Britain is less then 2% of the whole but in the past twenty-five years black athletes have accounted for 43% of medals won by British athletes at global championships. It is a staggering statistic.

It took twenty years for the impact of Windrush to make itself felt. It was not until 1968 that the 18 year old Anita Neil ran in the 1968 Olympics. A year earlier she had gained her first international. She paved the way for the first exciting black sensation when in 1971 Sonia Lannaman, at just 14 years of age, represented Great Britain in two indoor internationals. In 1972 she was at the first of her two Olympic Games in Munich when another milestone was achieved: three black athletes – Neil, Lannaman and Andrea Lynch - represented Britain in the 100 metres. In 1978 Lannaman won Commonwealth gold at 100 metres and in Moscow in 1980 she won an Olympic relay bronze. By this time other outstanding black women sprinters, like Beverly Goddard and Heather Hunte, were making their mark internationally but it is an indication of a tailing away of black influence in British women’s sprinting in subsequent decades that, almost 30 years on, four of the above are still in the UK all-time 100 metres top eight.

It was not until the mid-seventies that the pioneering males, like Mike McFarlane, Ainsley Bennett and Ernest Obeng, began to make an impression. In other events too there was increasing black influence – Aston Moore in the triple jump; Clive Longe and Daley Thompson in the Decathlon; Tessa Sanderson in the javelin; Verona Elder in the 400 metres. There was also a mix; some like Lannaman, Elder and Thompson were born in Britain; other like Sanderson, Goddard and Moore had followed their families in what was now a familiar pattern of arrival: father, then mother, then children.

As the second generation found their feet so the domination of British sprinting began and has continued ever since. Gradually AAA championship finals became all black affairs; nine of the top ten all-time performers at 100 metres have been black athletes; the last white Englishman to win an AAA 100 metre title was Brian Green in 1971; pre-1987 Britain had won only one European Cup 100 metres; post-1987 Britain’s black sprinters annexed 11 out a possible 17 titles – Linford Christie clocking seven consecutive wins. In 1992 Christie became the third British athlete to win the Olympic 100 metres.

However several black sprinters had served Britain well before the arrival of the Empire Windrush. Arthur Wharton set the first British record in 1886 at the AAA Championships by running “evens” for the 100 yards. Born in what is now Ghana he came to Britain to train as a preacher. He was a superb all round sportsman winning the AAA’s again in 1887. He also became Britain’s first black professional footballer playing in goal for Darlington and Preston North End in the FA Cup.

Thirty-three years later Britain gained its first ever Olympic sprint medals when Harry Edward (also born in Ghana) won bronze in both the 100 and 200 metres. This was bettered in 1928 by Jack London, yet another Ghanaian, who won silver in the 100 metres at the Amsterdam Olympics. His running was summed up by W.R. Loader in his celebrated book Testament of a Runner”. “The man’s will,” Loader wrote, “vibrated down the track like the twanging of a great bow-string.” Totally incidentally, Edward, London and the Olympic gold medallist of 1924, Harold Abrahams, were all coached by the Italian born, Sam Mussabini.

In 1945 Aircraftsman Emmanuel McDonald Bailey from Trinidad elected to stay in Britain after the war. A year later he won the first of seven AAA double sprint titles. In the 1948 Olympics at Wembley he finished sixth (being hampered by injury that season) but four years later he won Britain another Olympic medal in Helsinki with bronze in the 100 metres. “Mac” as he was universally known, along with Arthur Wint from Jamaica, ran at meetings all over Britain and did much to popularize the sport.

This phenomenon is worldwide. The domination by black athletes of Olympic and World championship sprinting is almost total. It is now 23 years since there was a white finalist in the Olympic 100 metres and 27 since one took the gold medal (Alan Wells in 1980 in Moscow when the Games were boycotted by the USA and Caribbean countries). There is not one white sprinter in the fifty-two athletes who have bettered 10 seconds for the 100 metres

To write in these terms only a short time ago would have been considered racist by some. To assert black superiority in any sporting event was felt to stigmatise them with the American euphemism of “dumb jock.” Sir Roger Bannister got himself into all sorts of trouble in 1995 when he opined that there were biomechanical and physiological differences between populations.

When I first met the great Lee Evans, some nine years after he had won gold at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and became the first man to run under 44 seconds for 400 metres, he was coaching in Nigeria with a few other former American athletes and á la Alex Haley, was trying to connect with his roots. His theories as to why black athletes were so superior to white in the power events were stark. “We were brought to America as physical specimens to work the plantations,” Lee told me,” the best men were mated with the best women. Our ancestors were bred for strength and speed.”

Today there seems to be an agreed realisation that different populations have varying physical talents. West Africa produced power athletes; East Africa produces endurance runners; Slavic populations produce heavy throwers (74% of the fifty all-time best hammer throwers come from that part of the world). The physical build and stoicism of the Japanese people reflects itself in marathon running. Migration from Africa since the beginning of human existence created this diversity of populations and today, as Lee pointed out, because of the iniquitous slave trade there is a Diaspora of West African athletes throughout North America and the Caribbean. Whatever, the arrival of that pioneering group from Jamaica almost six decades ago is something that British athletics should celebrate next June.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Justice and Injustice

Justice …

The remorseful wailings of Marion Jones following her disclosure that she was heavily into performance-enhancing drugs will cut little ice with the sport at large. Not only is her career in ruins but her life also. The winner of five medals at the 2000 Sydney Olympics had, since those achievements, stoutly denied taking steroids and she committed perjury in 2003 by continuing to do so to federal agents. It is a crime that could well see her end up in jail when she comes to be sentenced next January.

Athletically this means that the top eleven women’s 100 metre performances of all time were almost certainly chemically assisted (the late Florence Griffith-Joyner, world record holder, was strongly reputed to be on steroids). The irony is, as IAAF President Diack noted, that Jones would probably have won those medals on natural ability alone.

In 2000 Jones married shot putter C J Hunter who tested positive for drugs; she then partnered Tim Montgomery before he admitted in 2004 to taking human growth hormone. Both Montgomery and Jones publicly travelled to Montreal to consult with Charlie Francis, the notorious coach to Ben Johnson. Montgomery was later indicted for money laundering and is awaiting sentence. Jones was coached by Jamaican Trevor Graham eleven of whose athletes have tested positive for drugs. She was also named by Victor Conte, indicted owner of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO), who escaped jail by spilling the beans on athletes whom he had supplied with drugs. She later moved to be coached by Steve Riddick, a number of whose athletes had also tested positive. Riddick was indicted and found guilty along with Montgomery for their fraudulent activities.

At long last justice has caught up with this clique of undesirables who have brought shame upon the sport of athletics. As for Jones she is either extremely devious or extremely gullible.
So, the Sydney gold medal in the 100 metres will now be awarded to Greek sprinter, Ekaterini Thanou who came second? Well, possibly not. Thanou and fellow Greek sprinter, Konstadinos Kederis were, in 2004, before the Athens Olympics, involved in an incident worthy of a Feydeau farce when in scurrying around the Greek capital on a motor cycle, possibly to avoid drug tests, they crashed, received injuries that put them out of the Games. Both were banned for two years by admitting to avoiding three tests (their avoidance tactics had become legendary) and they face perjury charges regarding their accident. Kederis, it will be remembered, deprived Darren Campbell of a gold medal in Sydney in 2000. Their coach Christos Tzekos was banned for life.

The cheats are caught, rejoice, rejoice. Well not quite. The World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) with its 25 million dollar budget and the United States Anti Doping Agency (USADA) with its 13 million dollar budget both failed to nail Jones through much vaunted testing procedures and scientific research. They had to rely on federal investigators to force an admission in court. Indeed Jones was found positive for the banned substance Erythropoietin (EPO) in 2006 but her B sample did not confirm the finding and she was cleared. In the cases of Thanou and Kederis both admitted to missing tests but had never tested positive.

3279 out-of-competition tests in all sports were carried out by WADA in 2006, providing just 1.74% of adverse findings. USADA similarly carried out 8421 tests that year, resulting in 0.36%.positives. In athletics the IAAF recently announced that 1132 tests were carried out at the Osaka world championships resulting in 0% of positive findings and in the past twelve months (July 2006 to June 2007) UK Athletics have announced a total of 650 tests also resulting in 0% positives.

Such statistics indicate one of two conclusions: either the test statistics show a miniscule level of drug misuse and questions have to be asked of those who continually bang the drum about the massive drug menace in sport or the testing procedures are not working and cheats like Jones, Thanou and Kederis are getting away with it. Either way serious questions about value for money should (but wont) be tendered in November at the World Conference on Doping in Sport in Madrid

… and Injustice

Paul Edwards, former international shot putter, must be the only athlete in the world to have his drugs case debated in parliament, not once but twice.

On the first occasion the matter was raised in 2002 by Edwards’ then MP Andrew Hunter. The MP, a former Minister at the Northern Ireland office, who would be well versed about bigotry and obfuscation on a grand scale, was scathing in his criticism of the sports authorities. He found the stonewalling by the then UK Sports Director of Anti-Doping, Michelle Verroken highly frustrating and suspicious. “It’s my first experience of athletics’ administration,” he told me five years ago, “and I find it appalling.” The reply by the then Sports Minister, Richard Caborn, was full of self-congratulatory guff about testing in Britain and he suggested to Hunter the various options that were open to Edwards to pursue his case.

None of them bore fruit so this month, Maria Miller, Edwards’ new MP, again raised the matter in the House. Appalled by the injustice, she had taken up Edwards’ cause and its lack of progress over the past five years. She had had correspondence with Caborn before he left his post in the Brown reshuffle. What resulted from his advice was a highly predictable bout of buck passing by UKA, the IAAF, WADA and the Court of Sports Arbitration (CSA). Gerry Sutcliffe, the new Sports Minister, promised to help Miller through the mire of bureaucracy so that the case could be heard by the CSA but nobody is holding their breath.

This is a case that is not only disturbing for Edwards but has much wider implications for sport in this country and around the world; it concerns the efficacy of drug testing and it raises questions as to whether UK Sport and the London IOC accredited laboratory, that will be in the forefront of drug testing at the 2012 Olympics, attempted a cover-up in order to protect its integrity.

These are serious allegations but some believe they have credence because in another case, that of athlete Mark Hylton in 2000, the laboratory refused to accept criticism of its procedures by an eminent authority even though such criticisms were accepted by the IAAF and by the then UK Sport Chairman, Sir Rodney Walker, who was quoted as saying, “What we will be looking for is reassurance that the lapses will not be repeated. If the situation arose where there was a lack of confidence [in the laboratory] then we can send our samples abroad."

In 1994 Edwards tested positive for an anabolic steroid and was flown back in public disgrace from the Commonwealth Games in Canada, along with Diane Modahl (who subsequently cleared her name at the expense of personal bankruptcy). Edwards lost on appeal and was given a 4 year ban. From that moment he has suffered from the age old adage of “once a cheat, always a cheat.”

He was out-of-competition tested in June, 1997 and from that very moment there have been doubts and suspicions about the integrity of this particular test. Edwards was duly accused of taking a prohibited substance and was, because it was a “second offence”, banned in 1998 from the sport for life. He appealed and lost.

For the next eight years he and his team of advisers, including MPs and scientists, have fought to uncover evidence that they believed would clear his name. They met with years of obfuscatory stonewalling of almost unbelievable proportions from UK Sport and the Drugs Control Centre (DCC), both claiming immunity from disclosure under the Data Protection Act. Their problem was that the Data Protection Commissioner (DPC) didn’t agree with them. UK Sport successfully stonewalled, despite being formally warned by the DPC, until in December, 2003 the laboratory doors were suddenly flung open and Simon Davis, who has a Ph.D. in mass spectrometry and is a highly respected expert in sporting drug cases, was allowed in and found 600 pages of evidence that had not only been withheld from Edwards but crucially also from the disciplinary and appeal panels that heard the case. Further evidence, it transpires, is still being withheld.

What he found convinced many people that there had been a serious miscarriage of justice. Not only that but they also raised the possibility in people’s minds that the prolonged stonewalling was undertaken so that when, inevitably, the evidence had to be produced, the time for Edwards’ to appeal would have elapsed. He was in Catch 22. He had no new appeal until he saw the evidence; he wasn’t allowed the evidence until it was too late to appeal.

Doubts surrounded this whole process from the moment that Edwards gave his sample, to its journey to the laboratory and to it being tested at the Drugs Control Centre. These could be summarised as follows:

1. The length of the test was recorded as taking 3 minutes. Any Independent Sampling Officer (ISO) would tell you that to carry out all the correct procedures is impossible in that time.
2. The ISO did not follow set procedures laid down by UK Sport. Without the pH being recorded there is no way of knowing if the sample degraded over the weekend – in the same way that Modahl’s did under exactly the same circumstances.
3. Many doubts surround the transportation of the sample from the ISO to the laboratory and the necessary paperwork was withheld from Edwards’ team by DHL, the transporter, on apparent instructions from Verroken (who mysteriously left UK Sport under an unspecified cloud almost to the day that Davis was allowed entry to the laboratory). The transportation took 3 days over a hot June weekend so the possibility of some sample degradation is high.
4. Davis highlights gross errors in the calculation of Edwards’s testosterone/epitestosterone (T/ET) ratio.
5. The B sample container was damaged and had to be opened with a hacksaw.
6. A component was missing from the methods of calibration thus making them useless.
7. There was contamination of the water (which should be pure) used to test levels of T/ET.
8. Edwards produced 170ml of urine; the amount required for the laboratory to carry out, under its own protocol, the 51 analyses it says it did, was 200ml.
9. In a direct infringement of the then IOC Medical Code (now the WADA Code) Edwards’s A and B samples were checked by the same person in the laboratory.

Davis’s report has been read by six independent eminent scientists all of whom unreservedly support his findings. Any one of the above nine reasons alone would clear Edwards. All nine deliver a devastating critique of drug testing in this country. Gerry Sutcliffe said that Edwards’s case had been reviewed in 2002, 2004 and 2005; what he neglected to say was that those reviews had been carried out internally by the laboratory and UK Sport.

What is needed is the evidence to urgently go before the Court of Sports Arbitration (which should demand the release of evidence still being withheld) followed by an independent enquiry into this whole affair. In a criminal or civil court case the withholding of evidence by the prosecution would, irrespective of its validity, result in a case being thrown out. Paul Edwards’s human rights have been shamefully and mightily abused in the name of the greater good of drug testing. That is an Orwellian concept that should have no place in our society, let alone sport.

Friday, 12 October 2007

There'll always be an England

There'll always be an England/And England shall be free/If England means as much to you/As England means to me. (Parker & Charles)

The hoary and jingoistic wartime refrain above has been the theme song of those of an elderly persuasion who have fought tooth and nail to retain an English identity in British athletics. Most of them can hark back to those supposedly halcyon days of yore when the Amateur Athletic Association dominated not only the sport in Britain but, in its formative years, the world. This domination got up the noses of the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish but it was probably justified for England had (and has) approximately 85% of the athletes and clubs and 95% of any international team. At the last Commonwealth Games in Melbourne 18 of the 22 medals won by UK athletes were captured by those from England and two each by those from Scotland and Wales.

So it might come as something of a surprise that at the last count Scotland has a full-time staff of 20 operatives; Wales 13 and Northern Ireland 6. Total staffing – 39; England has 5 staff and the nine regions a maximum of 4 each. Total: 41. Try to explain to any alien who might enter into our orbit the fact that the “Celtic fringe” (15%) collectively has almost the same staffing to operate athletics as does England (85%) and you would, from a logical viewpoint, have some difficulty. You might also question the logic of the policy setting body (UKA) having the same number of staff as all those organisations who have to implement it But then as it does not do radical so our sport does not indulge itself with logic either.

The NW of England has four staff. The population of NW England exceeds that of Scotland and Northern Ireland combined and is well over double that of Wales. Further investigation would probably show that these statistics are reflected in terms of numbers of athletes, coaches, clubs etc. So, why the extraordinary imbalance in staffing? The answer lies in the politics of devolution over which no one in sport has any control and the politics of top athletics administrators who seem to have an irrational fear of the clubs and their more vociferous members. It is patently obvious, given the complex planning that is required in all areas of athletics, that a staff level of 4 is totally inadequate to do the job; the real question for debate is: what is the optimum number required to successfully run a particular region? Unfortunately that figure has already been arrived at in England and the answer is a blanket figure of four.

This firmly stipulated number is obviously not the outcome of considered consultation but is a result of the angry backlash by the grassroots against the overblown UKA bureaucracy that inexorably grew under David Moorcroft. The worry for those attempting to revive an English administration from the doldrums of seventeen years is that sensible staffing would invoke yet another grassroots rebellion.

Some would say that it has already begun. Having four professional operatives was just too much for the inaugural chairman of the NW region. In a much publicised resignation with a few others he felt that three was a perfectly sufficient number and objected to the imposition by England of a fourth. We must have democracy he cried. He’s about a hundred years too late.

At the forefront of criticism (much of it well founded) of UKA and undoubtedly of England when it finally gets going, is and will be the Association of British Athletics Clubs (ABAC). It will disappoint some I know in the organisation when I say that I have always had doubts about it. I’m not sure who it represents; I know what it’s against but haven’t a clue what it’s for so I have some scepticism.

A few weeks ago I caught a debate on radio between a mild mannered women MP who chaired a Commons committee and an exceedingly arrogant, loud mouthed biker. The subject was the considerable number of deaths incurred by motor cyclists on the roads of Britain. All attempts at coming up with an agreed solution to the carnage failed because the biker shouted the MP down by constantly bawling: “Back off, back off. Leave it to us.” I think that UKA Chairman Ed Warner had a similar experience with a club man early in his tenure.

This mantra, common amongst club officials, shows a collective amnesia to even the recent past. They invoke a halcyon time that never was because the history of athletics politics in Britain is worthy of Shakespeare, full of conspiracies, plots and treason. Not many top officials have left our sport without a metaphorical knife between the shoulder blades, plotted to oblivion by some faction or other.

One prominent official sighed to me recently, “If it all crashes down athletics will still go on.” It is a false hope because a large proportion of our clubs are, as Jack Buckner’s excellent report on competition points out, incapable of coming to terms with modern society. Jack became the Dr. Doolittle of athletics – he talked to the athletes, something that officials and administrators have hitherto seemingly deemed impossible. And what he heard made him realise that the situation in our sport is far worse than he imagined. So, sorry ABAC there is no back to the future.

What should be the way forward? I suppose the first question is: should there be an England entity at all? Back in 1991 the clubs of England voted for BAF to be set up on a regional basis not a national one but in the best traditions of Tammany Hall those in charge of England added the AAA to the regional bodies that sat on the council of BAF thus ensuring, sooner rather than later, the demise of the new body. But as political devolution is here to stay the question is actually irrelevant anyway.

If there is to be an England then it must have the same autonomy as the “Celtic fringe” countries. It’s funding from Sport England must be direct and proportional by its size to the funding received by the other national bodies. Its terms of reference must be clear as must its relationship with UK Athletics – it would be so easy to return to the days of trouble and strife. It must have a good working partnership with its nine regions allowing them to exercise flexibility concomitant with the state of the sport in their respective areas.

England has a great opportunity to set a vision for athletics in this country something which UK Athletics sadly seems incapable of doing. It must show leadership; it certainly must be more transparent in its dealings with athletics at large; it must insist that the sport is athlete and not club centred. It must lessen its reliance on government and lottery handouts by gaining sponsorship and it must finally stand up to those Luddites who have vociferously opposed a registration scheme for almost fifteen years.

England’s administration and those of its regions must consist of a blend of youthful dynamism and experience – for over a decade now the sport in this country has totally ignored the experience available to it and it shows.

Its officers must display what the Spanish call cojones in its dealings with government, sports councils, UKA and the ubiquitous militant tendency within athletics. In those dealings when conditions are laid down or opposition is mooted they must be prepared to insist on answers to a pertinent one word question – Why?

Time is fast running out for 2012 and England and its regions should be thinking in the longer term with a vision to make the major Olympic sport in this country attractive and entertaining again.

Friday, 5 October 2007

Osaka Review 3

The novelist William Boyd once wrote that “hindsight is a great retrospective tidier and organiser of the forking paths we have taken” and as we look back a decade we can see that the moment the British Athletics Federation (BAF) went bust and UKA was born was a fatal moment for the sport in Britain when the downward spiral of international success, of the diminution of numbers of participants, officials and coaches began.

At just this moment in time it was decided after the Atlanta Olympics and the worst ever medal showing for twenty years by the overall BOA team that something must be done and medals must be won, so lottery funding and the emergence of UK Sport and Sport England from the shadows into the all-powerful players of British sport began. Opportunely, like manna from heaven, into their laps popped the major Olympic sport, battered, bruised and penniless.

Basically BAF, with the aggravating sore of the AAA of England in its side, had self destructed. I cannot remember a time (and I go back a fair way) when athletics has not been in an administrative turmoil: volunteers against professionals, the regions against the AAA, the AAA versus the British Board and the AAA of England versus BAF. Road running against the rest, cross country versus track and the clubs, those sanctified untouchables, against anybody they can think of. It’s never been a pretty sight and, of course, it’s still going on. I defy anyone to find me a more disharmonious (and therefore dysfunctional) sport than athletics in Britain.

The respective graphs of decline, if applied to a commercial organisation, would alarm its chairman and chief executive to such an extent that they would surely conclude that radical action is urgently needed. The first problem with British athletics is and has been that it doesn’t do radical and this frustrates some within the federation who wish to radically address failures within their remit. Secondly, because it does not have very much independent funding the federation appears in total thrall to UK Sport and Sport England.

When, in 1999, I interviewed Howard Darbon, the then Director of Organisational Development at Sport England, his anger at the amateurs who had led his sport (he was very active with Bedford and County AC) to disaster was evident. He was determined that the idea, long cherished, that amateurs could run a professional sport, would no longer prevail. In setting up UK Athletics in its own image (a completely professional individual sports quango which was totally undemocratic) it unleashed upon athletics in this country an organisation somewhat akin to the court of the Emperor Haile Selassie in Addis Ababa. UK Athletics is a huge (biggest in the IAAF family by far), Kafkaesque bureaucracy where all individuality and even freedom of athletics thought must be stifled in order for British athletics to conform with the One Stop Plan and the Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) demanded by UK Sport and Sport England. Control is the name of the game.

I have had sight of two documents: the Funding Agreement with UK Sport and a letter from Sport England outlining information appertaining to KPIs, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The Funding Agreement indicates, quite clearly, that UK Sport completely controls the work of UK Athletics, that the piper does not just call the tune but plays all the instruments as well. It is full of demands and restrictions which, in view of the sport’s chequered financial history, are probably understandable. But it does not recognise (because it appears to be mainly a template document for all governing bodies) the wonderful uniqueness of athletics in that it is virtually 15 sports in one. No other major sport can produce such a variety of activity or variety of athlete (using the word in its widest context).

UK Sport has produced a High Level Goal for Beijing of 5 medals. It does not matter where they come from; it is a catch-all target that clearly has nothing to do with the overall development of the sport. So if, for arguments sake, we attained medals in all four relays and the 50k walk in the Chinese capital all would be well, the champagne corks would pop and there would be much mutual back-slapping and telegrams of congratulations irrespective of the fact that back in Britain athletics will not have changed one iota. This is a game of Fantasy Athletics, where as long as boxes are ticked the ultimate prizes must surely be won.

The Sport England document covers UK Athletics Key Performance Indicator targets for 2006-07. Two examples suffice: one shows that in the Active People survey 244,481 adults said they participated in athletics (not running or jogging) once a month whereas the baseline figure for club membership was established at 96,000. This absurdly suggests that 60% of people using an athletic track are, to use our jargon, unattached. The second shows that the target for increasing the number of Level 1 coaches between 2007 and 2009 is 2000. Level 1 coaches are not allowed to coach on their own so the figure begs the question as to where the mentors of these new recruits are to come from to enable them to function? What actually happens is that the vast majority of Level 1 coaches move no further up the qualification ladder but are content to just add it to their CVs or they coach but aren’t supervised. Have these targets been arrived through consultation and negotiation (in which case who in the sport must take responsibility for the fiction arrived at) or have they been imposed? The sport at large is entitled to know.

Such analysis is irrelevant in our tick-a-box world that produces plans and resources that do not necessarily produce relevant action. I am constantly told that a co-ordinator or a committee or panel have set up an Action Plan but I look around me and find little or no delivery. But the relevant box has been ticked and as an ancient Arab saying has it, the dogs have barked and the caravan moves on.

In what is generally known as the Golden Era of British athletics, that period of brilliance between 1980 and 1993, our athletes won a total of 72 medals, including 17 gold, at eight global championships. In the same period 9 British athletes set 23 world records. Between 1997 and 2007, also covering eight global championships and the tenure of UKA, British athletes won 36 medals including 9 gold and set no world records (though to be fair Jonathan Edwards set one in triple jump in 1995). In other words the new regime for the sport, covering an equal number of global championships and spending millions on elite athletes and itself, has seen a 50% reduction in the numbers of medals won.

There is an argument that there is a financial imperative for our sport to be in bondage to lottery funding and the bureaucrats who administer it; that imperative is that British athletes have to be financially and physically supported in order to compete on an equal footing on the world stage. It has some small merit. In the Golden Era our medal winners earnt their crust first unofficially and then officially on the European circuit of grand prix meetings mainly thanks to the entrepreneurial skills of the now sadly missed Andy Norman; today we have very few athletes who are on the promoters’ “must have” lists. But this argument falls down when you realise that in the past decade the 36 medals were won by just 14 athletes, at least seven of whom will have priced themselves out of lottery funding. It is an interesting thought that Christine Ohuruogu, our only individual gold medal winner in Osaka, received no funding in 2006-07 and indeed had to find many thousands of pounds in her attempts to appeal against the pernicious sentence imposed upon her by UK Sport and UK Athletics.

The annual turnover in the Golden Era averaged about £8 million (at its peak about £10 million) of which salaries at BAF took up about £½ million. At UKA the salaries have hovered around the £2 million mark and in 2005-06 a further £1.9 million was spent on world class performance. Look at the state of the sport today from international performances to grass roots and schools athletics and you have to question whether our sport is spending (under sport councils’ guidance) public and lottery money wisely. We are clearly not on a pathway to paradise.

The craziness goes on. Next week we’ll look at England and its nine regions (almost 90% of the sport in this country), its funding and its staffing together with the Ludditism that is still so prevalent in our clubs.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

The Barnum of Track

Some deaths fill one with a momentary numbness by their unexpectedness and that of Andy Norman last Monday is one such.

We had last met around this time last year at the World Athletics final in Stuttgart and as usual, in a hotel bar, we chewed the cud with some sadness over the state of British athletics, its stifling bureaucracy, its apparatchiks in seeming thrall to the two over-dominant voices in British sport, UK Sport and Sport England. Six months previously we’d both been speaking at an IAAF Workshop on One-Day Meetings and the World Athletics Final and it was obvious that here was a man revered by the sport worldwide, still sought out by the hierarchy both for his knowledge and forthright opinions.

Born in Suffolk 64 years ago he had been a modest middle-distance runner (which for some was difficult to imagine) who finally retired but athletics was in his blood. People tended to know him only for his work at national and international level but there was a grassroots side to him that many athletes, who competed at his midweek open meetings at the Crystal Palace, would testify to with gratitude and affection. So many would say, “Andy gave me my first lift up the ladder.”

He graduated from those promotions to directing the famous Friday night Coca Cola meeting at the Crystal Palace. His daytime job was as a policeman and he served as a desk sergeant at both Chelsea and Notting Hill stations. The credentials he brought to athletics promotions were those of a streetwise cop: he saw everything in clear-cut terms and wouldn’t suffer fools gladly; in fact he wouldn’t suffer them at all.

He learnt on the job, went to Oslo to learn the ropes from the promoters of the then most famous “spectacular” the Bislett Games. He made friends with the two great New Zealand runners, John Walker and Rod Dixon. “From them,” he once told me “I had an education. I found out how things worked and I was amazed that thousands and thousands of pounds were pumped into the sport on the backs of half a dozen athletes.”

In those days he had two trump cards, Steve Ovett and Brendan Foster and he played them to the full. When Foster retired he had Seb Coe. And he used it to full effect. “If you want Ovett,” he would tell promoters, “you have to take”, and then he would name a few athletes on the brink of an international career.”

In 1982 it was his forceful words at an IAAF Congress that brought an end to the era of ‘brown envelopes’ and shamateurism, that and the fact that he just casually mentioned to one or two of the older stars who had graduated into administration that he knew all about their lucrative careers.

In 1984 ITV made a very big, successful bid for the sport’s television contract and a proviso was that Andy would become the sport’s promotions director. Together with Sven-Arne Hansen (Oslo), Andreas Bruger (Zurich), Wilfred Meert (Brussels) and Sandro Giovanelli (Rieti) he formed the Euromeister organisation of leading European promoters.

I suppose you can say that his cup runneth over: the athletes loved him and the sport loved him for bringing success. In next to no time he became the most powerful man in British athletics.

The stories surrounding Andy are legendary. We worked together for almost a decade for the ill-fated BAF; I had done the PA Commentary at all of his major meetings. Working in Rome at the 1987 World Championships as Press Attaché for the British team, the team manger, the late Les Jones and I witnessed his arrival at the athletes’ hotel. It was not unlike the arrival of the Pope and it took him well over an hour to pass through the lobby. People didn’t exactly genuflect but they came damned close to it.

He was a larger than life, controversial figure, revelled in his image of being “a hard man” (though those that knew him knew that he was as soft as brie under the facade). The press loved him for the copy he brought them and I suppose you could say that, in the days before celebrities, he came close to being one.

“Everyone is happy for someone else to do the job,” he said. “If you succeed then they say ‘Well, didn’t we do well.’ If you fail, then they say ‘Where did you go wrong.’” I knew how he felt because in the eight years that we worked together I had to deal with him (and two others) being involved in drug allegations; with Steve Ovett accusing him of offering £20,000 to run against Seb Coe at the AAA Championships; his on-going battles with coaching director Frank Dick; with the Zola Budd affair and numerous other minor controversies. In the end he left BAF under a cloud over the Cliff Temple affair in 1994. Temple, a highly respected journalist, was threatening to write an article about the commercial interests of Fatima Whitbread who Andy was later to marry. According to Temple Andy was spreading rumours about his relationships with his athletes. Temple though was going through a deep, personal trauma and a divorce and the combination of the two factors drove him to commit suicide. The controversy was enormous and in the end he left the federation. A few months later Frank Dick also resigned, followed by treasurer John Lister the following year. Many point to those moments as the beginning of the decline of the sport.

Athletes moaned about the treatment they received from Andy but all would agree that he was always frank with them. If they weren’t good enough for a meeting he’d say so. He once told Linford Christie (in that rich, fruity, often mimicked voice) that he “wouldn’t fill a telephone box”, a remark that Linford gleefully reminded him of when the great sprinter was filling stadiums. He bemoaned women athletes always having to consult their coach before accepting an invitation to run at his meetings or failing to turn up because “the budgerigar died.” I can remember sitting in a commentary box warbling about a meeting when his large frame appeared in the doorway. “’For Gawd’s sake,” he said plaintively, “mention Chafford Hundred (Fatima’s commercial arm) else I’ll have no peace all the way home.”

For his last thirteen years he has been as busy as ever roaring round the world like Barnum, organising meetings in Eastern Europe and South Africa, representing some of the greatest athletes like Jonathan Edwards and Kelly Holmes, advising the IAAF, the EAA and, on the quiet, UK Athletics and England. With his talents he could have made a lot of money but that didn’t seem to bother him and when he parted from Fatima his home was a small flat in Birmingham.

The greatest athletics autobiography will now never be written and in the death of Andy Norman the sport has lost a man of immense drive and talent. We’ll never see his like again.

But it could be that he’s already organising the first ever Grand Prix in heaven with the greatest fields ever assembled in the history of the sport. Whatever, rest in peace, old friend.

(The final section of Osaka Review will now appear next week.)

Friday, 14 September 2007

Osaka Review 2

The Olympic stadium in Seoul, South Korea, is an imposing edifice standing alongside the Han River and it was here in 1988 that two young women assembled for the final of the Olympic high jump. Diana Davies was 27 years of age and the British record holder with 1.95m, a mark she had set six years previously; Janet Boyle from Northern Ireland was 25 and had set a personal best of 1.92m in qualifying. A third British competitor, Jo Jennings, just turned 19, had come fourth in the recent World Junior Championships and had missed qualifying in Seoul by the proverbial whisker, jumping 1.90m, a personal best.

In the end Davies finished eighth equal in the final and Boyle finished twelfth. As we sat in the stand, feeling that this could be the dawning of a new age in the event in the UK, little did we know what actual significance this day would have. It was the last time that a British woman high jumper reached the top eight in a global competition; the last time that three British women were selected for a global competition and the only time three British women have all cleared 1.90m in the same competition. . In 1988 the tenth best UK performance was 1.84m; in 2007 it is 1.81m. Finally, only five women in the past eight seasons have cleared 1.90m and no British woman high jumper has been selected for five of the six global championships held this century.

Why have I highlighted women’s high jump? Mainly because the event sums up nearly all our field events. Only eight field event athletes went to Osaka including just one thrower. They (especially the throwers) have, from the dawn of the modern era, never been a part of the athletics culture in this country. In the sixty years that we have chosen (since the birth of a coaching scheme in Britain) you can count the names of those who have reached their throws finals (top eight) on the fingers of one hand. In the men’s Discus: Weir and Pharaoh; in the Javelin: Backley, Hill, Bradstock and Ottley. In the women’s shot: Oakes and Bevis Reid; in the Women’s Discus: Ritchie and Head. And so on.

British field event performances, Global championships 1947-2007

Some of these names are lost in the mists of time and in those six decades, covering twenty-six global championships, we have mustered just fourteen individuals (nine jumpers and five throwers) who have climbed the podium.

There has over the decades been a general acceptance that we had a paucity of talent in the technical events. Occasionally a great talent would emerge and be lucky enough to link with an equally talented coach but once they had retired the event would drop back into mediocrity. The women’s triple jump at the present time is a prime example. The respective federations were never proactive except for the odd gimmick. In the late 1960s that doyen of women’s athletics, Dame Marea Hartman, launched a Big Girls initiative. The idea was to encourage big girls to take up throwing. “We want,” burbled Marea on television after, one suspects, one Campari too many, “Big Girls to look good in shorts.” The scheme, to say the least, was not an overwhelming success and sums up the general thinking about throwing even to the present day.

It is an enduring disgrace and you get the feeling that our throwers in particular are viewed as second class citizens, a sideshow to the main events. You only have to witness their travails this year, including banishment at the Throws Fest to an outside field which was downhill and therefore not acceptable for record (or personal best) purposes, to share their frustration. They have not received even the crumbs off the sumptuous plates of lottery funding (only one thrower on the World Class Podium list in 2007). In the Grand Prix events staged by Fast Track they receive (if they receive anything at all) token recognition

This is in sharp contrast to the cries of anguish that went up when our distance runners stopped performing well on the world stage. Former champions and record holders also went on TV to relive their glories and bemoan the decline These appearances were followed by an immediate rush to set up expensive initiatives (the St Mary’s College campus etc.) in an attempt to revive former triumphs. That nothing similar has ever been mooted for our throwers in particular makes one ponder whether “the heavies”, as they like to be known, are looked upon by UK Athletics as a lost cause.

Why ask this question now after all these years? The simple answer is 2012. The Olympics is the first global championship to be staged in Britain since 1948 and as indicated in part one of this Osaka Review, Britain Expects. Expecting to see British athletes on a regular basis in both track and field events is surely essential in making the Games a success. And as Seb Coe has pointed out staging the Olympics is not just for an all too brief orgasmic rush of sporting fervour but is to provide a legacy for our sporting future.

Superficially over the years our jumping standards appear to be better than our throwing but a look at the rankings compared with ten years ago show not much improvement in top performances and a generally alarming decline at lower levels. In other words the exploits of Jonathan Edwards, Phillips Idowu, Chris Tomlinson and Ashia Hansen have tended to obscure the real picture. Standards in the throws have also generally not improved between 1997 and 2007 (the period of UKA’s tenure in charge) or have got worse.

So the real questions are these: is it through a lack of talent that our field event performances generally lag behind the world or (a heretical query this) is it that our field event teaching (in schools in particular) and coaching is and never has been good enough to enable our best to compete at global or even European level?

Many years ago I wrote an article titled Don’t Put Your Daughter in the Circle Mrs Worthington (with due apologies to Noel Coward). It was a light hearted piece with a sting in the tail and highlighted the severe imbalance between the earnings of track athletes on the European circuit and the throwers who were never invited and if they were would be lucky if they got expenses. In other words, as the title implied, why take up throwing?

In those days there was not the competition from other sports that there is today. Rugby for both men and women is a much more attractive proposition (and a lucrative one if you’re male and good enough). Rowing is the glamour Olympic sport of the moment that attracts men and women of power and talent. Respective athletics organisations in the UK (and God knows there have been enough of them) have done nothing, down the years, to further or glamorise throwing or to some extent jumping with the result that I still could not recommend that the Worthington’s daughter should contemplate a life devoted to a throwing circle. So much more must be done to attract endowed talent into the sport and to retaining it.

The professionalisation of coaching per se is long overdue but our coaches have to accept, in any case, that they have to be judged by results, they have to be accountable. This may be anathema to many but a look at the statistics down through the decades shows that technical expertise is missing in some areas of coaching. We may have to acknowledge our deficiencies and import the latest and best techniques and research; we may have to send our top coaches abroad to learn.

This is absolutely the right moment for UK Athletics in cooperation with the home countries and the regions to right a century or more of wrongs and be proactive about our field events. There are many initiatives that could be taken.

The Performance Director has to recognise that it really is in his best interests to assist with the development of our weakest events. Beijing would be an excellent starting point. Even though, as Peter Matthew in Athletics 2007 has pointed out, qualification in throwing events is a much tougher proposition than it is in track, our throwers this year have achieved Olympic A or B standards in six of the eight events; likewise in the jumps. Select any athletes that have so done the standard so far, support them and give them the necessary international experience to compete well in the Chinese capital. Appoint a supremo for field events and throws in particular; invite overseas opposition in to compete in our Jumps and Throws Fests; bring in the world’s best coaches to run Master Classes with Britain’s best. And so on. The solutions are not simple but they are not rocket science either.

In the third section of this review of Osaka from a British viewpoint I will look at the base of the pyramid of athletics in Britain and discuss how decades of vested interest and internal bickering has placed us right into the hands of our sporting quangoes to detrimental effect.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Osaka Review - 1

In just over twelve month’s time, in a time-honoured ritual in Beijing, the Olympic flag will be handed to the London Mayor for safe keeping until 2012. It is a solemn moment and should be a sobering one for those at UK Athletics in charge of Britain’s major Olympic sport. At that moment there will be just three full athletics seasons left before British athletes step into a competitive cauldron for, to slightly misquote Lord Nelson, Britain expects. Have the nine days of competition in Osaka shed any light on our prospects?

That the team exceeded all expectations there is no doubt. The majority raised their game. In our first new Blog we said that fourteen personal best performances “would be a sign of the birth of a renaissance”. Well, fourteen personal bests (six in the heptathlon) were set in the Japanese city and another was equalled so that particular mission was accomplished.

Not much has been made of the extraordinary success obtained by the British women. In past global championships they have played second fiddle to the men, often by a considerable margin. In Osaka they scored over double the men’s points (top eight) and leaving aside the aberrant Olympic year of 1984 (almost total boycott by the Communist bloc) scored second only to that of the great Olympic team in Tokyo in 1964.

This is not a momentary fling; these are the come-back kids. As can be seen in the chart our women began to ease past their declining male colleagues in Paris in 2003. Now they are really achieving: four of the five UK medals gained in Osaka were won by women. Of the fifteen personal bests twelve were achieved by them.

The reasons for this distaff success are manifold but clearly the level playing field brought about by lottery funding has been a major factor. Prior to 1997 women were second class athletics citizens in many ways. They were not considered commercially viable, very few were thought to draw bums to seats and so the vast majority of our female internationals had to combine work with their sport. In the main that has changed. Out of competition drug testing must also be a factor because it has always been realised that drugs would tend to assist sports women the most.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that our men are continuing to decline. Leaving aside the relays (always an easy option- never more than two heats required) our chart shows the men individual finalists (top eight) since 2001.

Male finalists: 2001-2007

Further analysis shows that in what were once our blue riband events, the middle distances, we now have a dismal record. In the 800 metres our last finalists are Curtis Robb and Tom McKean in 1993; at 1500 metres there have been two finalists since that year: Matthew Yates (1993) and Michael East (2004); at 5000 metres prior to Mo Farah’s placing in Osaka you have to go back to 1992 and Rob Denmark. At steeplechase we have had no top eight finishers since 1992.

In Osaka we had no male entries in the throws; in Helsinki we had no finalists and the problem is that our throwers in particular are in Catch 22: they won’t get the support unless they obtain the stringent standards and they won’t get the stringent standards unless they get the support, so their chances of competing against Europe’s best are very limited.

Our leading Hammer thrower Andy Frost had 24 competitions this year, 20 of which were of comparatively low calibre and almost all in the UK. He won all of his domestic competitions but didn’t qualify for Osaka.

In contrast Marlon Devonish ran 20 races prior to Osaka, 13 of which were in Grand Prix events, mostly abroad. He won just 5 of them but raced the best in the world. He reached the 100 metres final.

Goldie Sayers was our only thrower in Japan. Prior to Osaka she had just 7 competitions, 4 of which were abroad. She won all her domestic competitions and one overseas. In the championships she threw her worst distance of the year.

Why does all this matter? It matters because Dave Collins and his team cannot, in the three global competitions between now and 2012, continue to set such low targets as they did for Osaka. But as he raises his targets he may find himself in a spiral of diminishing returns. In the last five global championships British athletes have failed to reach finals (top eight) in 81.6% of the events but this was compounded by the fact that we did not enter anyone in 34.4%. Up until quite recently there has been talk of a target of British athletes reaching 50% of finals in 2012 but as the above figures indicate, even at this early stage, the ambition is unrealistic.

What the public – the spectators in the stadium and the television audience - want to see are British athletes reaching finals and a percentage of them winning medals. The 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester clearly demonstrated that this was the case. British athletes took part in every individual event and 60 men and 54 women reached the top eight. 30 of them won medals. There was momentary euphoria and for the briefest of moments athletics overtook soccer as the most popular television sport.

Of course the standard of the Games is much lower than that of the global championships and a prohibiting factor in improving our participation in the latter is the ever increasing IAAF stringent qualifying standards. The time differential between Japan and Britain will have been a major influence in affecting television viewing figures but so will the fact (as commentator Paul Dickinson pointed out) that British athletes did not compete in 11 of the 18 field events that were comprehensively covered.

Collins (and Max Jones before him) has frequently said that his job is not the furtherance of athletics standards in this country but is solely to provide the means for medals to be won. So the question for UKA is: who takes responsibility for ensuring that the low standards in events not covered by the Podium and Performance programmes are tackled?

Other questions are manifold. Are our coaches good enough? How can we persuade this generation and future generations of throwers and jumpers that the world of international athletics is for them? Should we, as an act of positive discrimination put our best throwers and jumpers on a par with track athletes as far as funding and support goes? These and other questions we’ll look at in Part Two next week.

Not Enough Doping

Of course it would not have been a world championship without a selection of doping stories. The most typical of the propaganda emanating from the governing bodies and WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) came from the IAAF who felt the need to tell the world that there was one “suspicious” sample from the 1060 tests undertaken. The emphasis was, you will have noticed, not on the fact that 1059 tests were negative but on the fact that one was “suspicious.” Instead of praising the fact that, taking the figures as an indicator, the championships were virtually clean and drug testing is working there was a seemingly pressing need to highlight the one possible positive sample.

The IAAF may have been, quite rightly, pre-empting a possible leak from the Japanese laboratory but it, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and WADA are crying wolf too often. The testing figures from Osaka are in line with the annual testing figures of the past decade or more that show drug taking in athletics at less than one percent – hardly the huge menace to sport that is constantly being hammered home.

Meanwhile in Britain Heike Dreschler and Christine Ohuruogu were inciting the wrath of the seedier sections of the press deprived as they were, by the lack of a drug positive, of their only reason to cover the championship.

Dreschler, a candidate (successful) for the IAAF Women’s Committee, was picked on because she had been a victim of the East German state-sponsored drug programme and Ohuruogu because she had the temerity to win the gold medal after having served her time for missing three tests (there was no such outcry when she was selected). Don’t let this be the face of 2012 screamed a headline accompanied by the worst possible photo of a contorted Christine in action they could find.

I wonder how the journalists concerned would have fared under the STASI in the GDR and whether they would have had the courage to defy the all enveloping secret police with its 400,000 agents and informers where an act of defiance would lead to the deprivation of livelihood, torture and harassment and even death, not only for the individual but for their family and friends as well. It was a modern day Inquisition. As for Christine, it seems that she probably fell foul of some editorial conference where the assembled hacks were looking for a new angle and she should treat it with the contempt it deserves.