To slightly misquote Cicero, may the Gods avert the omens that accompany the Great Britain team to Osaka for the 11th World Championships in athletics.
The omens that I refer to are the continuing downward spiral of British performances at global championships since 1993 (see graph), a spiral that has deepened in the early years of this century and the fact that, in the 2007 world rankings prior to Osaka only a tiny handful of British athletes have attained the top twenty in their events. Thankfully statistics can lie and athletes can exceed their grasp and put up performances of a lifetime; equally statistics cannot be ignored.
The targets for Osaka set by UK Athletics are fourteen finalists (top eight) and three medallists. At the last two world championships Britain had twelve and four (2003) and seven and three (2005) respectively. Three of the seven medals came in relays. If the current world ranking lists are anything to go by we have just three athletes ranked in the top eight going into Osaka: Jessica Ennis in the heptathlon (third); Goldie Sayers in the javelin (fourth); Chris Tomlinson in the long jump (seventh). Phillips Idowu is breathing down the world’s best in the triple jump ranking ninth. Much hope is being placed on the relay teams gaining finals and winning medals but the likelihood seems to be that only two of the four will reach the podium. If these statistics were to be replicated in Osaka Britain would, at best, equal its worst ever global showing in Helsinki two years ago.
Twenty-one men and twenty-two women are entered in the individual events in Osaka, making a total of forty-three. Assuming that two of our relay teams will reach their finals this means that 28% of our individuals must reach their respective finals if the target is to be achieved.
In selection the emphasis on the relays is very heavy. Marlon Devonish is only selected for the 100 metres and is seemingly omitted from the 200m in order to be completely fresh for the relay - it makes one recall Maurice Greene running ten races in Seville in 1999, winning three gold medals. Christine Ohuruogu travels to Japan not to be an individual contender but simply because she will add strength to the women’s 4 x 400 squad. Mark Lewis Francis (ranked fifth in the UK) is preferred at 100m to the European U23 and World Student Games champion, Simeon Williamson (ranked second) surely solely on the fact that he is an experienced relay runner. Lewis Francis has consistently failed to confirm his early promise, hailed at the turn of the century by all and sundry as a future world champion. He has never reached a global final and if there was any justice he would be travelling solely for the relay. This expensive over-emphasis on our relay teams indicates some desperation on the part of the federation and, of course, it is fraught with danger.
But setting our sights on finalists brings difficulties. Declining UK standards allied with increasingly tough IAAF qualification standards means that the number of events in which British athletes can compete is shrinking. Only one thrower is travelling to Osaka and overall we are not represented in ten of sixteen field events. Indeed we are not represented in 15 of the overall 43 championship events, almost a third of the total and in 14 others we have only one competitor. There is a diminishing return here: fewer athletes in fewer events means less finalists.
So what criteria would show an indication of success? The answer is that if we had 14 athletes achieving personal best performances in Osaka if would be a sign of the birth of a renaissance. But would it be an indicator that is acceptable to our over-bureaucratic sports councils? I think not.
An Endangered Species
It came as something of a shock to hear the PA announcer tell his occasionally listening audience at the recent Premier/Div 1 BAL meeting at Barnet that certain events would not start unless some volunteer officials came forward. It was something one frequently heard at meetings of a less prestigious calibre but hearing it at Copthall stadium made one realise a salient fact: athletics officials are an endangered species.
I’ve been to numerous meetings of all standards around the country and I could not help but notice that our officials, who carry out such a vital, and more often than not unappreciated, task, are steadily getting much older. Many years ago some ass proposed that there should be a retiring age for officials, I think around 60 was the cut off point. If such a proposal had gained favour the sport, by now, would have ground to a halt.
This begs the question: who is in charge of officials? Who is responsible for recruitment? Who is in charge of their welfare? There is a scheme afoot to recruit young men and women to become officials for 2012. Indeed professional, one-year contracts have been handed out for this very purpose.
The stark fact is that we cannot wait till 2012 because the problem is immediate; the sport is not even being reactive to the problem. Who should, in fact, be taking responsibility for the recruitment of officials? UK Athletics? England? The new regions? Or those former organisations existing in a sort of limbo, AAA of England and its former territories? Somebody somewhere needs urgently to take a lead.
Buckner’s report on a new competition structure is soon to see the light of day. No matter how dynamic and forward looking it is it will not function without qualified officials.