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.