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.