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 รก 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.