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.

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