Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Who should run the Asylum?

(A very brief history of British athletics administration)

As the short-lived British Athletics Federation (BAF) staggered, in the mid-nineties, towards bankruptcy and oblivion in a maelstrom of bitter dispute and recrimination with the AAA of England, I discovered that the composition of both governing councils was, with one exception, made up of one and the same people. In other words they were battling with themselves.

After so many years in the sport this did not come as any great surprise. What was slightly surprising (but only slightly) was that most of the said council members did not see anything awry with such a situation. Figuratively you wore one hat to an AAA meeting and another at a BAF. All perfectly normal; “you see, it’s always been this way”, a top official of 30 years standing patiently told me.

To me this story encapsulates in a nutshell the previous 117 years of rancorous, sometimes splenetic, voluntary administration that came to a close in 1997 when the administrators were called in. The whole history of UK athletics administration begs the question: who is best suited to run our sport?

It could be that British Athletics has a collective DNA for self-destruction. From the very beginning of organised administration there has been suspicion, distrust and a tendency to militancy. To tell the history of athletics administration in Britain would require a Tolstoy and so I’m confining myself to look at three tendencies that have dominated prejudices down the years: the retention of the Amateur Athletic Association (AAA) as a dominant political force; a determination (until 1997) to keep professional staff firmly in their place and a serious case of collective male chauvinism.

The AAA was set up in 1880 and there was suspicion from the start from the North of England that the Varsity toffs wanted the sport confined to ‘gentlemen amateurs’ who would, in deference to cricket, compete in championships held in the early spring. Definitions and dates were ironed out and the oldest national association in the world came into being.

The initial battles over the first few decades were fought over professionalism and betting, resulting in one London stadium being burnt down by an angry mob. Many famous athletes were banned for life from the sport for racing against pro athletes (Walter George), accepting money (Alfred Shrubb) and of “roping” – not trying (William Snook). The AAA hierarchy took a very hard line indeed in order to preserve pristine amateurism.

It was the AAA that affiliated to the International Amateur Athletic Association (IAAF) when it was founded in 1913 and it chose athletes for internationals and Olympic Games. The first serious challenge to its hegemony came in 1930 when the Scots, increasingly miffed by AAA high handedness, applied for separate affiliation to the international body. This was disallowed but it led to the setting up of an International Board later to become the British Amateur Athletic Board representing at the IAAF the four home countries. However by sheer weight of numbers (95% of the sport) the AAA was to continue to dominate for the next half century.

For many, many years there had been rumblings for the setting up of a British federation but there was always some faction that vociferously opposed it. In the late 80s and early 90s a long, sometime very tedious, process took place that resulted in a British Athletic Federation (BAF) being proposed. Clubs were asked to vote on its composition and shock! horror!, they voted for a regional structure that did away with the AAA entirely. The ruling England hierarchy rushed behind closed doors and emerged with a compromise: yes, there would be a regional structure but there would also be an AAA presence. The newborn BAF was, as it turned out, doomed from that moment.

Internal battles soon commenced with AAA diehards vigorously opposing BAF. It all came to a head in 1997 when the BAF Chief Executive and its Finance Director, seeing the writing on the wall, left within a few weeks of each other. In September it was discovered that the federation was bust and administrators were called in. It was the nadir of British athletics.

Now Sport England had control thanks to its new status of being paymaster to those sports who could not (in the case of athletics would not) fund themselves. UK Athletics was formed with little or no democracy. The AAA of England (and the internal strife) continued together with its over-blown territories. All had been formed into limited companies and could therefore continue ad infinitum. In 2003 Sir Andrew Foster, at Sport England’s request, initiated a review that came up, a year later, with nine English regions instead of three, “taking the sport nearer to the coalface”. In 2008, in a scramble for further lottery funding, the professional headquarters of the nine regions were scrapped by an England elite and power reverted to central control. The merry-go-round concocted by confused, inexperienced minds continues unabated.

One of the legacies of the early days of the AAA has been an aversion to professional administration and coaching. Various recommendations for a Chief Executive of British Athletics had been made in the past, mainly through such luminaries as Lord Wolfenden (indirectly) and Lord Byers (directly). All were politely (publicly) and impolitely (privately) rejected.

The BAAB finally got around to appointing its first Chief Executive in 1978. This was David Shaw, who became highly regarded for his work both nationally and internationally but not where it mattered most, with the upper voluntary hierarchy of the sport. Frustrated in his attempts to move British Athletics forward he left after a few years. It was the only enlightened administrative appointment that the governing bodies have made in the interim 25 or more years. Why it is that most of our sport’s professional appointments have proved unequal to the tasks facing them it is difficult to say. There has never been the mutual respect that was and is needed. Why those endowed with making the appointments so frequently got it wrong is equally difficult to understand. Maybe it was a disastrous brew where those who didn’t know what they wanted chose those who didn’t understand either.

Professional coaching became an imperative after the Berlin Olympics but any implementation of it was postponed because of the war. In 1948 Geoffrey Dyson was appointed Chief Coach and had under him a team of national coaches whose terms of reference were, basically, to “teach the teachers and coach the coaches.”

To many of the top officers of the AAA/BAAB coaching was merely “bloody kidology” and so it was inevitable that fiery clashes took place between the often apoplectic Dyson, determined to bring status to coaches and the honorary officers equally determined that he should know his place. The battle was the inevitable irrestible force versus an immovable object and the latter won. First the highly respected Jim Alford resigned, followed by Dyson and then Lionel Pugh. The internationally, highly envied coaching scheme stagnated and remained that way for another sixteen years.

Over the years many internationally top rated coaches came and left in sheer frustration men like Ron Pickering, Wilf Paish, John Anderson, Tom McNab, Frank Dick and Malcolm Arnold. What the voluntary hierarchy never appreciated was that British athletics was the poorer for their going. And the battle for respect for coaching and its wider professionalisation, dreamed of by Dyson, still hasn’t been won at any level. Lip service but little action is paid to it and in Britain over the last decade the coaching scheme has almost become a parody of its former self.

The emancipation of women after the First World War led to a great upsurge in women’s athletics, both nationally and internationally. In 1922 a letter was sent to the AAA requesting that it take control of women’s athletics. This was agreed in principle but there was a suggestion made that a women’s association be formed that would then affiliate to the AAA. This duly happened and application was made but the AAA had changed its mind and suggested a ‘working agreement’. As Peter Lovesey wrote in his excellent History of the AAA, “What prompted this volte-face we may never know. Whether male chauvinism won the day or the AAA simply took fright at controlling what was regarded in some quarters as at best risqué and at worst dangerous to health, the WAAA went its own way and the working arrangement took 10 years to emerge.”

Six years later at the Amsterdam Olympics, in extremely hot weather, slightly distressed women finishing the 800 metres led to a horror of women’s athletics by the male dominated IOC and IAAF. The worry about athletics physically harming women would delay parity with men’s events by almost 80 years.

The WAAA had some formidable characters, no nonsense women that stood up for their side of the sport. Other home countries and regions of Britain followed suit as did various disciplines and at its peak this led to over 40 organisations controlling the whole sport in Britain. The WAAA had its own officials and its own Head Coach. Only one other country in the world had separate organisations for men and women and that was Australia that transferred to an amalgamated federation in 1978.

Ten years later moves towards BAF commenced and the then WAAA secretary, Dame Marea Hartman, was inveigled (by dint of offering her the Presidency of the new organisation) into persuading her colleagues into abandoning their segregation and integrating into one federation. Almost overnight women disappeared from the councils and committees of the combined organisations. Because of the small number of women involved with clubs and counties and because of a system of Buggins Turn, men voted for their own. That hasn’t changed. Women make up just 12.5% of the elected members to the nine England Regional Councils, five of which have no elected women members at all. The number of women Level 4 coaches in Britain is an indictment of the system; male heads are nodded at the injustices but those in charge seem to equate gender issues alongside or even behind those of much lesser significance. Apparent parity in officiating is a delusion, men officials outnumber women by 2:1.

The IAAF recommends that each of its federations has a Women’s Committee, a recommendation studiously ignored by both UKA and England. The cold fact is that it is not in the self-interest of the men who run British athletics to be proactive in this area. Our sport is the poorer for it.

The sorry state of affairs of 1997 led Sport England to believe that the sport would be better run by professionals and UKA was set up to ensure this.

What epitomises the ten years or so of professional autarchy that we have had since? Two things. Firstly, the structural mania that has gripped those employed by UK Athletics and England. Building structures is the haven of those who just don’t know what they don’t know. Secondly, the recent England AGM attended by a mere handful of Board members (no one seemed certain as to who could attend). Our structures are becoming pure Kafkaesque.

Both the voluntary and professional sectors must take some responsibility for the confused mess that we are in now. By opposing any form of self-funding the volunteers have ensured complete subservience to the paymasters of Sport England and UK Sport. By believing that their individual appointments made them athletics experts overnight the professionals have led us into a bureaucratic nightmare. Is it that British athletics has long been ungovernable?

“If men could learn from history,” said Samuel Coleridge, “what lessons it might teach us.” Indeed, but only if we are humble enough to want to.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Yet Another Brave New World

It could be said that British athletics over the past fifteen years has behaved like an unruly volcano, erupting with a regularity that is now embarrassing. The latest eruption, created by the new establishment at England Athletics, will cast another set of dedicated people into the cauldron of the job market.

It is just four years since Sir Andrew Foster’s report on the future of English athletics was published. It too was to supposedly herald in a new era for the sport: nine regions instead of the overblown three, professional staff nearer to the clubs (the supposed cutting edge of the sport), nine volunteer regional councils to provide supervision. There have been teething problems, there always are, but generally speaking progress has been made. So the question has to be asked: why yet another dramatic u-turn?

And, of course it’s only a year or so since UK Athletics also indulged itself in a bout of job shedding, though in that particular instant slimming down the organisation was urgently required. But it surely cannot do the reputation of our sport any good to see redundancies being frequently used to clear up the inadequacies of higher management or to implement the changes in policy of the increasingly chameleonic Sport England.

British athletics has always been governed by an inner circle of power that is notoriously closed. The present administrations are no exception. I am told that the regional councils were kept in ignorance (on the advice of the sport’s Human Resource unit) of these changes for fear of leakage to the professional staff. Not much faith there then. These recent events have exposed the convoluted, supposedly democratic election system for the sham that it is. It ensures the vast majority of the sport plays no part in decision making processes including consultation.

Though we know, from the document issued by England AA, the how and the when of this dramatic change we are not clear as to the why and it is probable that we never will be.

My own suspicions, as always, lie with the sport’s paymasters. Sport England (at the moment a rudderless organisation requiring a new Chairman and Vice Chairman) is just entering a new funding phase and has been told by the government's Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to change direction and give more autonomy to governing bodies of sport. This is the very same Sport England who, a decade ago, following BAF’s bankruptcy, decreed that athletics was incapable of organising itself.

Our sport surely deserves to know why the decentralisation of Foster should, in the space of just three or four years, regress to the centralisation that it felt was detrimental to the future development of grass-root athletics.

The constant dramatic twists and turns of policy are demoralising for the sport, whose support for new stratagems has been severely dented by the failures of recent years. The nobility of intent has always been undermined by a failure of application. Schemes planned by the regions have now to be abandoned. Athletes will be let down. The unseemly rush to dismantle the existing structures will lead to the abandonment of proposals and ideas that were going to benefit athletes and the sport in the nine England regions.

We can glean from the statement issued by England AA Chairman, John Graves and CEO, Mike Summers some of the effects their actions will have. Gender equality in administration will suffer even more The paucity of women on regional councils has, so far, been partly counterbalanced by the appointment of some fine professional staff that have made excellent contributions in their regions. There is no guarantee that they will continue in the sport. Ethnic representation is almost non-existent both professionally and voluntarily so there is a danger that the administration of British athletics will continue to be run by middle- and not so middle-aged Caucasian, grey-suited males, once called the blazerarti. If the history of gender inequality in athletics administration is not known to the present incumbency, I would be delighted to enlighten them.

Believing that “established competition providers” can “best deliver a revitalised competition structure” is naïve and flies in the face of recent history. League athletics in Britain has failed to develop at least over the last couple of decades and attempts to change the structures have met with stubborn resistance. Travelling long distances for inadequate competition has become de rigeur for thousands of youngsters competing in the more junior leagues and is partly responsible for the alarming drop-out rates that concern us all. David Jeacock, secretary of the British Athletics League recently visited some French league meetings and underwent a road to Damascus moment. He found the meetings “fun” and recently referred in his annual report to “that po-faced puritan approach to sport that so often seems to infect us.” He has hit the nail of our current competition structures right on the head.

Two of the new core objectives of England AA are to “increase participation across a wider cross-section of the community” and “to improve the quality of experience of every participant.” If these objectives are to be met then it is the governing bodies who need to tackle a re-invigoration of our competition structures. It is a task they have studiously avoided for decades.

Coach development now appears to be a part-time role for 19 newly appointed “field-based club and coach support officers” working under “three team leaders.” For such a vital section of our sport that has been disgracefully neglected over the past decade or more this seems poor recompense. Frankly, it is difficult to reconcile the roles of club support and coach development in just one person; they will have expertise in either one or the other but it will be a rare animal indeed that will have sufficient expertise in both to be effective. I suspect that in many cases support will consist of alerting coaches to courses that are available to them and be left at that.

Coaching needs urgent, full-time attention. It is unfortunate that we have had to wait so long (over six months and counting) for the appointment of a UKA Strategic Head of Coaching Development and it seems probable that the England AA Board may have jumped the gun in swiftly looking to appoint these “support officers” before a coaching strategy is in place.

At first glance (and we still await the detail) all these significant changes appear to be structurally based, which follows the pattern of the past ten years. Presumably the “intensive consultation” has found that coaches and clubs are all eager to be developed. The opposite has been my experience and, it seems, that of a lot of equally experienced people around the country. There are, at a liberal estimate, about one hundred properly functioning track and field clubs in Britain. This leaves about four hundred who are probably content with their lot, whose voluntary officials have no more time to give and who are in despair at the Brave New Worlds being conjured up by bewilderingly changing administrations.

What incentives are to be offered to voluntary coaches to develop? Most Level 2 coaches I have met are also content with their lot and cannot see any point in expensively (in time and money) leaving their comfort zones and qualifying for Levels 3 and 4.

All this probably sounds curmudgeonly but there is undoubtedly a certain naivety about this restructuring. It assumes much including the fact that retention of the nine regional councils without professional support will be welcomed by them. The council members might conclude that it is but a sop to the voluntary sector.

It would be interesting to know who were intensively consulted across the sport about this umpteenth change in policy and structure and one hopes that England AA will publish a list in the not too distance future. Meanwhile, we await the detailed plans with interest.

Super Radcliffe (on two counts)

All praise to Paula Radcliffe for two achievements: one, a stunning third win in the New York Marathon and two, insisting that the 2012 Olympic stadium retains an athletics legacy when the curtains come down on the quadrennial bonanza in just under four years time. Black marks to Jacques Rogge, IOC President for saying that a hand over to King Soccer would be acceptable, thus effectively pulling the rug from under Sen Coe's feet.

Just when it should be backing Radcliffe’s remarks UK Athletics remains stolidly silent on the matter. Not a public peep on the legacy has emerged from Solihull’s Athletics House; nor from England Athletics. Both bodies, but especially the former, would have a responsibility for organising a programme of meetings there in the aftermath of the Olympics and so an indication of their intentions would be useful. Indeed British Athletics intentions regarding the stadium will, very shortly, become an imperative.

The ageing Crystal Palace is no longer a suitable stadium for Big Time athletics, yet it is the only stadium in our capital city worthy of the name. It attracts sell-out crowds for the Grand Prix meetings staged there. Yet UK Athletics or Fast Track or whoever dictates policy on these matters insist on carting Grand Prix and international meetings around the country to make do and mend stadia in order, presumably to "take athletics to the people". For decades the only venue for major athletics meetings in Britain was the old White City and travelling there to compete was often a highlight in many athletes’ careers. It seems to have escaped the notice of those in charge that football takes its major internationals to Wembley; that England Rugby has its base at Twickenham and Tennis stages its major tournament annually at Wimbledon.

Does the Trappist silence on this matter augur badly for our sport? Does it mean that the coterie that runs British athletics have no faith in their ability to stage athletics that will attract the public? Do they mean to bend their knee to soccer and quietly give up? Has no one learnt the lesson of the 2002 Commonwealth Stadium? Are there no exciting plans for staging top class international athletics in Britain once the Olympics is over?

One way that both UK and England Athletics could support a post-Olympic athletics legacy for the stadium would be to announce that they are moving their administration there, lock, stock and barrel, immediately after the Games.

(Next time: a potted history of the woeful administration of athletics in Britain).

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Listening to Wisdom

When two of Britain’s former Directors of Coaching and highly respected international coaches are expressing the same opinion about the treatment of coaching by UK Athletics over the last decade its time that the federation started to listen.

Frank Dick and Malcolm Arnold are unanimous in their opinion that coach education has been severely neglected. “What was developed in the 1980s and early 1990s has been decimated,” Arnold recently wrote. “Syllabuses, where they exist (I think there is still no syllabus for Level 4 after 10 years) mimic second-rate coach education degree courses in third rate universities.”

And the results of one of the Moorcroft regime’s more toxic policies are there for all to see. Level 1 and 2 syllabuses have produced armies of bewildered souls unable to cope with the actual business of one to one coaching and thus stay in a safety zone of running crèches for youngsters who spend most of their time doing warm-up exercises. The drive has not been towards coaching competence but towards fulfilling Sport England’s KPI (Key Performance Indicators) targets.

This has resulted up here in Cumbria (and I’m sure elsewhere) of having 74% of qualified coaches at Level 1; another 17% at Level 2, making a total of 91% qualified at the lowest two levels. 8% are Level 3; 1% Level 4. And these are just qualified and absolutely not necessarily practising. Furthermore I have yet to meet anyone who feels that they have learnt anything worthwhile on either of the lower two courses.

It now seems to be realised that athletics coaching in Britain is in crisis. “It is a wonder,” Malcolm additionally wrote,” that we are doing as well as we are on the world stage.” The widely expected appointment of Charles Van Commenee as Head Coach has shown that coaching is back at the helm of performance. Van Commenee recognises where the problems lie: “What I can say is that there will be a much greater emphasis on coach development and coach education,” he recently said. “It has been undervalued and even ignored in recent years and it must be our emphasis.”

It is now six months since the services of Callum Orr were dispensed with and there is still no sign of the appointment of a Strategic Head of Coaching Development and so that area continues to remain in a vacuum. The problem of the new hierarchies at both UKA and England level is that we seem to be in a continuous state of flux of either waiting for someone to be appointed or for them to "settle in". As the weeks go by the greater the chances that many other coaches will give up in sheer frustration.

Going Round in Circles

UK No 1 Discus thrower Philippa Roles’ recent criticism of Lottery funding for athletes, whilst perfectly understandable, rather misses the point. It is because of Lottery funding that our women track athletes have done so well in relation to the men over the last couple of Olympics. Prior to its introduction women were very much the poor relation when it came to trying to earn a living from competing on the Grand Prix circuit, where the IAAF and EAA competitive network is heavily loaded in favour of men’s events. And as for women’s throwing events – forget it.

Where Roles is absolutely right and where she is echoing her predecessors from past decades is in her condemnation of the treatment of throwers, especially the heavy throwers. Three throwers represented Britain in Beijing, all women. Two of them, Roles and Hammer thrower Zoë Derham did not receive lottery support and Philippa spends her days driving trains around the south-east of England in order to support her athletics.

It is an excellent sign that Charles Van Commenee has appointed Bob Weir to take charge of the heavy throws up until 2012 (and hopefully beyond). Bob has been there, done most everything and sent innumerable postcards. He last represented Britain at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney; in his sojourn in the States he coached Olympic shot put champion Adam Nelson and has been head coach to an American World Junior championships team. But what Van Commenee and Weir need to emphasize strongly to those that govern these things, is that without financial support for our throwers, no matter what technical expertise is available, we will still be bereft of competitors, let alone finalists, in throwing events in 2012.

On his appointment Weir made a most significant comment. He pointed out that Stephanie Brown-Trafton, the American winner of the Discus title in Beijing, was of British parentage, which negates talk of Britain having a genetic fault line that does not produce big enough athletic specimens. Brown-Trafton is 6’ 4” and weighs 225lbs. She went to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and throughout the early years of this century competed in the highly competitive NACA meetings. In the USA she belongs to the Nike club, has an agent and only 2.07 metres separates her 2008 US best performance from the third ranked. As we keep repeating such competition lies at the root of USA success.

What would have been the prospects for Brown-Trafton if her parents had remained in Britain? If she had gone to a college or university there would have been the dreary annual BUSA championships usually held on a very unseasonable date in equally unseasonable weather at Bedford. There would then follow the usual parade of county, territorial and national championships with the extraordinary excitement of the UK Women’s League to look forward to; she’d have won all her competitions by a large margin. International competition? Roles this year went to a European Winter throws competition in Croatia in March, a meeting in Cyprus in April, a meeting in Germany in May, the European Cup in Annecy. Wow! Great preparation for meeting the world’s best in Beijing.

What would Brown-Trafton have done? Taken up Rugby.

The truth is that, so far, the small successes that our heavy throwers have attained down the decades have been despite of rather than because of the system.. Britain has won just one Olympic or World Championship medal in the heavy throws. That was achieved in 1924 by Hammer thrower Malcolm Nokes who won bronze. Nokes, incidentally, was one of the early pioneers of coaching in Britain in the 1930s. There has been only one finalist (Lorraine Shaw in the Hammer) in global championships since 1984. There have been only eleven finalists (six men and five women) since the Great War.

If Bob is to make an impact some significant spending needs to be done. Let’s begin by ensuring that Philippa Roles doesn’t have to rise at some unearthly hour of the day to transport commuters into London before she trains for her true love, the discus.

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

European Woes

In Beijing, Europe’s male runners put in their worst global performance since the dawn of the modern Olympics. A silver medal in the steeplechase by a Frenchman of Algerian origin and a relay bronze by a Russian quartet in the 4 x 400 metres relay was all that the cream of European men had to offer in the face of the American, Jamaican and East African running juggernauts. It is clearly time for those running athletics across Europe (including the promoters) to collectively search their consciences to wonder if they have settled into a complacently comfortable and now damaging rut.

European pride was again saved by its jumpers and throwers and its women athletes, mostly from the Eastern European countries. It is ironic that the man in charge of a British team that obtained an equal number of medals (4) to Italy, Germany, France and Spain combined should have been unceremoniously shown the door on his return. But that’s another story.

It is in Western Europe where the malaise really lies. Of the 24 medals available in the men’s jumps and throws Europe won 18. But of those 18 medals Western Europe won only 4 (two by Britain, one each by Portugal and Norway). Western Europe contributed just 5 (21%) to the continent’s overall male collection of Olympic medals of 24. Europe’s women incidentally won 30 medals overall, the West’s contribution here totalled 8 (26.6%).

The worrying aspect, as former European Athletics Council member John Lister noted back in 2005, is that the five most important economic nations are the above mentioned Britain, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. Between them they provide the foundation for 80 per cent of the contract with the European Broadcasting Union, which feeds the sport its biggest income. “For television interest to be maintained,” John said then, “successful European athletes are essential…without them stability is at risk”.

As the above figures show it isn’t happening. Prior to the World Championships in Helsinki Europe’s medal haul had averaged for a number of years around the 50% mark. In Helsinki it reduced to 46%. In Beijing it dropped even more dramatically to 38%. Those five most important economic nations are struggling: in 1999 in Seville they won 21% of the medals, by Helsinki they had dropped to 12%, in Beijing they sank to 5.6%.

Former European Council member Luciano Barra produced figures in the IAAF New Studies in Athletics 2007 that showed an alarming decline in television viewing figures for the Big Five for the major championships staged in Europe this century. In 2002 they totalled 245.5 million; by 2006 they had dropped to 197.5 million, a decline of 43.5 million (18%). Worst hit was the BBC, showing a decline of 51.2%.

Conventional wisdoms as to the reasons for the athletic decline and fall of Europe abound. We are now a sedentary continent; more and more countries are winning medals; there’s no way our sprinters can beat the Jamaicans and Americans and the endurance running Africans are also unbeatable and so on. All reasons, you’ll notice, outside the control of those running athletics in Europe and the various countries of the continent. Everyone, it seems, is in denial about our deficiencies.

A sedentary continent? I think not. Sport across the whole of Europe is still a major leisure activity. Mass marathons and lesser known road races attract hundred of thousands of runners across the continent.

More countries winning medals? The numbers of countries winning medals rose quite suddenly from 36 at the World Championships in Stuttgart in 1993 to 43 at the next world championships in Göteburg in 2005. Since then it has plateaued between 40 and 46 countries. The reason for the sudden upsurge in medal-winning countries was nothing to do with the development of athletics and everything to do with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, which produced 15 new states. Indeed it could be said that with the reunification of Germany and new states also emerging in the Balkans the percentage of countries winning medals has in fact fallen since 1993

It is true that European men’s standards have declined in both sprints and distance running events. The first European to run under 10 seconds was Linford Christie (9.97) twenty years ago; only two European men, Francis Obikwelu and Ronald Pognon have achieved that feat this century. It is 27 years since Seb Coe broke 1:42 for 800 metres; only two Europeans, Yuriy Borzakovskiy and Andre Bucher, have broken 1:43this century. It is 26 years since David Moorcroft set his European 5000m record (13:00.41). Only three Europeans have broken 13 minutes since that time, the last 8 years ago. Two of them were born in Morocco.

So what is the underlying reason behind Europe’s dismal track showing in Olympic and World Championship stadia? Is it that athletes are not as talented as their forebears? There is no reason to suppose that the flow of track talent across a whole continent, as opposed to field, is drying up. Is it that standards of coaching have dropped dramatically? The same applies. To me the problem lies squarely with the competitive network established across Europe by the IAAF and the European AA which is not serving the continent’s athletes well. The 50 or so IAAF and EAA meetings staged this year and in previous years are an uncoordinated mish-mash that often has more commercial interests than athletic ones. Our best track athletes are not obtaining the frequent and right level of competition that they require.

I and others said all this early in 2005 at an IAAF Competition Workshop held in Monaco. I had been invited by the late István Gyulai to make a presentation because I had written that I had chosen to watch the final day of golf’s Ryder Cup rather than the IAAF World Athletics final and that when I had watched the latter the next day I knew I had made the right choice. The one was exciting and competitive, the other turgid and boring. Dave Gordon of the BBC gave a similar message. Heads nodded sagely but it has been ignored as a survey of this year’s Golden League meetings shows.

Only 29% of male track athletes at this year’s six Golden League meetings came from Europe, which staged them. Of the 44 men’s track events across the six meetings European athletes won only 3. Only 6 other athletes figured in the first three. The litany goes on. Running against opposition that is in a higher, different class is not good for the soul. Many of those competing must have been demoralised by their experience and knew that it did not augur well for their chances in Beijing’s Birds Nest Stadium. Many, I am sure, were mentally defeated before they even arrived in the Chinese capital. What we have here is a crisis of confidence for both athletes and administrators.

It may be said that the purpose of this collection of Golden League, Super Grand Prix, Grand Prix and European Permit meetings (whose pecking order the public does not understand let alone care about) is not to develop athletics or athletes but to provide a shop window for the sport and its sponsors (and provide paydays for the competitors). In Britain anyway it has failed in this also for the big European meetings, once regulars of terrestrial television, now languish on pay-to-view.

The European AA cannot change individual coaching or what happens in individual countries but it can make radical changes to competition across the continent. It should look across the Atlantic and study the competition structures, fiercely competitive in nature, which breeds and hardens its athletes and turns them into international champions year after year. Is there something we can learn? Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to create similar competitions that frequently pitch Europe’s best against each other? .

The EAA is aware of the bleak state of the sport but seems rather intent to turning athletics and in particular the European Cup into a version of Jeux Sans Frontiers (It’s a Knock Out) as well as staging a European Championships every two years, which dubiously means just months prior to the London Olympics in 2012. At IAAF level there seems to be an awful complacency, based not on athletes and athletics but on commercial viability. As long as the sponsors and television are there and the money is rolling in, everything must be rosy. But if Europe dies, athletics dies.

The world’s best athletes took their weary limbs to Stuttgart for a lucrative World Athletics final. The standards were far from great. It was more like a beauty contest. There was no redemption for Europe’s runners. The best they could muster were second places in the 200 metres and 110 metres Hurdles respectively. No big paydays this year then.

It was the last athletics to be staged at the newly named Mercedes-Benz Arena which is now to be re-developed into a football-only stadium. For those who believe in omens it could be appropriate.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Beijing: Where the Buck stops

Midst the euphoria following the excellent overall performance of the Great Britain team at the Beijing Olympics, we have to consider why it is that British athletics performed so very moderately, especially considering that it had received more lottery funding than any other sport in the preceding four years (£26.5 million). Athletics failed to attain its modest target of five medals

That the team did perform very unexceptionally (to say the least) is clearly shown by the statistics. Britain finished eighth equal (with Australia) in the athletics medal table and sixth in the final placings table, its worst Olympic position since 1976; athletics was the fifth best British sport in terms of medals.

The facts make grim reading:

  • Britain gained only 16 finalists from 47 events, just over 34%.

  • Only 2 individual male track runners reached their finals

  • It did not enter athletes in 12 events

  • There were no male throwers in Beijing

  • In the men’s middle- and long-distance events Britain failed to produce a finalist (top eight)

  • Only 4 out of 26 (15.4%) individual male competitors set personal bests. In

  • contrast 9 women out of 30 (30%) did likewise including 2 national records.

  • Although half a million pounds was expended on the relay teams only two reached the final (botched sprint take-overs in the others). Neither of these reached the podium.

  • One of the four medallists (Germaine Mason) did not receive lottery funding and lives most of the time in Jamaica; another (Tasha Danvers) spends a considerable time in the USA (though she wisely flew back to Britain for funded medical treatment to an injury).

  • In the ten years immediately prior to lottery funding (1987-97) British athletics averaged 17.4 finalists in global championships; in the ten years following the introduction of lottery funding (1999-2008) it averaged 13.2.

  • Between 1987 and 1997 (before lottery funding) British athletes won 55 medals in eight global meetings; between 1999 and 2008 (during lottery funding) they won 34 medals, also in eight meetings, a fall of 38%.

  • Under the present Performance management covering 2005-08 in three global meetings Britain produced 35 finalists, an average of 11.6.

  • In terms of medals in the same period Britain won just 11 medals in three championships.

That’s the statistics. What’s the story?

The overall poor performance of the British Olympic team in Atlanta in 1996 prompted the introduction of lottery funding, although athletics actually didn’t do too badly that year with six medals and thirteen finalists. Beijing has highlighted the stark contrast between those sports federations who have successfully used lottery funding to boost their medal tally and UK Athletics (UKA), which hasn’t. Although it has received probably around £50 million in lottery funding over the past decade or so our athletes have shown little or no improvement over that period.

The question is whether UK Sport’s requirements for lottery funding are suitable for such a diverse sport as athletics, or whether UK Athletics has had the competence to apply the funding wisely. Put more succinctly, are those who run UK Athletics, especially its performance sector, up to the job? The signs I have to say, with just four years to go to 2012, are not propitious.

Since the formation of UK Athletics, after the insolvency of the previous federation (BAF), coaching has degenerated significantly. As is now well known, the separation of Coaching from Performance in David Moorcroft’s tenure as CEO was a monumental disaster that led to years of neglect for this most vital aspect of our sport. Coaching became Coach Education and the development of existing coaches stagnated, causing considerable disillusionment.

There is a close correlation between our throws performances (only two places filled out of a possible twenty-four in Beijing) and the historical lack of good quality throws coaches (and indeed lack of throws coaches per se). Middle and long distance running presents a different but equally troubling story, especially on the men’s side. Only six of the eighteen places available to men were filled and none got a top eight position – indeed only Baddeley reached the final. The women filled fourteen of the eighteen places available but only two reached the top eight. There was a sad all-round lack of tactical awareness from both sets of runners. You have to go back twenty years to discover a male British middle-distance medal. Maybe our endurance running coaching ain’t what it used to be.

On the BBC Brendan Foster angrily lamented our running decline. “The whole basis of British athletics used to be middle and long distance running,” he said, “and the people who run the sport have allowed it to evaporate completely. They’ve lost control of it, let it go. We know who is responsible.”

With only four men setting or equalling personal bests in Beijing you also have to question the physical and, more importantly, mental preparation for what was the most significant event of the team members’ lives. Quite a number of British athletes peaked at the Trials in Birmingham only to be a pale shadow of their former selves in the Bird’s Nest stadium. The cyclist and rowers collectively looked as if they expected to win medals; our athletes, with obvious exceptions, looked as if getting to Beijing was enough. This, considering that there is a sports psychologist in charge of Performance, is surprising.

Moorcroft’s farewell poisoned chalice to the sport was his failure to appoint a coach as Director of Performance. The now almost forgotten Foster Review recommended scouring the world for the best available candidate. Top coaches like Keith Connor flew in from Australia to undergo psychometric testing only to fall by the wayside; Charles van Commenee from Holland was actually in-situ at UK Athletics but rejected. In the end they found their man in Edinburgh, sports psychologist Dave Collins. In a recent interview he angrily noted that people weren’t exactly queuing up for the job.

It was Collins who actually took hold of the chalice, for he inherited a failing structure. In Athens, Britain was lucky. Three golds were won thanks to Kelly Holmes (who had trained and was coached overseas) and the sprint relay team. Too much euphoria and UKA failed to see the warning signs – terrible performances at the two previous world championships and 33% fewer finalists than in Sydney.

But Collins hasn’t understood coaching and some believe that he hasn’t understood athletes either (remember his publicly scoring athletes out of ten for their efforts in Gothenburg in 2006?). More recently, the insistence that Kate Read, the 10,000 metre runner, run a fitness trial the night before her Beijing race has astounded many knowledgeable coaches. What would Paula Radcliffe’s reaction have been to a similar edict? What was the advice of Collins’ endurance coach?

Like his predecessor, Max Jones, Collins has always insisted that his brief has been top performance and that the development of the sport is not his concern. Like Jones (who should have known better) he has not appreciated that poor standards throughout the sport have a direct affect on the number of athletes in his Podium group.

It’s no good citing bad luck. Good luck and bad plays a part in life and in sport. Bad luck is so often matched by someone else’s good - Kelly Sotherton was below par; Sanya Richards did not run her usual race, and so on.

Beijing has been yet another wake-up call for UK Athletics. For years it has cancelled the alarm and gone back to a complacent sleep. Now is the time, regretfully, for a clean up of the Augean Stables as far as the Performance sector is concerned. It is time for accountability to kick in for the professional staff.

To recover from years of mediocre performance in the span of one Olympiad is a Herculean task and one does not envy whosoever takes it on. The performances of our athletes at this year’s World Junior Championships (with the exception of Stephanie Twell) are discouraging but this year’s Olympics has shown that there is talent out there in every sport and you can be sure that athletics is not an exception. The questions are: do we have the right coaches and are we able to support them with the right structures?

Steve Cram, BBC athletics commentator and Chairman of the English Institute of Sport, was critical of Collins’ reaction to our performances in Beijing. He hoped that UK Athletics would be “honest about things.” We all say Amen to that.

(Next time: Europeans Woes)

Monday, 11 August 2008

Engineering Greatness: Peter Coe

In 1980 I was queuing at Gatwick Airport to book in for the Aeroflot flight to Moscow for the Olympics. Behind me I suddenly heard a voice that I thought I knew. I turned round and instantly recognised Peter Coe, who was flying out to coach and support his son Seb in his memorable races, the 800 and 1500 metres, at the Games. We knew each other by reputation (his far greater than mine as we shall see) and so teamed up for the flight to the Soviet capital.

Peter and Seb formed one of the great all-time coach-athlete partnerships and in Moscow they would face another team, Harry Wilson and Steve Ovett. The recent death of Peter, aged 88, begins to close a chapter on a great era when British coaching, especially endurance coaching, was the envy of the world.

We sat and talked athletics and coaching on the long flight sipping glass after glass of orange juice which appeared to be the only beverage available. Peter, naturally, was on a confident high and entertained me well into Russian air space. The plane came into land and we got ready to disembark at what turned out to be, not Moscow, but Leningrad (now St Petersburg) airport. No one satisfactorily explained this sudden switch of destination. We disembarked and went through the rigmarole of immigration and customs, communist style, had further (non alcoholic) drinks and got ready to embark again.

I had noticed a flurry of interest when Peter presented his passport (by this time Seb had broken four world records, one at 1000 metres as recently as July) and when it came to re-boarding the flight the rest of us (including the venerable Baron Noel Baker, iconic Olympian, one-time government minister and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize) were held back so that Peter could majestically (and embarrassedly) board the plane on his own.

When we landed at Moscow the media circus surrounding the clash of these two titans of the middle-distance running world was building to a frenzied climax. Independent Television (ITV) was covering top international athletics in those days and they tried to bring Gay Ovett, Steve’s mother (also on that extraordinary flight from Gatwick) and Peter together in what seemed to be a vain attempt to re-enact the family feuding of TV series The Beverley Hillbillies.

We were transported to one of those colossal, 1000 bedroom hotels, so beloved by the Soviet Union, where the most successful workers on the latest 5 Year Plan were rewarded by a stay in the capital. Peter and I elected to share. We also decided to get some fresh air with a brief walk. We handed in our two sets of keys. On our return we asked for our keys and three sets were handed to us. No, no we said, only two sets. Consternation and widespread whispered discussion took place with a growing group of individuals, including a porter, obviously a war hero, with a wooden leg. “Would you mind,” said the concierge sweetly, “if we went to your room?” Peter and I agreeably concurred. The whole party, including the war hero with one leg, crammed into a lift which took us to our lofty perch, where we were joined by a formidable crone in charge of the floor. We flung open the door and Peter triumphantly demonstrated that there were just two beds. Further urgent, whispered consultation was followed by the concierge again sweetly asking: “Would you mind if you changed rooms?” Flexibility was never a Soviet bureaucratic strong point.

I decided to try and bring Peter down from his high. Frequently on the phone he would refer to himself as “Seb Coe’s coach.”
“What do you mean,” I challenged him, “Seb Coe’s coach? You’re his father for God’s sake.”

Peter contemplated this remark. “Well,” he finally said grinning broadly, “it took me much longer to make the athlete than the son.”

He left for a more central hotel a couple of days later. The days that followed were dramatic and, for both Peter and Seb, traumatic. As world record holder, Seb was confidently expected to cruise the 800 metres but the man who actually did that was Ovett, with Coe coming second. But Seb struck back to win gold in the 1500 metres, after, it was rumoured, team management’s attempts to keep Seb and Peter apart after Peter’s forthright statements about the 800m tactics employed by his son. With Ovett finishing third in the 1500m, honours between the two great runners had ended up even.


When Peter realised that his young son could be a world beater he set about the task of becoming a coach with the precision of an engineer which was his profession. He read and consulted widely and surrounded himself with those whose knowledge he respected. He and Seb used the British Milers Club for both coaching knowledge and, early on, fast races. As Seb became a world class athlete so Peter’s reputation as a coach grew.

He always emphasized that the training methods that he advocated were only “what seems to be correct for Sebastian Coe.”

In January, 1983 I was at the 12th Congress of the European Athletics Coaches Association held at Aldeia Das Açotteias in Portugal. The main speakers were John Anderson (coach to world 5000m record holder David Moorcroft), Harry Wilson (Steve Ovett) and Peter. He said this:

“Coaching is an art. Although it is science based it is still an art. Whereas in science one can fall back on formulae and repeatable experiments, art relies on sensitivity of feelings. The athlete is a unique individual and cannot be seen in the same way as a piece of matter where the predictability of the whole embraces the behaviour of the individual molecule.”

Peter also said this: “…the programme must be tailored to the individual; what improves one athlete can destroy another. It is self evident that in modern middle distance running speed is essential for an athlete, but there is more than one kind of speed. There are not any “secrets” in athletic training: as in any activity the most important thing is to identify the goal. If a coach is looking for speed, he must define what kind of speed is required.”

Almost twenty years later, Abdelkader Kada, the coach to the great Hicham El Guerrouj, was invited to explain the ‘secrets’ of El Guerrouj’s success at a British Milers Club gathering. He chuckled. “It is ironic that the British invite me here,” he told the assembled coaches, “because I learned my training techniques from the great British coaches and runners of the Eighties.”

Seb took 800 metre running in particular into a new era. His 1:41.73 lasted as a world record for 16 years and was testimony to Peter’s emphasis on speed, the particular speed-endurance of a 400 metre runner. Seb, remember, represented UK in 4 x 400 metre relays. After 27 years he remains second on the world all-time list, behind Wilson Kipketer. Only Steve Cram and Peter Elliott really followed him into the new era and are the only other Brits in the world all-time top fifty. The emphasis on speed seems to have gone. Currently British two-lap runners are running four seconds or so slower than Seb at his peak.

Some felt that Peter was a maverick but this was incorrect. He was an individualist, unique in British coaching, a man who did not suffer fools gladly, which often put him at odds with the athletics establishment of the time. In fact all three of the men who spoke that early spring afternoon in Portugal were individualists, men whose ideas were carved from reading, learning and their experience with runners.

He has lived to see his son achieve further greatness in his winning of the 2012 Olympic Games for London. He must have passed away an extremely proud man.

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

In a Sea of Confuaion

One telling phrase sums up the attitude of those, at the very highest levels of international sport, who are trying to circumvent the law and even their own rules as far as doping is concerned. It came from the one-time Queen of Anti-Doping, Michelle Verroken, who speaking of the IOC trying not to award Ekaterina Thanou the gold medal forfeited by Marion Jones in the 100m at the Sydney Olympics, said: “I have huge sympathy for the fact that they want to do it, but this is when the legal side gets in the way (my italics).”

“…the legal side gets in the way”. Verroken, some will remember, was suddenly removed from her position as UK head of anti-doping for reasons that have never been revealed. It is a remark that has been echoed down the ages by those who have been prevented by legal safeguards from punishing those they believe are guilty of an offence.

This has been an extraordinary year for such activity by sporting authorities. It began when a very naïve new CEO of UK Athletics tried to ban Dwain Chambers from competing in the UK Indoor Trials notwithstanding that Chambers had duly served his 2 year sentence for a doping offence. It was followed by a cabal of European promoters uniting to ban Chambers from their events thus flouting restraint of trade law. Chambers, meanwhile, following the headless chicken route went to Castleford Rugby League club, who obviously know a good publicity stunt when they see one, for a trial period that duly ended in rejection. Far too late in the day he then proceeded to challenge the British Olympic Association (BOA) lifetime Olympic ban. The injunction failed not on the grounds that the by-law was legally sound but that the challenge was made far too late. So Britain's fastest man is blackballed even though he has long since served his time for a drug offence and can run under IOC and IAAF laws.

And now Thanou is back. She was involved, with her training partner Konstadinos Kederis, in a curious incident of a motor cycle crash in the night time on the eve of the Athens Olympics which precluded their participation in drugs tests; the “accident” is an issue still unresolved in the Greek courts. Meanwhile she served a two year ban for failing to take a drug test.

Thanou, unsurprisingly a pale shadow of her former self, is in the Greek team that has arrived in China much to the annoyance of the IOC President, Jacques Rogge. She is causing, as they see it, the International Olympic Committee considerable embarrassment. With Marion Jones stripped of her 2000 100 metre gold medal the next in line is due to receive it with either due ceremony or in the post. That person is Thanou. But apparently against legal advice Rogge is searching for loopholes to prevent such an occurrence. What he is in fact doing is retrospectively trying to stop Thanou receiving her due from 2000 by citing what she did in 2004. Additionally, according to press reports he is trying to prevent her from competing in Beijing by resurrecting an enquiry into the Athens incident.

Lord Coe has suggested that no medal is awarded from Sydney, which, if seen as a precedent, would eventually lead to many blank pages in the record books. Seb, although a member of the IAAF Council, seems to have forgotten that that body has already awarded Thanou the 100m silver medal because of Jones’ World Championships disqualification in Edmonton.

What a mess, what a sea of confusion. The problem lies, as I have said before, in the fact that so many of those who govern sport get themselves into an emotional lather over doping. Not only that but they seem to be proud of the fact. It is the belief of vigilantes the world over that the law “gets in the way” of due retribution. Aided by some propagandists in the media sport has convinced gullible politicians into funding millions of pounds into fighting a so called massive menace that may be illusory.

But now some of the most vigorous anti-doping campaigners are beginning to realise that the more vociferous crusaders are going too far. The former head of the World Anti Doping Agency, Dick Pound, and the great 400 metre hurdler Ed Moses have both condemned the BOA by-law that imposes a lifetime Olympic ban on a drug offender. Polls show that the general public feel that Chambers had been punished and should have been allowed to compete. With the IOC introducing a change in their doping law that prevents offenders from competing at the next Olympics it would make the BOA appear more vindictive than it does now for them to persist with it.

So what’s the message? A simple one. Cool down, get your acts together, take the legal advice offered and stand by your own rules and regulations.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

The Future of Coaching (2)

What, in the eyes of the rest of athletics, is the worthiness of a coach? Not much it seems if a couple of recent events are anything to go by. Olympic 400m champion Jeremy Wariner and coach Clyde Hart (to speak by the way at the forthcoming European Coaches Conference in Glasgow) split at the beginning of the year in dispute over Warriner’s proposed 50% cut in Hart’s pay. The athlete’s agent’s fees were to remain untouched. And the IAAF has given scant and so far negative attention to a proposal to set up a Year of the Coach.

Half a century ago Harold Abrahams, a doyen of the IAAF and British athletics establishment, caustically referred to coaching as “bloody kidology.” He had no respect for the English professional team of national coaches for the simple reason that they were paid. It seemed to have slipped his memory that his 1924 Olympic sprint gold was the result of the work of a great professional coach, Sam Mussabini. The prodigious culture clash between Abrahams and Geoffrey Dyson, the first Director of Coaching, titans of amateurism and professionalism respectively in athletics, inevitably led to the latter leaving this country, a disillusioned and embittered man. He went to Canada and successfully replicated the coaching scheme that he had set up in Britain. There he received the respect, for his dynamism and professionalism, which was his due.

In America coaching has always been professional; it’s part of their sporting culture. In Britain the exact opposite pertains for the same reason. To accept money for coaching in athletics is still considered, somehow, infra dig, beyond the pale. Paula Radcliffe’s former coaches, Alex and Rosemary Stanton were genuinely horrified at the idea of receiving remuneration for their services and there are many of the same opinion. At club level paid coaching is unknown.

If athletics’ coaching is to move forward it needs to shed itself of this albatross around its neck. As we said in the previous Blog the lead in the sanctioning of payments to coaches and their subsequent professionalisation must come from governing bodies.

When the Minister for Sport says that behind every great athlete is a great coach he flies in the face of sport council strategy that tends to negate the influence of the individual coach in favour of squad systems with strict central control.

One of the great success stories of the old coaching scheme were the instructional booklets produced by the national coaches. These were excellent and had a worldwide reputation; they were a must for every coach’s bookshelf. No more. The coming of UK Athletics saw them banished to the outer reaches of Amazon’s used book lists, never to be replaced.

A discus thrower arrives at your club but there is no discus coach and you scroll the web looking for help. Nothing official is available. You wonder if CDs or DVDs are obtainable, either nationally or internationally and you wonder in vain. Where can we learn about the latest research in the events that we coach? Apart from the IAAF’s excellent but highly advanced New Studies in Athletics there is, in Britain anyway, nothing.

Unless this highly neglected area is addressed coaching will continue to stagnate or regress.

The imbalance between track and field successes in British athletics is reflected in coaching. There is a real lack of quality coaches in most of our jumping and throwing events and the sad news is that the governing body has never been pro-active in this area. We seem to believe that poor results are the consequence of acts of God. I’m sure this applies globally. Does the genetic make up of East Africans really preclude them from events other than distance running?

In Britain the recent history of women’s high jumping is a classic example of an event in apparent permanent decline as far as international participation is concerned.

Britain has been represented only once at global championship level this century (Susan Moncrieff in 2001). No women high jumper will compete in Beijing
Since 1990 no British woman has jumped higher than 1.91m in a major competition (Debbi Marti in 1992). .
Britain last had a competitor in the top eight in any global or European competition twenty years ago (Diana Davies in the Seoul Olympics).
This century in the nine junior (global and European) championships held, Britain has had only two finalists, Aileen Wilson (2001) and Vikki Hubbard (2007). Wilson cleared 1.87m but her performances have steadily declined since.

What has caused such deterioration in an event? Is it that raw material is not available? Possibly, there were only two competitors in the Under 19 high jump at the recent English Schools. Is it through a lack of quality coaches? Is it that our coaches lack the technical knowledge to take jumpers above a certain level? Or is it because our women high jumpers are not “podium material” so the event is neglected in the scramble of the gold rush? These are questions that UK Athletics should have been asking itself years ago.

And women’s high jumping is just an example; in the men’s shot, discus and hammer Britain has had just one finalist at global level in the last twenty years (Bob Weir; World discus; 1997). In the women’s throws you have to return to the mid-eighties to find finalists. The above questions surely also appertain here.

A review of coaching is apparently underway. How extensive the consultation process will be remains to be seen. It was a lack of consultation with experienced coaches ten years ago that led UK Athletics down its disastrous coaching pathway.
As long as those conducting the review and those who will sit in judgement on it know what they don’t know there may still be hope.

Thursday, 3 July 2008

The Future of Coaching (1)

The announcement that a UK centre of excellence for coaching is to be set up at Leeds Met Carnegie is welcome. As usual with such launch announcements we are short of receiving the detail: we know the where, now we need to know the how, when and who. It is generally recognised that the quality of coaching in Britain falls far short of world standards across a whole range of sports (although many British coaches stubbornly refuse to recognise the fact). It is to be hoped that staff recruitment at the proposed centre will take in the whole world.

One statement by the Minster for Sport, Gerry Sutcliffe, intrigued me. “Behind every great athlete is a great coach,” he said “and we want to ensure that we have the best sports coaches and coaching system in the world both at the elite end and grass roots.” Does he know what’s been going on in British athletics, under Sport England’s last regimen, for a decade or so, where many believe that the emphasis has been on systems, squads and academies and not on supporting the individual coach?

For fifty years Britain’s athletics’ coaching scheme was the envy of the world, its pattern being copied by many countries. It was a simple one: regional professional coaches, under a Director of Coaching, entrusted with a bread and butter task of ‘teaching the teachers and coaching the coaches’. Men such as Geoff Dyson, Jim Alford, John Le Masurier, Denis Watts, Ron Pickering, Wilf Paish, Tom McNab, Frank Dick and John Anderson et al, became highly respected figures, both nationally and internationally. And, although it was not part of their remit they produced some of our really outstanding athletes, whose performances have stood the rigorous test of time.

Sutcliffe highlighted the vital importance of coach-athlete partnerships and again we can reel off a roll of honour that is well known to those with a sense of history of British athletics: Coe and Coe; Ovett and Wilson; Christie and Roddan; Jackson and Arnold; Sanderson and Paish; Backley and Trower; Davies and Pickering; Rand and Le Masurier, Moorcroft and Anderson – the list goes back into the mists of time and on and on. Across the world the kernel of individual athletics success has always been the individual coach.

The advent of UK Athletics in 1998 changed all that and looking back over the ten years it is difficult to know why such a dramatic and disastrous change was made. Yes, the scheme needed tweaking but it didn’t need destroying. Separating Performance and Coaching was, as the past decade has shown, a cataclysmic act. Coach Development became Coach Education and the results of the latter can be sadly seen through the technical incompetence of young athletes at any meeting, right up to regional standard.

Meanwhile many millions have been spent on our elite athletes in an almost avaricious quest for gold. This has involved the setting up of squad systems and control from the centre which has sometimes meant the moving of an athlete away from a successful partnership. It hasn’t worked. In the ten years prior to 1997 GB won 42 medals at global championships; in the ten years since it has won 25. The final blow to coaching and a reflection of its worth by David Moorcroft and his cohorts, before they fled the ruin they had created, was the failure to appoint a coach as director of performance.

It will be interesting to see how many other countries have abandoned having an experienced coach at the helm of their Olympic team in Beijing. I think very few. Being selected as head coach and indeed to be part of an Olympic coaching team gave international recognition to the very best. No longer. It doesn’t matter if you’re a world class exponent of your particular coaching art; if you’re not employed by UK Athletics you’ll not get any such recognition.

Disillusioned coaches have either retired or retreated into their coaching cocoons. One of the key foundations of athletics success has been allowed to wither on the vine. And now we’re back to the hoary old question I first asked five or six years ago: who’s in charge of coaching?

At the moment, after UKA’s night of the long knives, no one is but a review is apparently taking place. Whether a widespread survey of coaches’ views is contemplated is not known (as far as I know rank and file coaches were not consulted in 1998) but if they are not it seems to me that we’re in danger of repeating recent history.

First of all questions need to be asked. The government promised a few years ago to pump millions into the professionalisation of coaching. As far as athletics is concerned not much seems to have arrived in its coffers since that announcement was made. Or if some money has arrived what has it been spent on? Why has no pathway for a career in athletics coaching ever been developed? And if it has why does no one know about it?

What must happen in Britain is urgent planning for the professionalisation of athletics coaching. For too long we have relied on outmoded, time-consuming voluntary effort in this most important field. Parents of talented young athletes are amazed that they have to pay for ballet, violin, swimming, tennis et al tuition for their other offspring but that athletics coaching is free at the point of delivery. Not one of the many federations that have governed British athletics over the decades has ever suggested that paying for coaching is acceptable, let alone desirable. What is urgently required is a working group of coaches (probably Level 3 and above) to come up with a universally acceptable scheme for coaches to be recompensed for their work which, of course, must be regularly evaluated.

It has been suggested that any development of coaching must come through the clubs. This is arrant nonsense. Our clubs have, for too long, been the holy, untouchable cows of our sport. As a result of strident, sometimes abusive, voices raised in protest at any sign of evolutionary grassroots change none has taken place. There are a number of reasons why developing coaching, even through the 15% or so of our clubs that are viable entities, would not work.

Firstly, the priority of club administrators is the club; the priority of most coaches is the athletes. This leads to an acrimonious clash of interest when these priorities differ. Secondly, the development of coaching through clubs assumes that a full complement of events is being covered when we all know that in the majority of cases field events in particular, are neglected. A survey of clubs undertaken in the 90s indicated that in hurdles, jumps and throws almost 80% of clubs believed that they did not have enough coaches. The decline of the past decade can lead us to reasonably suppose that the situation has worsened rather than improved. There maybe a few concerning clubs at this state of affairs but I know of no initiative by any club to take positive steps to correct it, nor indeed of promoting coaching in any way.

Coaches should be linked to tracks and training venues rather than to clubs. In order to maximise our fast diminishing coaching resources each track should have a dedicated coaching team, ideally funded by the local authority. Where there are deficiencies coaches should be encouraged (probably through financial incentives) to expand their repertoire of events. The drive for new coaches should be via parents, employing good marketing techniques.

Recovery would certainly be aided by the appointment of nine regional coaches in England, similar in nature to the former National Coaches, men and women who would become the focal point of coaching in the area, who would know the region and know where particular problems lay.

What we urgently need is an audit of practising coaches. Then personal contact beginning with Levels 4 and 3, can be achieved via e-mail.. After ten years of neglect it is important that the governing body begins moves to make coaches feel an integral and important part of the sport. Dyson did this many years ago with a Coaching Newsletter sent free to every qualified coach. Today’s modern and swift means of communication would enable a two way dialogue between individual coaches and whoever will be running coaching, especially in a region.

This is not rocket science and there are obviously many other ideas out there to help coaching back to where it was, at the forefront of British athletics.

The former US Defence Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld once famously said:

“…as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns - the ones we don't know we don't know.”

The trick is in ensuring that the way forward in coaching is not directed by those who don’t know what they don’t know. Unfortunately, with the sport’s propensity for operating behind closed doors, that probably includes most of us.

(We’ll continue to look at coaching, including international development, is next week’s Blog)

Who is the fastest man?

Tyson Gay’s winning time for 100 metres of 9.68 (aided by a 4.1 mps wind) at the US Olympic Trials in Eugene has prompted reader Brian Burdick from Pennsylvania to re-open that hoary old debate around since the professional sprinters of the 19th century strutted their stuff: who is the world’s fastest man? “Officials are now claiming that Tyson Gay has now been labelled as the fastest human ever,” Brian writes, “regardless of wind-aided-ness. Who would be faster, Tyson Gay with 100 meters or Bob Hayes and his 110 yards? And furthermore with Bob Hayes would the acceleration / transition zone be figured in or not?”

What Brian is referring to is Hayes’ run on the last leg of the sprint relay at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 that has long been considered the fastest timed run by a human being. Taking the baton in fifth place Hayes was 3 metres behind the French anchor man, Jocelyn Delecour. He finished 3 metres ahead. He was unofficially clocked at times varying between 8.5 and 8.9 seconds as he stormed past four teams to win gold for the USA. Neil Allen, the Times athletics correspondent at the time wrote that he’d never seen any sprinting that impressed him as much as Hayes’ final leg. “The man just exploded,” Neil wrote, “he was absolutely fantastic, just like a clenched fist travelling along the track…it was the greatest explosion of speed I had ever seen.”

I think we can assume that the timings would have been carried out by athletics statisticians and that they would have carefully timed Hayes from the 100 metre mark in the final take-over zone. Whether the wind-speed on the final leg of the relay in Tokyo matched that of the 100 metre final in Eugene we shall never know but it is anyway an incidental point.

It should also be remembered that Hayes’ run took place on cinders whereas Gay ran on an advantageous synthetic surface in Oregon (synthetic tracks arrived circa 1966). However Hayes would have arrived at the commencement of his 100 metres at speed, whereas Gay would have started normally.

If my maths is correct (doubtful) Gay ran an average of 37.18 kph (23.10 mph) whilst Hayes ran, taking the slowest of the times taken 40.44 kph (25.12mph). Contest over then?

Monday, 2 June 2008

Cool It

It is unfortunate for the new 100 metre record holder Usain Bolt and track and field generally that the latter has contrived to get itself into such a mess over doping that the general public, having been regularly and monotonously assured that there is a huge menace out there, will not believe that his performance was “clean.”

The conviction of coach Trevor Graham in a San Francisco courtroom last week and a possible re-trial on other charges has added to the list of those, including Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, who have been found guilty not by the multi-million dollar testing systems but by lying to US federal agents investigating the BALCO drugs affair.

It is the height of irony that it was Graham who allegedly sent a syringe containing a hitherto unknown designer drug Tetrahydrogestrinone (THG) to US testing agencies thus exposing the sordid activities of Victor Conte and his unseemly crew at the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative. Among those involved was the former Ukrainian sprint coach, 76 year old Remi Korchemny to whom British sprinter Dwain Chambers was successfully urged to submit his undoubted talent.

At a conservative estimate one hundred million dollars is spent annually on drug testing in sport, including 20 million on the World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) based in prestigious offices in Montreal. WADA is mainly funded by governments world wide and when cases like BALCO arise surely questions should be asked about the efficacy of the much vaunted testing programmes.

One of the major problems facing sport is that those involved with its governance are, when it comes to dealing with performing enhancing drugs, like the cowhand in a western saloon finding himself cheated at cards. The reaction, in both cases, is dramatically over emotional.

A classic case of this over-emotional response came in Britain earlier this year when Dwain Chambers decided to return to athletics after trying out at other sports. The relatively new CEO of the British federation, Neils de Vos, tried, despite the fact that Chambers had duly served a two year ban, to prevent him from competing in the UK World Indoor Trials thus contravening the existing IAAF and WADA laws. Promoters around Europe joined the bandwagon, jointly affirming that they would not invite “drug cheats” to their meetings. It is as if they had never heard of restraint of trade laws. Mr de Vos, who made many pronouncements, was made to look very silly indeed; Chambers ran and won, had to be selected for the World Indoor Championships and in Valencia duly won a silver medal.

It is emotional frustration surely that leads individuals and federations to flaunt their own rules when they feel they are inadequate. The British Olympic Association (BOA) has a sanctimonious by-law that bans anyone who has committed a drug offence from ever being selected for an Olympic Games. It not only flouts universal WADA laws but natural justice as well for it means sportsmen and women being tried twice for the same offence. It is the only such by-law in the world of sport (even condemned by the former head of WADA, Dick Pound, who found it unjust).

Then there are the cases when the testing systems have failed, most notably those of Diane Modahl, a case that not only made her bankrupt but was a major contributory factor in the British federation suffering a similar fate and that of Bernard Legat one of the world’s leading middle-distance runners plus many others in a number of sports.

There are also the Greek sprinters, Konstadinos Kederis and Ekaterini Thánou who became almost legendary in athletics through their evasions of random tests. Justice was finally achieved not by testing procedures finding them drug positive but by a test evasion too far in Athens on the eve of the 2004 Olympic Games.

Sport has also felt justified in bending its testing procedures in order to make sure that those it feels must be guilty do not escape sanction. In 1998 British shot putter Paul Edwards was found guilty of failing a test for a second time and was duly banned for life. His out of competition test was deeply flawed by shoddy procedures from the moment it was taken. Ten years on the case rumbles on with Edwards and his team constantly frustrated by prevarication and obfuscation by a government quango, UK Sport and its laboratory, including the flouting of Data Protection Laws. Again it is a feeling prevalent in sport that as far as drug testing goes the end justifies the means.

Sport has long felt that it so special, so precious that it should be considered above the law. It uses emotional language like “the war on drugs” in order to persuade politicians (to cough up more funding) and the public at large that it is involved in a massive fight against widespread drug abuse, when in fact its test figures show otherwise. Certainly in terms of test results the setting up of WADA in 1999 has not been justified; the results have stubbornly remained at around one percent positive.

Independent minds and cool judgments are needed in order to further promulgate dealing with doping in sport. Hair shirt type pronouncements must be abandoned; lessons must be learnt from the wider, social crusade against drug misuse; world wide rules and sanctions must be agreed and obeyed by all; there must be greater prominence given to campaigning and education; finally more emphasis must be placed on unearthing those who are encouraging drug taking and on those who supply them.

In Praise of…The BMC

A quarter of a century ago, when British miling was at a low ebb British coach Frank Horwill, a flamboyant and controversial character if ever there was one in athletics, suggested the formation of a specialist club to revive British middle-distance running. Today that organisation, the British Milers Club, through the work of many dedicated, voluntary running cognoscenti, stages literally hundreds of races, usually with a pacemaker, throughout the length and breadth of the land. Athletes have literally travelled hundreds of miles in order benefit from the races on its programme.

Though the club also organises coaching and training weekends it is in the field of competition where its greatest impact has lain. Those great middle-distance runners, Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett, benefited from the BMC and their coaches, Peter Coe and the late Harry Wilson, were activists within the organisation.

There are, inevitably, criticisms of the club, some believing that its paced races lead to a general lack of tactical nous when it comes to major competition. But it is not the fault of the BMC if some coaches and athletes over indulge themselves with its races. A judicious mix of competition is what is required.

The amazing thing is that it is only in recent years that the UK federation has properly recognised the work of the BMC; even more amazing is the fact that other events or event groups have not followed suit.

The British Milers Club still remains a beacon of hope for British middle-distance running and long may it continue its great work.

Wednesday, 7 May 2008

Just William

The Olympic Games, by its very nature, has always been a magnet for controversy. The Nazi Olympics of 1936; the shooting of protesting students in Mexico City and the Black Power protests of 1968; the killing of kidnapped Israeli athletes in 1972; the boycotts of 1976, 1980 and 1984; the Ben Johnson doping scandal of 1988 and this year the protests over Tibet have all made news’, as opposed to just sporting, headlines.

Add to these the fact that the spiralling costs of building for and staging the Olympics has always been good copy and it is no wonder that the media in Britain, because they are aware of the Olympics’ propensity for disputation, have been metaphorically sharpening their pencils with glee ever since the awarding ceremony.

You have to go back exactly a hundred years to find the first glimmerings of such wrangling. The Games were held in London for the first time when the original host city Rome withdrew, some said through an eruption of Vesuvius causing the Italians economic difficulties. London volunteered and the IOC gratefully accepted.

The ‘story’ of these Games has always been that of Dorando, the diminutive Italian marathon runner, who staggered into the White City stadium in a state of total disorientated exhaustion, was helped over the finishing line by sympathetic officials to the tremendous cheering of the crowd and was promptly disqualified. It was rumoured that the taking of strychnine (common for distance runners in those days) had been a contributory factor to his fatigue. Another view, less charitable, was that the amount of alcohol offered to him (and accepted) from admiring pub owners as he journeyed through west London from Windsor explained his condition. Whatever, an admiring Queen Alexandra presented him with a cup almost as big as he was for his “sportsmanship.” Subsequently the English have always admired a good loser over a worthy winner.

But this was not the real controversy of 1908; this concerns what became known as the “Halswelle Affair” and it caused an enormous, acrimonious rift between the sporting authorities of Britain and those of the USA.

William Halswelle, born of Scottish parents in Mayfair, was a fine athlete. A product of Charterhouse School and of Sandhurst College this commissioned Army officer had won the AAA 440 yards title three times and had a respectable personal best of 48.4 seconds. On one memorable afternoon he won four running events at the Scottish Championships. In 1906 he won a silver medal in the “Interim Games” in Athens at 400 and a bronze at 800 metres and was undoubtedly the favourite for the gold medal in London.

The 25 year old sailed through the heats to the final and there he met three Americans, John Carpenter, William Corbett and John Baxter Taylor. In those far off days 400 metres was not run in lanes which often led, to say the least, to interesting racing. In the early stages of the Olympic final the Americans led, closely shadowed by Halswelle. As the field entered the home straight it was a battle between Halswelle and Carpenter. The Scotsman takes up the story.

“I did not attempt to pass Carpenter until the last corner,” he said, “reserving my efforts for the finishing straight. Here I attempted to pass Carpenter on the outside…Carpenter’s elbow undoubtedly touched my chest and as I moved outwards he did likewise keeping his right arm in front of me. In this way he bored me across two thirds of the track.”

Carpenter crossed the finish line first but just before he did the British officials lowered the tape and immediately declared the final “no race.”

To the Americans it was the final straw of a frustrating Olympics. They had been suspicious of the motives of the host nation ever since the opening ceremony when an American flag for the stadium could not be found. At the march past the US team did not dip their flag to King Edward. Friction was already in the air and they complained to the New York Herald: “The British ridiculed our flag; they fixed the lane draws in favour of local athletes and favoured their own Tug of War team.” They appealed the Carpenter disqualification.

The Jury of Appeal (all British) met and studied the evidence well into the night. The trackside officials were adamant that Halswelle had been fouled. One of them, Dr Roscoe Badger, said that Halswelle made a big effort down the finishing straight “but the faster he went the wider Carpenter went.”

The problem was that ‘blocking’ was allowed under USA rules, but not under those of either the AAA or the Olympics. The American case was not helped when a Harvard rower said that “Carpenter ran Halswelle off the track” and representatives of Belgium noted that the Scotsman was “bored in the most odious way possible.”

The Jury announced that Carpenter should be disqualified and the final re-run “in strings” so that athletes could not stray from their lanes. There was outrage in the American team and the remaining two American runners refused to take part in the re-run race.

Halswelle reluctantly went to his marks by himself. The Times recorded that he had expressed the wish, “in the best public school spirit not to run unless the Americans took part,” but he was persuaded to run solo in the interest of the Olympic Games.

The controversy went on long after the Games were over. The San Francisco Chronicle reported that the “American Athletic Union will break off relations with the British because of the spirit shown by them towards American athletes.” An American official, Gustavus T. Kirby produced a pamphlet that included a so called reconstruction of the Jury of Appeal’s deliberations which showed the errors of their conclusions. The British responded with a booklet of their own which, point by point, rebutted the American allegations.

Time healed these so called affronteries and by 1912 when the Games were held in Stockholm all was sweetness and light between the two countries. It was the year that the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) was founded and from then on judges and officials were recruited from around the world and a standardised set of competition rules evolved at a Congress in 1914.

Halswelle was tragically not able to enjoy his Olympic triumph for too long. Like millions of other men of his generation he perished in the mud of northern France, shot by a sniper’s bullet in 1915. He is remembered as a great Scotsman and a great Olympian.

Friday, 25 April 2008

Missing the Millions

Why are no billionaires attracted to track and field athletics? Where are the Roman Abramovich’s, Thaksin Shinawatra’s, Tom Hick’s et al who could at a stroke transform international and domestic athletics into something commercially attractive and truly professional?

Two billionaires, one Indian (Subhash Chandra) and one American, (Antigua-based American Allen Stanford) are investing tens of millions of dollars in cricket, especially in the relatively new concept of Twenty20, exciting, colourful and full of razzamatazz, which will, in most pundits’ estimation, transform the game over the next few years. Two tournaments offering unheard of (in cricket terms) appearance and prize money will start the process off. Those who thought that cricket, with its staple diet of three-day county or state games played in front of a few aged, retired colonels snoozing in deckchairs on hot summer afternoons, presented no challenge to athletics better think again. Commercially viable Twenty20 cricket could swiftly spread to countries where no one thought it could reach; it could swiftly revive the sport in schools. Even the dyed-in-the-wool English Cricket Board is waking up to the gauntlet being thrown down by the current ISL tournament in India and the projected one in the West Indies. It knows that unless it responds positively it could, like the old soldiers in their deckchairs, simply fade away.

Track and field has always had problems with the tribal nature of team sports as the only time tribalism (in our case nationalism) comes to the fore is at the major championships, Olympic, World and European, but even these meetings, as was shown in a recent Blog, are becoming less compelling to television viewers and if that trend continues, will be equally less compelling to television companies.

The truth is that the sort of sums needed to revolutionize (I use the word deliberately) athletics aren’t available to it because, frankly, it is mostly commercially unattractive, boring (Americans sprinters beating American sprinters etc), without purpose and far too spasmodic. At too high a competitive level athletics just isn’t entertaining. Its biggest problem though is that the IAAF and its constituent associations are seemingly content for it to be that way. It doesn’t help itself either by it being so publicly and loudly self righteous about “fighting a war against doping”; in view of recent revelations about junkie sprinters the public are slowly beginning to wonder if this protesting too much is hiding severe deficiencies in the testing systems.

In Britain two former Olympic medallists Alan Pascoe and Brendan Foster have become entrepreneurial millionaires thanks to athletics. They have and do run unashamedly profitable but very successful companies. Pascoe deals with televised events for UK Athletics, Foster concentrates on road running, his showpiece event being the internationally renowned Great North Run. Both keep the public profile of the sport in Britain higher than it deserves and so you would think that athletics would be duly grateful. Not a bit of it. There is general resentment, especially at club level, about large sums of money being made from athletics; money that those slaving away at the grassroots believe should come to them. What they would do with it is unspecified, however.

Perhaps this ambivalence towards professionalism is at the heart of athletics’ problem, accounting of its love- hate relationship with its full-time executives down the years. In the mid-nineties, when Andy Norman and honorary treasurer John Lister left the old British Athletics Federation (BAF), there was much delight in the hearts of the “voluntary” sector. It was a pyrrhic victory. The latter took over the asylum and what had been a highly successful commercial enterprise soon went down the pan. Within a couple of years BAF was shamefully bankrupt.

A new federation rose from the ashes of disgrace. But, given this and the visceral antipathy to fundraising membership schemes from the voluntary sector die-hards, UKA had no choice but to forge a Faustian pact with government quangoes. But, sadly, selling its soul has not brought forth the glory that was anticipated or indeed promised. It has failed because the apparatchiks of both government quangoes, in imposing a one-size-fits-all policy on all the sports they fund, have failed to comprehend the uniqueness of athletics in that it is almost twenty sports in one. Britain’s performances internationally over the decade since UKA was formed have been the poorest since the Olympics of 1936.

These thoughts went through my mind as I travelled north from attending Andy Norman’s Memorial Service. To many present in St Giles church in central London, Andy was a flawed athletics genius who, back in the eighties, single-handedly transformed not only athletics in Britain but throughout Europe also.

Jonathan Edwards and Sebastian Coe gave fulsome tributes, acknowledging the tremendous debt that each owed to him. Jonathan told the story of his attending a press conference at Gateshead, well before his stunning world records, when Andy introduced him as “the man to jump over 18 metres”, which not only nonplussed the audience but Jonathan as well. But part of Andy’s genius was this intuitive ability to spot real talent; the story of his letter to Linford Christie in 1985 urging him to train hard to become European champion (Linford’s best at the time was 10.42) is well known and Ron Roddan, the man who guided Linford to his Olympic and World golds, told me that he thought that Andy had had “great intuition based on great knowledge.”

It will come as something of a surprise to those that knew him and were guided by him when I say that, in a way and compared with today, Andy came from a chivalrous age of athletics, a golden era of exacting and very exciting sporting combat between athletes of extraordinary talent. He transformed athletics meetings, as European vice-president Sven Arne Hansen said, both in Britain and across Europe but all that he did he did for athletes.

Although, in recent years, he worked behind the scenes for England, European athletics and the IAAF, he was scornful of the present tick-a-box bureaucracy and those who have no sense of the history of the sport. “The age of chivalry is gone,” said Edmund Burke in another context, “that of sophisters, economists and calculators has succeeded…” It was a pity that the hierarchy of UK and England athletics were not present at St Giles church to pay official tribute to a man that steered British athletics through its golden decade. One top official is purported to have said that he was “not impressed” when he met the man. Sadly that says more about those who presently govern us than it does about Andy.

Friday, 11 April 2008

Ain’t no mountain high enough

It was 1936, Olympic year and Brutus Hamilton, track coach to the University of California, took it upon himself to record what he thought would be ultimate performances in track and field; times, heights and distances which, he believed, no man or woman would ever exceed.

Most of his projections have, in the 72 years since he made them, been surpassed by very large margins but two of them stand out: he could not conceive of a 4 minute mile, nor could he contemplate anyone putting the shot further than had the current world record holder, Jack Torrance, known as “Elephant Baby” on account of his enormous stature and weight..

Men had dreamed of the 4 minute mile for decades, ever since Walter George ran 4:12¾ in 1886. What was significant about that run was that he reached the halfway mark in 2:02 so already, in the infancy of the modern sporting era, the dream mile seemed a possibility; it was a target with such beautiful symmetry: four laps in 60 seconds.

In 1936 the world record, by American Glenn Cunningham, stood at 4:06.8; Torrance’s best in the shot putt was 17.40 metres. What Hamilton, an Olympic silver medallist in decathlon in 1920, would have made of today’s records, of Bannister’s achievement, of Steve Scott running below 4 minutes 136 times and of two men having put over 23 metres we can only guess. Record breaking has continued inexorably. But for how long?

Records of all kinds, from world best’s to personal bests, represent a challenge. We always believe, sometimes secretly, that we can attain greater heights. The poet Robert Browning put it the most tidily: “…a man’s reach,” he wrote “must exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”

But Andrew Berry who teaches evolutionary biology at Harvard has pointed out, for instance, the obvious fact that no one “will run the mile at the same speed that we run the 100 metres. The laws of oxygen exchange will not allow it.” He went on: “Human improvement must eventually bow to the basic constraints of biomechanics.”

So, Brutus Hamilton was right on one thing: record breaking is not infinite; there is a barrier out there in every event. The question is, where is it?

We may surmise (no more than that) that Man will never run a 100 metres in 9 seconds (about 25½ mph) though I instantly remind myself that Bob Hayes ran 8.7-8.9 seconds (times vary) on the sprint relay anchor leg, on cinders, at the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. But it is likely that the mile will not be run in 3:30, certainly not in 3 minutes (four laps of 45 seconds); it seems impossible that the high jump record will ever reach 3 metres. So finite performances lie somewhere between current world records and those improbable (I hedge my bets here) performances.

The graph shows the numbers of world records set in the last five decades. In the men’ events there has been a sharp decline in this first decade of the 21st century and unless there is an explosion of record breaking in the next two seasons the total, using a most liberal estimate, will be about a fifth of that of the 1960s.

The women’s events, although they show a similar pattern to the men’s, are distorted by two elements. Firstly, male administrators, once they assumed control of women’s events, took almost eighty years to concede parity, so that for most of the 60s women competed in only half of the events that they do today and the introduction of “new” events in latter decades created distortions. For instance the introduction of women’s pole vault (they had actually been vaulting since 1911) into international programmes in the 90s meant that almost half of the records set in the last two decades have come in vaulting.

Secondly, in the 70s and 80s, women’s athletics was dominated by the German Democratic Republic (GDR) with its institutionalised doping programme. You have to sympathise with today’s German women’s athletes when 13 of their records were set during those two decades.

Nevertheless the pattern of a sharp decline in the rate of world record breaking remains true for both sexes.

There are a number of events that make one wonder if the ultimate performance is near at hand. In the triple jump there have been only three world record holders in 33 years, Joäo Carlos de Oliveira of Brazil, Willie Banks of the USA and Britain’s Jonathan Edwards. The current world record (18.29m) has stood for thirteen years and only two men, Edwards and Kenny Harrison, have ever exceeded 18 metres, though Willie Banks achieved it wind-assisted in 1988. Before we start trying to evaluate the ultimate here, however, we should note that Jonathan leapt 18.43m at Villanueva D’Ascq aided by 2.4 mps wind in 1995.

There is a similar pattern in the long jump. There have been only two world record holders in forty years, Bob Beamon and Mike Powell and the latter’s best (8.95m) has stood for seventeen years. Powell jumped a very windy 8.99m at altitude at Sestriere in 1992 so you have to surmise that 9 metres is a definite possibility; but 10 metres? I don’t think so.

The most likely men’s track event to be nearing the ultimate is the 800 metres and the question is will we ever see 1:39 man? Again only two men have held the world record in the last twenty-nine years, Sebastian Coe and Wilson Kipketer and the latter’s record (1:41.11) was set in 1997. Coe and Kipketer have been the only two record holders to run below 50 seconds for their opening laps and in both cases they were running six seconds slower than the 400m record. Do Berry’s “laws of oxygen exchange” apply here? Is it physically impossible to run, say, a 47/50 two lap race to achieve 1:37?

The distortions caused by doping scandals are more prevalent in women’s events. The top eleven performances in the 100 metres were achieved by Florence Griffiths-Joyner and Marion Jones. Griffiths-Joyner, who many suspected of doping, died at the age of 38 of an epileptic seizure and Jones was sentenced to a prison term last year for committing perjury in denying that she had ever taken drugs. Neither had ever tested positive.

Nine of the top ten all-time world performances in the women’s 400 metres were set in the 1980’s, half of them by the East German world record holder, Marita Koch; in the shot put the top 39 all-time performances were set in the 70’s and 80’s; there is a similar top twenty pattern in all the power events excluding those that have been introduced since 1989.

What is all this to do with ultimate performances? Because it seems likely to me that drug induced performances must quite obviously be closer to the ultimate. In the 400 metres great runners like Marie-José Peréc, Cathy Freeman and Sanya Richards are many metres away from Koch’s running. The latter ran the first 200 of her race in 22.4, a time that would have ranked her seventh at that event in 2007. Such a time would mean 400 metre specialists coming perilously close to their personal bests; could the basic biomechanical restraints in women runners allow them to attach 24 seconds and achieve 46.4?

All of this deeply affects the world of competition, the raison d’etre of our sport. The problem that we have mentioned before is that the basic ingredient of the international programme is the Golden League and Grand Prix events. In the early days the crowds were drawn by world record attempts, with pace-makers, which, to a certain extent, gave the meetings some purpose and some credibility. Unfortunately it also built up a culture of expectation that if a record wasn’t broken the event (and often the meeting) had been disappointing. This culture seems to have persisted and with the tempo of record breaking dramatically slowing the once great meetings at Oslo, Zurich and Brussels et al are fast losing their sheen.

As European standards decline so do the Golden League meetings, a round robin of Americans beating Americans, Africans beating Africans with Europeans mostly in their wake on the track. Where athletes from Europe could shine, in the field events, promoters shun them like the plague. 104 events were staged on the Golden League circus in 2007 and 72% of them were on the track. Of the remainder only just over 7% were throwing events including just one for women. So the great throwers that thrilled spectators (and television viewers) in Osaka were mostly ignored.

The Golden League produced one world record, in the women’s 5000 metres in Oslo. The rest tried hard enough inviting Yelena Isinbaeva to all six meetings. Unfortunately the once prolific (last world record in 2005) Russian record breaker failed the avaricious promoters, though she lucratively won every event.

The best analogy I can think of is with friendly matches in team games. It wasn’t until the once true blue amateur rugby union went professional in 1995 with the formation of professional leagues a year later that the sport started to come alive. Prior to those quite momentous events most club matches were friendlies with little or no purpose, apart from a pint in the bar afterwards. Athletics seems unable to extricate itself from a similar predicament, from its straitjacket of meaningless competition outside of its major championships. Our sport from top to bottom seems afraid of adopting the radical change that is so urgently necessary.