Friday, 15 February 2008

Mob Rule

Nils de Vos is in grave danger of making British Athletics (and himself) look vindictive as UKA make moves to freeze out Dwain Chambers, who is legally free to run, from the sport of athletics. What is happening, as people (mostly employed in some capacity or other by UK Sport or UK Athletics) can’t wait to line up on television and radio to condemn his return, is mob rule, plain and simple, something I never thought I would see in our sport.

UK Athletics is being utterly two-faced towards Dwain Chambers. Why? Performance Director, Dave Collins picked Chambers for the European Cup in 2006 and the European Championships of the same year. It therefore ill behoves him to appear on television to say why he now thinks Chambers should not compete, even though Dwain is cleared to do so under WADA and IAAF rules, without his indicating what has changed. What has changed, of course, is the arrival of his new boss de Vos full of evangelical fervour of extraordinary naivety.

UKA made the assumption that Chambers had retired because he tried American football and so had not tested him since November 2006. Chambers never announced his retirement from athletics and when his football venture didn’t work out came back to the track and this great furore. It is UKA that have broken the rules by not testing him and it is de Vos who has to take responsibility for that serious lapse. The buck stops with him though he seems to be carefully avoiding it.

There is more hypocrisy. Once Carl Myerscough had served his two year ban, earlier this decade, he was welcomed back and picked by Collins and his team of professional selectors to compete in the World Championships in Helsinki in 2005 and the European Championships in 2006 as well as sundry Spar European Cups, including the 2007 event when de Vos was already installed at UKA. Indeed UK Athletics made strenuous efforts to support Myerscough in his appeal to avoid the BOA ban and compete in the Olympics (which failed).

Chambers also ran in a Fast Track promotion at Gateshead in June 2006. That organisation is now hypocritically forbidding him entry to their promotion in Birmingham this weekend accompanied by some pious statements about “protecting the image of the sport”. It also seems to be orchestrating, with the encouragement of UKA, his being banned across Europe.

It was shameful of the sport’s only magazine Athletics Weekly to urge the verbal lynching of Chambers as he went to his blocks in Sheffield by booing him. Luckily, either not many of the crowd read the magazine or those few that do treated the advice with the contempt it deserved.

In his first real utterances since he entered the sport almost eleven months ago de Vos has done more to confirm, by his statements to the media, the perception that athletics is a drug ridden sport. News (not sport) headlines and lead-in television stories have ensured that many parents now feel that athletics is not a sport they would wish their children to take part in. I have not heard de Vos tell the world that since the year 2000 only five UK athletes (roughly 0.1%) from a few thousand out-of-competition tests have served bans for drug offences and one of those, Ohuruogu, is recognised as not having taken drugs. Hardly the epidemic that his utterances would suggest.

The vilification of Dwain Chambers by UKA and Fast Track executives, joyfully soaked up by the media, has also come about through those who have leapt on the case to bray (yet again) for a lifetime ban. It will never happen and the IAAF and European AA must act swiftly to stop individual federations and the European promoters, led by Rajne Soderburg, from taking unilateral action to bring such a ban in through the back door.

The European Promoters are not above the law and they should be reminded of the case of two little known swimmers, David Meca-Medina of Spain and Igor Majcen of Slovenia, who both tested positive for nandrolone at a World Cup event in 1999 and were banned.

They claimed that the anti-doping rules contravened Article 81 of the European Community Treaty, which bans anti-competitive agreements and practices and they took their case to the European Court of Justice, which recently determined that sporting cases do fall within the scope of Article 81. Put another way, the court decreed that the rules on doping in sport are not exempt from EU laws on competition and freedom to provide services.

These are sad days for a once great sport and a once great federation. The inmates have taken over the asylum.

Behind Closed Doors

Some people might well also ask why Nils de Vos is being so vocal about the return of Dwain Chambers and so silent about two of the essential planks for the future success of British athletics, coaching and competition, both of which are in a total mess and have been so for over a decade.

In order to gain some enlightenment I e-mailed various Establishment figures a fortnight ago asking for insight as to whether coaching would continue to function under UKA or whether it would be transferred to England; likewise for domestic competition. I also asked, in both cases, who would be driving forward the necessary changes vital to the future success and welfare of British athletics. As I write there have been no replies.

There is a line in one of Charlie Rich’s more famous songs that goes “Oh no one knows what goes on behind closed doors” and there are many frustrated people in British athletics who would agree with that. Either the hierarchy think this modest Blog is beneath their contempt or they just don’t know the answers to my questions.

Not withstanding the deafening silence it is time to look at the current state of coaching and competition in Britain.

For many years I asked the question “Who’s in charge of coaching?” The answer was that nobody was. UKA had separated the roles of performance and coaching, deciding that the latter could survive as coach education, staging quasi-academic courses that for a decade produced coaches with little or no practical experience and more importantly no means of obtaining it. Why? Because coach development has been virtually non-existent hence the appalling quality of coaching that I see and all too frequently hear about today.

Enter Callum Orr. Finally Moorcroft decided to act and UKA advertised for a Head of Coaching and Teaching (not, you will notice, for a Director of Coaching, a role that had been successfully fulfilled, from Dyson to Dick, for half a century or more). Orr’s entry into UKA came at a time when Moorcroft’s disastrous era was drawing to a close and a new one was about to begin. Orr has been becalmed by the seeming inability of his new bosses to produce a wind of change for the sport.

Orr recently learnt that as part of de Vos’s weeks of the long knives his services were no longer required. Indeed he had to interview for his own job along with one other applicant. The post has been left vacant. There have been strong rumours of one former well-known coach lobbying Sport England for his removal.

“Callum has lots of ideas,” a top international coach said to me. “It’s tragic that he’s going.” This is echoed by many. The tragedy is that because of total inertia in terms of setting any vision and strategy by the hierarchy he will not have the opportunity to carry them out. All this begs the question: what influence do Sport England and UK Sport have in the internal affairs of British athletics?

This leaves coaching in a vacuum and it looks to remain so for many years to come. It also poses another question: who is left in executive positions at UKA who knows anything about track and field, let alone coaching?

A few weeks ago I spoke to Jack Buckner about the Competition Review and was staggered to find that it was considered finished, even though the last report held no concrete proposals. You may remember that the lately departed Zara Hyde Peters (to a new job I hasten to add) said, “The sport may end up deciding what its preferred competitions are and this consumer driven approach may be the best solution.” The best solution to enable UK Athletics to cop out maybe, but not a good one for the so called consumers.

UK domestic competition, particularly league athletics, is Byzantine in nature, a veritable mess of pottage. It needs drastic streamlining. It needs financial incentives. It needs to attract the public to support local teams. Buckner stressed the dangers that face athletics domestically from other more attractive sports if nothing is done. UKA and England Athletics need to be aware of these dangers. If we shelve his ideas and shamble on in the same old, comfortable way we’ll arrive at 2012 in the same disastrous state that we’re in now.

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