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.