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).