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.

5 comments:

Paul Dickenson said...

I remember Nigel Cooper coming to Haringey one cold winters evening to meet some of the British Team and watch an athletics centre of excellence in action. The facilities were good but the people who frequented the place were magnificent!

He came into the gym and met a number of superb athletes but we were all a bit perplexed when he started asking Richard Slaney about his javelin technique! He thought he was Dave Ottley! Not an easy mistake to make!!

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