Wednesday, 17 June 2009

Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'be


If proof were still needed that men’s endurance events in Britain are now in paralysis a glance at the all-time lists will suffice. Performances set in the opening decade of the 21st century comprise just 12.2% of the top twenty all-time lists for men’s events from 800m to the 50k walk. This is fractionally worse than the percentage of performances from the 1970s that are still extant there.
It is generally believed that European endurance is in the same parlous state but using the same criteria performances set this century by the continent’s endurance athletes comprise 47.2% of its all-time lists.
The great and the good of British endurance running down the years have recently met to cogitate on this. Ian Stewart, 5000m bronze medallist at the Munich Olympics (a man who, in 1975, won a European indoor 3000m title one weekend and an IAAF world cross-country one the next) has been handed the poisoned chalice of creating a revival back to more halcyon days. Whether he can successfully combine this task with that of promoting the televised events remains to be seen.
It is an indication of these sad running times that our current top male marathon runner, Andi Jones, with 2:15:20 running just five seconds faster than Paula Radcliffe’s best, complains of not being considered for the World Championships in Berlin. It is enough to make Jim Peters stir angrily in his grave.
A number of questions pose themselves: do we still have the natural talent; is our coaching good enough; do our athletes compete enough; is periodisation to blame; is ‘fear of Africans’ a factor; do our runners neglect speed?
Do we still have the natural talent? The emphatic answer is, no. Using the same criteria over five endurance events for the Under 20 athletes the situation is fractionally worse. Just 11% of the all-time top twenty performances by junior athletes have been set this century; worse still only 11% were set in the 1990s which means that only around one fifth of our best junior all-time performances have been run in the past nineteen years. In other words our reservoir of talent has dried up over two decades. There are dwindling fields in county and regional championships; there has been a steady decline in schools’ interest in athletics over a quarter of a century; our junior competitive structures are woeful involving hours of travelling to depressing league meetings often of pathetic standard.
Is our coaching good enough? There is no doubt that over the past decade or so endurance coaching (and therefore running) has been badly led and mismanaged and only the necessary cull after the Beijing Olympics gives any cause for hope. For our endurance runners to be told by one of the supposedly top coaches that “the Africans will never be beaten,” beggars belief, but it happened. There are too many coaches now operating who feel that attending a weekend course to gain the Level 2 award transforms them into highly qualified experts who require no further knowledge. All of this will take time to repair.
Do our athletes compete enough? Our summer season has barely begun and the one in the US is almost over, except that their best athletes now leave for competitions in Europe prior to the World Championships in Berlin. We have long had a culture in Britain of our best athletes “coming out late”, some even delaying a serious appearance until the championships/trials itself. The leading world performance at 800 metres as I write is 1:43.09 by Abubaker Kaki of Sudan set in early May. Five men have run under 1:44. Similarly the top British performance so far is 1:46.31 by Michael Rimmer with only six men below 1:48. Will Kaki and co be in contention come Berlin? Almost certainly. Britain? The last 800m finalist that we had in a global championship came in 1993 in Stuttgart. Are there lessons to be learnt here?
The man lying 20th on the all-time list for the marathon is Bill Adcocks who set his performance of 2:10:48 twenty-one years ago. Only three British men have run faster than Bill this century. In 1968 he finished fifth in the Mexico City Olympics run at altitude. That year he ran four marathons plus a host of other road races and track 10000 metres. To miss a weekly race for Adcocks, Hill, Alder, Kilby et al was something of a personal disaster. Racing was their raison d’√™tre. “We were,” Bill once said to me, “learning our trade.” This notion of such regular, week-in, week-out competition was criticised by the former head of endurance, Alan Storey and although this sense of preciousness didn’t begin under his watch he continued to perpetuate it.
Should blame be laid at the concept of ‘periodisation’? There is much argument about this theory of training introduced by the Russian Professor L P Matveev and eagerly seized upon by western enthusiasts. It now seems to be generally accepted that although it might have suited Eastern European runners in the fifties and sixties international modern competition structures now make it obsolete. But are some of our coaches still rigidly adhered to the theory with disastrous consequences?
I have dealt with fear of Africans in an earlier Blog. Their total dominance of endurance events, their ability to maintain an almost metronomic tempo of fast running over twenty-five laps is disheartening to many runners. There was a similar belief in the 20s and 30s of the last century concerning the great Finns and although it is fairly certain that they would have continued such domination at the 1940 Olympics had they been held it is equally certain that it would not have continued ad infinitum. For all the theorising in western coaching no one has come up with ideas to counter the African success. Perhaps training as hard as they do would be a start.
Speed. That seemingly elusive quality (rather more speed-endurance than pure speed) that is ignored by so many coaches and so many athletes. It has been my good fortune to listen and talk to over the years to some our greatest endurance coaches: “The need is for repeatable speed always available on demand, ”said the late Peter Coe; “Speed has always been the dominant influence in my approach,” says John Anderson; “Speed is the essence,” says Wilf Paish. British coaches and athletes ignore it at their peril.
But in the end it is down to good coaching. And good coaching is about what it always has been: perpetual learning. I talked with former National Coach for Wales, Jim Alford shortly before he died at the grand old age of 90. He was coaching until the end of his life at the Tooting Bec track in London (when he got tired the athletes brought an armchair out for him). “I’m still learning all the time,” Jim said to me, “as a coach you never stop learning.” That is why it is encouraging to hear Kevin Tyler, UKA’s new coaching director from Canada, say, “ we interviewed over 50 of the world’s top coaches and without exception they identified mentoring and informal learning as the two most important factors in their development.”
Picasso said: “Bad artists copy; good artists steal.” This applies also to the world of ideas in coaching. When Cerutty brought to fruition the huge talent of Herb Elliott on the dunes at Portsea the world rushed to sand hills to copy him; when Lydiard had 800m runner Peter Snell running the marathon distance in training everyone began Long Slow Distance (LSD). As Bruce Tulloh once wrote runners are always looking for “something that will turn them from scrubbers to supermen, if not overnight, at least by next Saturday.” But the basics and terminology are now intrinsic and good coaches adapt the fundamentals to suit their ideas and their runners’ needs. They are always attentive to what is going on in their sphere and, like Picasso, have no compunction in stealing such ideas and maybe developing them further.
Where have we gone wrong? It is 21 years since our men won a medal at an endurance event at a global championship, two decades of perhaps believing that the triumphs of the golden era were the gifts of the Gods and would return. No longer can we believe that; no longer can we believe (and worse still announce) that every new bright talent is the next Coe or Cram. But we do need some derring do on the track, some courage to move towards the front in races and not, seemingly inevitably, towards the rear. Our coaches must awaken from their moribund slumber of despair and plan and prepare for a new dawn and as they do so whisper to themselves the million dollar question: why can’t our men run more like our women?

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Innovation

Watching (on television, in the dry) Usain Bolt splash his way to an astounding 150 metres world best time of 14.35 secs in a rain-soaked Manchester a few weeks ago was, for everyone, some experience. It certainly was for his fellow competitors who looked completely awe-struck at the finish. Marlon Devonish, who finished a distant second in the race, said in the understatement of the season so far: “I think Usain is in a different league right now.”
But this Blog isn’t about Bolt it’s about innovation and the good news is that some of the hierarchy of the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) were present to witness the event. They must know in their hearts that track and field worldwide is in deep trouble as far as popularity goes and that radical approaches are needed if our sport is to undergo a renaissance.
Bringing certain events out on to the streets is one way of re-galvanising public interest. It’s not new; there have been town square pole vault competitions around Europe for many years and in a recent interview Seb Coe enthused about a shot put competition held in a Stockholm market square, that attracted 5000 enthusiastic spectators the night before the DN Galan track meeting. And there must be some way to integrate the street athletics series for youngsters promoted and organised by Linford Christie and Darren Campbell into any future similar programmes.
Innovation must be in the air for we also have the inaugural Super 8 inter-city meeting in Cardiff on June 10. This is an idea with enormous potential for every section of the sport. What club athletics in Britain has failed to grasp for years is the fact that six hour long meetings combined with up to six hours of travelling is not the way to attract young people to (or to keep older people in) our sport. Super 8 lasts for just two hours, covers eleven events for both men and women and has eight cities battling it out. Attractively presented and properly promoted, especially locally, this could be an awakening for track and field on a local level. Providing the people of Cardiff (where the prototype is being held) know about it, it will surely be a great success.
Next year, if the prototype is successful (as it surely must be with international athletes taking part and with Sky television giving it coverage) the competition will go nationwide with cities being invited to bid for franchises and this is where some uncertainty creeps in and a number of questions need to be answered. The most pertinent concerns finance because without sufficient backing the idea will struggle. But this is not the time to ask too many pertinent questions but to wish the concept well and await reaction.
There is, however, a difference between innovation and turning the sport into a circus and there are many who are concerned that the new European Athletics Team Championship is about to do just that. The European Athletics Association (EAA) has long been under the misguided assumption that the declining popularity of the European Cup competition was down to its structure and over ten years ago began reducing the number of attempts allowed in field events in the erroneous belief that such a gesture would be welcomed by television. But television never ever showed a complete set of jumps and throws anyway so it was a futile gesture. The decline in the popularity of the European Cup was that it offered no financial incentives to those taking part and so many of the continent’s top stars stayed away. The complications of the new competition are too numerous to include here and at the risk of being tagged a purist I forecast that the competition, like Jeux Sans Fronti√©res (Its a Knock Out), just might entertain an unknowledgeable audience but will not impress a knowledgeable one.