Athletes left in vacuum

Athletes left in a vacuum

IT SEEMED the perfect way to mend a fractured relationship. The increasing mutual antipathy between scottishathletics and the Scottish Institute of Sport needed an arbitrator, someone who could address the issues of under-performance on track and field. Enter the institute’s new director, Mike Whittingham, who is steeped in athletics and political machinery, and a thoughtful figure who could bridge the divide.

Except that when Whittingham formally took up the reins at the institute’s headquarters in Stirling, the wounded beast had bolted from the stable. Shortly before Whittingham started his new post, scottishathletics had decided to withdraw from the core group of sports overseen by the SIS. His predecessor, Anne-Marie Harrison, had warned that a tally of two medals at March’s Commonwealth Games merited at least a strong evaluation of scottishathletics’ objectives and policies. Instead, the schism has become a divorce.

“It’s a decision I’ve inherited,” Whittingham admitted. “I’m hoping we will have an opportunity to get round the table and make a decision which is right for athletics and Scottish athletes. The most important thing is that we keep the dialogue going.”

Many athletes are dismayed at the move, which threatens to leave established performers without funding to continue to compete on a full-time basis or the back-up which the institute provide. UK Athletics, who oversee funding from UK Sport to manage a nationwide World Class Performance Programme, are to cut their elite group from 160 to fewer than 90. While their budget moving towards the London Olympics of 2012 remains stable, the policy is to focus on high achievers or those with medal-winning potential.

Previously, the Scottish Institute of Sport offered a safety net to those Scots who fell short of British recognition. A senior figure at UK Athletics said that in the past Scottish athletes were sometimes left off the UK list because they would get funding north of the Border: money could be freed up for others. Reviews between UKA and supported competitors have been completed, and it is understood that only one Scot, hurdler Lee McConnell, will get World Class Funding in 2007.

Whittingham said: “By withdrawing as a programmed sport, athletes would still be individually looked after. But we will have to appraise how we go about that.” Critically, only those such as McConnell, who are ring-fenced by UKA, will survive what will be a cull. “It is likely that the number of athletes will be reduced. By how many, I’m not sure. That’s down to UK Athletics.”

The prospect of funding being reduced, or withdrawn, has left many athletes worried. Scottishathletics are refusing to comment on what plans they have to support their current or aspiring stars, stating only that the decision to withdraw was about “taking more control over our own sport”. Lottery funding will still be available, though this has been in gentle decline and, with stricter criteria on the way, those on the fringe could be squeezed out.

It is believed that one solution being considered by the governing body is establishment of a Commonwealth Squad fund. Unlike the institute’s pot, it would not help with the costs of living, merely with support services such as physiotherapy.

“It is a worry,” confirmed hammer thrower Shirley Webb (pictured below), whose disappointments on the international stage this year, and a public dressing-down from UKA performance supremo Dave Collins, are likely to see her cast adrift from the core coterie.

“I’ve had regular physio through the institute and maintenance. They’ve given me a lot. Nutritional help, psychologists.They also helped with my coach’s expenses and I got video-monitoring software. I’ll reserve judgment until I know what the set-up will be under scottishathletics, but it’s sad that it’s no longer coming under the Institute of Sport’s auspices.”

Other athletes share that view, but there is satisfaction that former sprinter Aileen McGillivary, who looked after the sport at the institute, has been employed by UKA to maintain some continuity.

“She is possibly the best person that we have worked with in the Scottish Institute of Sport,” observed Roger Harkins, McConnell’s coach. "Perhaps as a former athlete she has a greater understanding of what needs to be put in place, but Lee and I have worked well with her for a couple of years."

Athletics is at a critical juncture - in the UK and beyond. UK Athletics are seeking a new chief executive and chairperson; medals have proved elusive, and drugs continue to tarnish perceptions.

While the Institute of Sport have positively influenced swimming, badminton, cycling and even rugby, athletics has not delivered. Bringing matters in-house is unlikely to provide a quick fix. Yet some respected figures are prepared to venture that the shake-up, albeit unintentionally, might produce better results.

“We never got funding. We had to get off our backsides and get a job,” said Margot Wells, wife and mentor to Allan, who now operates a successful coaching group on the south coast. “Maybe if there’s less funding, it will act as an incentive to some athletes to try and get back into that elite group. Maybe it might work for them rather than against them.”
It is a theory which Whittingham did not wish to test, but one which athletes now have no choice but to confront.

This article:


The Sunday Times October 08, 2006

Divided nation
Simon Buckland

Mike Whittingham, the Scottish Institute of Sport’s new supremo, says athletics is wrong to break from the fold

The last thing you expect during your honeymoon is a messy divorce. Mike Whittingham, new to his role as executive director at the Scottish Institute of Sport, has been forced to confront an old problem which has suddenly got a whole lot more serious: the rift with scottishathletics. Before her departure Anne-Marie Harrison, his predecessor, demob happy to the point of carefree jubilation, warned athletics it would be dumped as a core sport if performances didn’t improve. The response from scottishathletics, confirmed only days into Whittingham’s tenure, made the threat hollow. They would leave of their own accord.
At the instigation of Geoff Wightman, the scottishathletics chief executive, his sport’s programme will now be overseen by UK Athletics and its performance director, Dave Collins, rather than managed by the Institute which will revert to being solely a support service. The cruel irony is that Whittingham is an athletics man, a former international runner and later coach to the likes of Roger Black, John Regis, Mark Richardson and Kriss Akabusi. Several times during our interview he expresses the hope that athletics severing its ties will not be the only item for discussion on the agenda. It isn’t, but he accepts the reasons why it is top of it. “It’s a story I’ve inherited,” he sighs, “and at the moment it won’t go away.”

He intends to limit himself to a few short answers on the matter, but there are too many unresolved questions. Does he feel powerless? “Well, yeah, I am,” he says. “Everyone wants to talk about it and I’m picking up the pieces of something that happened previously. It’s as important as we make it. Anne-Marie probably shouldn’t have been as outspoken, but she’s Australian and decided to tell it like it was and that’s upset people.

I’m disappointed and I think it’s significant that certain parties have jumped on the bandwagon to agree with the decision (made by scottishathletics) when they should have just kept quiet.

“Is that the right decision? Well, I don’t think it is. What concerns me is what’s the best way forward? Is the British programme one we can have total faith and trust in for Scotland? Well, at the moment, again, I don’t think it is.

“I’m wise enough to know the way to success is a very strong relationship between the athlete and the coach, who has to grow with the athlete. This environment allows that. If political decisions are taken which are short-sighted and very much about political gain and control of power, which I think this one is, it’s as much a battle about that: should a British performance director make decisions about Scotland which could be detrimental to Scotland?” So is it irretrievable? “No, it’s not,” replies Whittingham. “I want to reassure everyone of that. We’re athlete-centred and we’ll continue to be, they’ll always be our priority. I’ve tried to get people sitting around the table and I’m hoping we can thrash this one out. This isn’t personal and I want to depersonalise it. Whatever happened between Anne-Marie Harrison and Dave Collins, and things did happen there, shouldn’t really have caused this situation. I’m more interested in winning athletes than winning personal battles. Geoff Wightman has his eyes set on the big job at the moment (with UK Athletics) and any publicity for him is helpful.”

Wightman’s stance is that if scottish athletics is going to be criticised, as it was for contributing only two medals at the Melbourne Commonwealth Games, it might as well be for mistakes of its own making. The flaw of Harrison’s argument was that the Institute should have been sharing the blame rather than apportioning it when it was their programme that had failed.

“We all should accept responsibility, you can’t just take the praise, that’s not what the Institute is about,” says Whittingham. “Performance is a contractual obligation, we must deliver and if we don’t, we must be criticised. Someone like myself should then take action accordingly. If a programme hasn’t been successful we should all look at it, but I’d question whether everyone has had the proper insight and realised some of the problems aren’t Scottish, but British. Athletics is unfortunately a sport which isn’t world-class at British level. I love the sport and want to see it back up there. The difference between a dream and a vision is an action pack. The best option is being radical and proactive and the best environment for that is probably here.”

So where does this leave the Institute’s remaining eight core sports? Do they follow athletics’ lead? And if they do, where would that leave the Institute? “The danger is it hits on a principle which could set a precedent,” says Whittingham. “Over the past seven years, the Institute, with partners, is having an effect and together we’ve got a really exciting future towards 2014. The Institute manages the whole programme on behalf of the sports. The bottom line is that it’s almost like a commercial contractual arrangement. We accept that we need to be flexible and adaptable, we’re big enough to say we’ll do things differently, but at the moment every single sport has said, ‘We want the programme to stay here’. Except athletics. The Institute has a reputation worldwide. At British level they’re really only worried about (the 2008 Olympics in) Beijing, but we have to look at longevity.”

A former department head at UK Sport, this fraught introduction isn’t Whittingham’s first experience of bureaucracy. Not that being a coach was ever an easy life either. “I gave more than a decade solidly to my athletes, it was like being a doctor on call,” he says. “It was a fantastic experience. We all gave 120%, shared the same philosophy, had ups and downs, but survived and were successful, but I’ve moved on from that era. I gave up two years of my life to clear Mark Richardson’s name (after drug allegations), we threw out the lawyers fairly early on because they were leading us up a garden path. I’ve worn the hat of an international athlete, albeit a fairly mediocre one, a coach, a national coach, a manager, a director of meetings, a consultant, working with UK Sport, now here at the Institute. I can look at the picture from everyone’s aspect.”

Whittingham describes top athletes as being “like Porsches”, but they still need the right drive and the right driver. If the attitude or coach is wrong, talent is irrelevant and an athlete will not progress. Scotland’s best prospects of recent times have tended to level out badly in their performances — Lee McConnell is the highest-profile example — and that is the kind of trend Whittingham wants to avoid repeating, given the chance. Only it looks like he won’t be. “Getting it right on the right day is an art,” he says, in reference to guiding Black to Olympic 400m silver in 1996. You cannot avoid the feeling that Whittingham is himself the right man in the right place at the wrong time.