British model doomed

Osaka ‘triumph’ raises questions for British athletics
By Kate Hoey
Last Updated: 12:05am BST 26/09/2007

It is a good time to reflect on the state of British athletics, with the last major track event of the season having just finished. In the month since the British team returned from the World Championships in Osaka, the governing bodies, UK Athletics, England Athletics, ministers, and commentators have all acclaimed their haul of one gold, one silver and three bronze medals as a a superb achievement. Even Athletics Weekly pronounced: “British Athletics is back in business and the mood is buoyant”.

But is it, and should it be? Also, what do we mean by success and who should be the judge? And is the sport doing everything it should to achieve it? At least one senior coach is convinced it is not.

Comforting as it might be to go along with the view that Osaka was a triumph, particularly as the pre-championships target of three medals was met, this would be misguided. The original goal, agreed between UKA and UK Sport, was nine medals including two gold. It was only earlier this year, when performances made that look unlikely, that UKA announced the new lower mark, so making it easier to sell Osaka as a success.

advertisementThe British team finished 10th in the Osaka medal table, and was a much smaller outfit than at previous World Championships. We could have taken 69 men and and 66 women, but in fact we sent 21 men and 23 women. Some athletes obtained qualifying standards but were not considered good enough by the UKA chief executive Dave Collins. This is “Eddie the Eagle syndrome”– a fear of sending someone who goes on to ''embarrass" the country. Ironically, Eddie is one of the few Olympic athletes from the past that the public remember.

That was in the days when there was no Lottery funding. Of the 36 athletes in receipt of ''world-class podium" funding, 12 failed to make it to Osaka either through non-selection or injury. Even more revealing is that there was no Briton in 16 of the 45 World Championship events. So, among others, the men’s shot, javelin, discus, hammer, 20 kilometre and 50km walks, 10,000 metres and the decathlon and the women’s discus, long jump, high jump, triple jump, shot and hammer were all British free zones.

That might be easier to accept if these were events that UKA had decided to abandon for one reason or another. However, this is far from the case. UKA has four highly paid directors with individual responsibility for speed, endurance, throws and jump events. Each is backed by a team of professionals, part of the UKA staff of 245 whose costs reach nearly £11million per year. Are they successful? Do UKA take responsibility for the failure to compete in these areas?

John Bicourt, a former Olympic athlete and a long-standing coach at the Belgrave Harriers club has been examining the statistics. He says there is no shortage of talent in the UK and also that there is no shortage of cash to fund athletes and pay for staff and support. But he argues: “The evidence proves that the system devised by the UKA does not work.”

Bicourt speaks on behalf of the Association of British Athletic Clubs, which was formed when the Sports Council forced through the disbanding of the Amateur Athletic Association and the setting up of England Athletics last year. A lot of promises were made then that England Athletics would work with democratically elected bodies around the country, but this has not happened Once again the money has not gone to where it could really make a difference – to the clubs – but to creating lots of new jobs such as athletics co-ordinators and other grand titles, the majority of which have little to do with working directly with athletes.

The real dedication comes from the clubs with their mostly volunteer coaches. Why is every club not able to employ the best coaches of their choosing? Why are we not supporting the volunteers, the backbone of any good club?

Those who care deeply about athletics and who have more experience of working in the sport than any UKA '‘consultant’, despair of constantly being told that they need to move on, forget the past and accept change.

Athletics is run as a top-down bureaucracy with a management who appear to treat those who work unpaid in the clubs with disdain.

This new ''model" for athletics is doomed to fail and public money is being frittered away. Our clubs should be the bedrock to reinvigorate athletics but instead they have been deliberately marginalised. How much more money will be wasted before those running athletics admit they are on the wrong track?