Calamitous Brits

Athletics World Championships

Helsinki can serve as timely wake-up call

Duncan Mackay
Sunday July 31, 2005


It appeared calamitous at the time, but Tessa Jowell and Richard Caborn’s decision four years ago to pull the rug from London’s bid to host the 2005 world championships now looks to have been a masterstroke.
The culture secretary and sports minister were criticised at the time for failing to deliver Tony Blair’s promise to build a state-of-the-art stadium at Pickett’s Lock. But had the event been coming to London this week, British fans would have little to cheer.

Such is the paucity of medal prospects among the 52-member British team travelling to Helsinki, where the championships open on Saturday, that the sport is steeling itself for its worst championship since Brendan Foster won a solitary bronze at the 1976 Olympic Games.

Paula Radcliffe could save Britain’s blushes by winning double gold in the 10,000 metres and the marathon, but that would just mask the problem, in much the same way Kelly Holmes’s two Olympic victories in Athens last year allowed UK Athletics to pretend everything was OK.

:confused: In the absence of the injured Holmes, besides Radcliffe and Olympic bronze medallist Kelly Sotherton in the heptathlon, it is hard to see where the medals can come from.

Nathan Douglas is ranked third in the world in the triple jump and has an outstanding chance, but is still young and unproven; Tim Benjamin could cause an upset if he continues to improve; and the men’s Olympic gold-winning 4x100m relay team must be considered contenders, although Darren Campbell and Mark Lewis-Francis are struggling for form.

Also, with British swimming failing to live up to expectations at the ongoing world championships in Montreal, it is time to start asking where Britain is going to find medal-winning competitors for the 2012 London Olympics. The time for planning is now.

Britain’s failure to win a gold medal at the 2003 world championships in Paris led to Sport England and UK Sport setting up an independent review headed by Sir Andrew Foster, former head of the national audit commission.

He made a number of key recommendations in his report, the most controversial of which was the abolition of the 124-year-old Athletic Association of England to be replaced with a ‘new, modern, streamlined body’.

More than 14 months after the publication of Foster’s review the sport is still arguing over its implementation. The stakes are high: Foster has made it clear that if his report is not acted upon then £21m worth of lottery funding awarded to athletics by the government as compensation for the Pickett’s Lock debacle could be at risk.

Down the years there has been no sport in Britain more consistently riven with disputes and seemingly teetering on the brink of crisis than athletics, but the award of the 2012 Olympics appears to have at last focused hearts and minds.

Peter Radcliffe, Paula’s father and a former brewery executive who has been appointed as the interim chairman of the AAA, together with Dave Moorcroft, chief executive of UK Athletics, and Jack Buckner, the 1986 European 5,000m champion appointed to oversee the implementation of the Foster Review, have been travelling around the country trying to persuade dissidents to accept the report. And signs show they are making significant headway.

‘It is a real opportunity to move forward,’ said Charles Gains, a development officer for Liverpool Pembroke and Sefton Harriers AC, who has been a consistent critic of UK Athletics. ‘Athletics really has to get it right this time around.’

The danger is that if the clubs do not accept the plans then Sport England and UK Sport - who through national lottery funding effectively bankroll athletics - will enforce it on them.

That will trigger further discord, which is the last thing the sport needs when it should be concentrating on producing talent to make the 2012 Olympics a rousing success and meet the target of UK Athletics performance director Dave Collins that 50 per cent of the team make it through to their finals in London.

The recent success of Britain’s youngsters at the world youth championships in Marrakech and the European junior championships in Kaunas, Lithuania, at least demonstrates the raw talent is there.

The challenge now is for UK Athletics to ensure that the likes of teenagers Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, winner of the 100 and 200m in Marrakech, Craig Pickering, the European junior 100m gold medallist and Emily Pidgeon, the 16-year-old who won the 5000m in Lithuania and is already being spoken about as potentially better than Radcliffe, stay and thrive in British athletics until 2012 and beyond.

When the British selectors picked the team for Helsinki six days ago they stretched qualification standards back to last year to ensure the squad was not embarrassingly small. Among those they have invested their faith in are Rhys Williams, the 21-year-old son of former Welsh winger JJ and European under-23 400m hurdles champion. It is clear he has been selected with an eye to the future.

‘He’s under no illusion that it’s going to be immensely tough,’ said JJ Williams. ‘He is going to have to run a personal best to get through a heat, which I fully expect him to do. He knows what he has to do.’

So, too, does British athletics. It is just to be hoped that it does it. Otherwise, the London Olympics will be as depressing as a world championships in Pickett’s Lock next month could have been.

Like British athletics, the world scene is going through a period of transition and is seeking some new stars to replace those who have already left the sport or are fading quickly.

If any athlete can be expected to deliver a world record, it is Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva, who set the fifteenth global mark of her pole vault career in London earlier this month when she became the first woman to clear 5m.

The injury Jamaica’s world 100m record holder Asafa Powell suffered at Crystal Palace nine days ago has robbed the championships of what was expected to be a head-to-head with Olympic champion Justin Gatlin of the United States.

The Americans, with 27 Olympic and 16 previous world medallists among their number, are sending a strong team to Helsinki. And despite losing some of their best known athletes after the Balco drugs scandal, they remain likely to dominate both the men’s and women’s sprints as a new generation of stars emerges.

Apart from Gatlin, their best hopes for gold will be in the men’s 400m in the shape of Olympic champion and fastest man in the world this year, Jeremy Wariner, and in the women’s 200m where youngster Allyson Felix, who finished second to Veronica Campbell in Athens, recently ended the Jamaican’s five-year unbeaten streak at the London Grand Prix.

In the distance events, as usual, it is all about the Africans. Ethiopia’s Kenenisa Bekele doubles up in the 5,000 and 10,000m. With the man who beat him over the shorter distance in Athens, Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj, not taking part, there seems little to stop the little man who holds the world record in both events from doing the double.

Defending women’s 5,000m champion Tirunesh Dibaba leads the world in the 10,000m also, and will attempt to emulate her team-mate Bekele in the two events.

As for the hosts, they are suffering a similar drought to Britain. Finland’s most famous athlete is not optimistic of his countrymen achieving much success.

‘There are a few emerging potential winners,’ said Lasse Viren, the 1972 and 1976 Olympic 5,000m and 10,000m champion. ‘You never know what may happen, but it is hard to believe at the moment.’