Wells making great strides in nurturing home talent

STUART BATHGATE (sbathgate@scotsman.com)

A LITTLE over a year ago, Allan Wells was in Melbourne, looking back on a disappointing showing by Scotland’s track-and-field athletes at the Commonwealth Games.

The former Olympic champion, in Australia as one of the Scottish team’s ambassadors, had seen Chris Baillie win a silver medal, and Lee McConnell a bronze. And nothing more.

It was not a haul to compare favourably to Wells’ own day, and the gloom was deepened by the fact that, in some events, we had no-one even capable of qualifying to be in the team. Wells, himself, was the only Scottish sprinter who had made it to Australia.

He was measured rather than scathing in his criticism then, and hinted that, if there was anything he could do to help, he would. “People ask me why I’m not involved, but I’m based down south, and, if they want to ask me anything, I will help any way I can,” he said. “There is an element of what is not being done right in training. You need the right people to change that.”

Fourteen months on, he is involved. Although still based in Surrey, he has now established the Allan Wells Sprint Squad with Scottish Athletics, and aims to do as much as he can to help the sport get back on the right track.

Ian Mackie, the former Olympian who retired from sprinting less than two years ago, is also working with the squad, whose first meeting was held in Grangemouth in March. Mackie took the latest get-together a fortnight ago, and the programme is being overseen by Piotr Haczek, Scottish Athletics’ sprints and hurdles manager.

Wells’ commitments elsewhere mean he is unable to participate in every squad meeting, but he explained that he will do as much as he can in addition to attending some sessions.

“We’ve not got a hard and fast schedule - I’m going to come up as often as my other activities allow,” he said. "As well as me coming up to Scotland, I’ve issued an invitation for any athlete to come down to Guildford and I can see them on a one-to-one basis.

“I’m looking to see a response from the athletes and from their coaches, and to get an idea from them what exactly they are looking for. There has been a positive reaction so far, and let’s hope we get a lot more.”

The squad has been selected by Wells and Nigel Hetherington, the performance development manager of Scottish Athletics, and includes promising young athletes such as Sabina Astarita, Suzanne Begg, Ryan Oswald and Neil Fachie. Rather than offering alternative advice to a group who already have their own coaches, Wells sees his and Mackie’s role as a complementary one, helping coaches as well as athletes to expand their own knowledge.

“We can pass on our abilities and experience from the past, from when I was competing, and we can help with the stuff we’ve picked up since,” he continued. "We’ve not stood still - I’m the type who is always reading about new research and new findings so I can keep up to date with developments in athletics.

"We can’t possibly have all the answers ourselves, but we can get hold of other people, the right people to answer the athletes’ questions that we can’t answer on our own. As well as that, though, coaches have to be searching for the answers as well. We did a number of things on that first Sunday, Ian and I, like warm-ups and technical runs. But we’re not there to say ‘You’re doing things the wrong way’.

“Good athletes do not necessarily make good coaches, and I’m not saying I am a good coach. But I can direct people.”

Margo Wells, who provided vital support in her husband’s rise to becoming Olympic 100-metre champion in 1980, will also be able to help with her own experience of assisting athletes. “The athletes will have her to consult with as well,” he added. "She was never my coach as such, but she was an extra pair of eyes to be consulted. After training sessions, I might ask her something like ‘What happened on the third stride of my second run?’ and she’d remember. She’d say something like ‘You stumbled slightly, but recovered’.

"There is also an opportunity to e-mail me or phone me and I can go through it with the athlete. One thing I can give back is advice on how to cope with injuries, and it’s just as important to have advice on that as it is to get advice on the technical or medical side.

“It’s not going back to school, but, hopefully, we can help with coaches’ education as well as with their athletes’. There is a lot of help in Scotland, but this is the opportunity for a select few to have it at their fingertips.”

In addition to any technical knowledge he may be able to impart, Wells believes his work ethic will be there as an important example for the squad. To succeed, he believes, you must first accept how tough it will be. Many critics have argued that that acceptance has been lacking from British athletics in recent years, with too many talented athletes more interested in showboating than in doing the hard work.

“You can’t simulate motivation, but, with this situation, you can maybe conjure up motivation and commitment,” he commented. "If I can inspire people and be a role model, I will. It took me a whole 24 hours’ commitment a day, for 15 or 16 years of being an athlete, to get to where I did.

"I want to help. I am not going to sit on my arse and say ‘I’ll pick up a few pennies for this’. There is finance, but I am not doing it for the money. It is an opportunity for me to get involved and pass on my experiences.

“I suppose this is the right time to get involved again, with the 2012 Olympics coming up in London. The right time for me and some others.”

As the phrase “some others” implies, there is now a widespread feeling of greater unity within British track and field, and a stronger conviction that things are moving in the right direction. One piece of evidence for such optimism came earlier this week when Scottish Athletics announced the imminent establishment of a new centre for elite athletes - initially based at Grangemouth before moving to Glasgow once planned facilities are ready - something which Wells believes will dovetail with his activities and those of his colleagues.

“This group is about sharing information, so, in a way, we are doing what the elite centre planned by Scottish Athletics is going to do,” he said. “We are bringing coaches together and inviting them to share their knowledge.”

Wells’ conviction that athletics needs greater unity, not less, is one reason why he would not favour any bid by Scotland to have its own team enter the Olympic Games.

Such a bid would almost certainly fail unless Scotland were independent, and Wells is convinced there are sound sporting reasons against making it in any case.

“I personally think it would be detrimental. For a start, Scottish athletes would lose out on medals in the relays,” he said.

"Then you would have a very small team, because so few would make the qualifying standards, and that would not help athletes accumulate the experience at a high level they need.

“It is not a patriotic thing, because no-one is more patriotic than me. To have the strength and resources of four teams behind you, united under that British flag, is a big thing.”

On Wednesday, the same day that plans for the elite centre were unveiled, UK Athletics announced its target for the World Championships in Osaka - 14 finalists, with three or four converting into medals.

“It is not unrealistic,” Wells said of that figure. "It is double what we got two years ago in Helsinki, so, if it is achieved, that shows we are heading in the right direction.

"There’s a lot of energy in the sport just now, helping people focus in the right direction. Twenty years ago there was nothing like what we have now - then there were just individuals athletes working with individual coaches.

"After London won the right to host the Games, there was an initial panic, a fear about the number of gold medals that Great Britain might get.

“But now things are happening, and already we’re getting results. Look at the European Indoor Championships.”

Those results were indeed encouraging, but Wells would be the first to say they are no more than an initial step. He knows a sustained effort is needed, and that he can be part of it. The sprinter is in this for the long haul.

This article: http://sport.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=862432007

Last updated: 02-Jun-07 01:02 BST