Exclusive Interview: Neil Black - 'The Wolf' looks to the future
New performance director of UK Athletics once beat Cram and Coe and is confident he can beat London medal haul in Rio, he tells Simon Turnbull
Tuesday 04 December 2012
Neil Black is leaning back in a chair in UK Athletics' Birmingham headquarters, chuckling at a reminder of his former self. The skeletal, shaven-headed 53-year-old who has been entrusted with the role of overseeing the development of Britain's leading track and field athletes on the road from London 2012 to the Rio Olympics four years hence was once a middle-distance runner with long black curly hair and a beard, making strides and taking scalps in the blue-and-white vest of Morpeth Harriers.
Mo Farah, Paula Radcliffe, Jessica Ennis and Co will know the native Northumbrian who has been elevated to the new role of performance director – to work in tandem with Charles van Commenee's successor as Olympic head coach, Peter Eriksson – as the man with the healing hands who worked for several years as UK Athletics' chief physiotherapist before becoming head of medicine and sports science. Not many of the British team will be aware that Black's own running CV happens to include victories against two of the all-time greats of middle-distance running.
Black is not exactly the type to go shouting about his former deeds from the rooftop of UK Athletics' office at the Alexander Stadium but The Independent can recall him getting the better of his fellow North-easterner Steve Cram on at least one occasion. "It was the year that Steve Cram was either selected for the Commonwealth or Olympic Games as a teenager," Black confirms, when prompted. "It was a weird set of circumstances.
"He'd run in the Emsley Carr Mile the day before and done well as a kid and came back from all the euphoria of Crystal Palace to run this race at Jarrow. I beat him quite comfortably, to be honest, but I'm sure he wasn't that bothered.
"I remember beating Seb Coe in the middle-distance cross-country event at Gateshead way back too. It felt pretty impressive at the time. It was like you were a superstar . But beating Seb Coe in a two-mile cross country wasn't that big a deal when I analysed it."
Still, a win's a win – especially when it's against the only man to have won back-to-back Olympic 1500m titles.
But what about Steve Ovett? Did the man whom Britain's Olympic track team call "The Wolf" (because of his reputation for fixing problems, like the Harvey Keitel figure in Pulp Fiction) ever sink his teeth into the 1980 Olympic 800m champion? Can he claim a hat-trick of all three of Britain's treasured middle-distance trinity?
"Actually, I've never thought of that," Black says, half-bemused, half-tickled by the thought. "I don't remember even racing against Steve Ovett. I have definitely beaten Steve Cram, on more than one occasion and Seb Coe in that cross-country race."
Still, two legends out of three is not a bad endorsement of the credentials of the new man at the helm of the British athletics team. Black's roots in track and field reach back to his schooldays in Ashington, the Northumberland town famed for its production of coal and world-class sporting talent – Jackie Milburn, the Charlton brothers and Steve Harmison. A gifted all-rounder, he played fly-half for Northumberland schools' and had a trial with Middlesbrough as a central defender. It was as an athlete that he shone brightest, though.
Coached by Jim Alder, the great Morpeth Harrier who won the 1966 Commonwealth marathon title and who has held the world two-hour record since 1964, Black emerged as one of the country's most promising young middle-distance runners, clocking 3min 44.40sec as a 19-year-old in the 1500m final at the UK Championships at Meadowbank Stadium in Edinburgh in 1978. He went on to finish runner-up to Olympian Kevin Forster in the classic Morpeth to Newcastle Road Race – a proven production line of British marathon talent – but injury forced him into retirement in his early 20s.
Would it be fair to say that the UK Athletics performance director fits the mould of off-field sporting leaders fuelled by the frustration of competitive talent left unfulfilled? "To be honest, I think it would," Black says, "certainly to a degree. I wanted to be the most successful athlete I possibly could and I felt as though injury stopped me from doing that. I transferred my obsession for training into my obsession for working – as a physiotherapist, as part of the medical team, and as head of science and medicine over the last few years. Now, as the performance director, it feels like an obsession to do the absolute best that I can. All of those experiences make me feel really clear about where we are and what needs to be done to move forward."
In picking up the baton from Van Commenee, who directed team operations without the overseeing presence of a performance director (and with whom Black enjoyed a happy, mutually respectful working relationship), Black and Eriksson have inherited a squad basking in the glow of four home Olympic golds but with obvious room for improvement on the road to Rio. The tally of six medals of all colour at London 2012 met UK Sport's target but not Van Commenee's higher watermark figure of eight.
"Charles wasn't alone in feeling as though we could, and should, have achieved more," Black says. "We all felt that. So let's be honest: we have a significant list of things that didn't go as well as we expected them to, things that we've learned.
"Part of our simple plan and strategy is to make sure we address every one of them as quickly and efficiently as we can. There were a whole series of opportunities which could have turned into medals but didn't happen. We need to increase the chances that they become actual medallists rather than 'could have been' medallists."
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