Athletics: A nation reaching out to hired hands

Alan Hubbard sees how Lottery cash is luring cream of coaching
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The Independent Online
WAIMARAMA TAUMAUNU is a big name in any language. To those who follow netball - a major sport in her native New Zealand - it is the equivalent of a Pele, a Sobers or even a Lomu.

The former Kiwi captain, who led her team to the world championship over a decade ago, is a sporting icon back home in Wellington yet there she was on Wednesday night sitting at courtside in Brighton watching England's Under-21 team subside by a 30-point margin to Australia's Institute of Sport. Not exactly big league, but her presence as the sport's new performance director in this country suggests that English netball might have won the Lottery.

In essence, it has. The advent of Lottery funding - which is now celebrating five years of distributing the loot to the sporting needy - means that netball, and most other sports which do not qualify for massive TV handouts, can now afford to recruit the cream of talent from overseas, not to play the game but to show us how to run it.

Performance director is the new buzz job in sport. All 22 sports which qualify for top-level Lottery funding through UK Sport have one and nearly half have been brought in from overseas. More are on the way.

So far Waimarama - helpfully, she insists everyone calls her Wai for short - is the only woman, hired a year ago by the All England Netball Association. As Wednesday's result indicates there's a lot of work to do. Although the English game is on the up - they finished third in the last world championships - there is still a huge gulf distancing England from Australia and New Zealand. Wai's contract takes her through to the next world championships, in Jamaica in 2003, via the World Games in 2001 and Commonwealth Games in 2002. She says it will be a step-by-step process and is determined to develop a high-performance programme which will result in England winning the world title.

A tall order for a tall lady. A strapping six-foot ex-defender, she cuts as imposing a figure off the court as she once did on it. Her full Maori name means "moonlight rippling on the water at night" and she is suitably contemplative as she looks at the task ahead: "Netball has degenerated into a battle for supremacy between Australia and New Zealand. It needs more international credibility. I want to see the game in England lift itself so we get back to the exciting times of the early Eighties when five nations were within a goal or two of each other."

Like performance directors in other sports, Wai has a largely administrative role, more Kenny Dalglish than John Barnes. She says it is her job to see that the pounds 1m of Lottery money is spent wisely, most of it on preparation and competition for the players. She appoints and oversees the national coaches and helps decide which players receive individual funding from the world-class performance programme. "I see my role to support the coaches and not interfere in their work," says Wai, a 37-year-old mother of two, who is based at the English netball headquarters at Hitchin. Her husband, George, is hoping to work here as a rugby development officer.

"Back home in New Zealand the public turns out in droves to watch netball and we have great media coverage. But it doesn't bother me that it is relatively low key here. It is a challenge not only to lift the sport at the playing level but in the public consciousness."

There is now an abundance of names like Waimarama Taumaunu which do not trip easily off the tongue yet are beginning to have a pronounced effect on British sport. There's Udo Quellmalz, a German installed as judo's performance director last October. He is the 33-year-old former Olympic featherweight champion whose appointment has proved a masterstroke. Last month a British team had their best results for years in the world championships in Birmingham: four medals including Graeme Randall's gold, the first for a British man since 1981.

In just a year Quellmalz's stewardship and training programmes have put the sport back on the mat and the German overlord puts much of the success down to his decision to involve the coaches of individual competitors with the national squad. "They see their players every day, they work with them, they know them, so they should be involved," he says.

Two sports based in the new Centre of Excellence at Bath University have also brought in performance directors from overseas. The former French international Greg Millet runs triathlon, where British hopes of gold are high when it makes its debut in the Sydney Olympics, and modern pentathlon has a prize capture in the Czech Jan Bartu, formerly coach to the Mexican and USA squads. A former Olympic bronze and silver medallist and one-time rival to Britain's Jim Fox, Bartu has two foreign coaches working with him, his fellow Czech Friedrich Foldes and the Hungarian Istvan Nemeth, who is in charge of the promising women's team.

"British sport can no longer afford to be insular but thankfully it can now afford to bring in foreign expertise," says Fox, the 1976 Olympic champion. "But none of it would have been possible without Lottery funding. In many ways it has saved our skins.We can compete on level terms with the rest of the world for the first time."

Hockey has gone down the same route, bringing in the top Australian Chris Spice as performance director, and badminton is now under the aegis of Denmark's Finn Traerup-Hansen while there is a distinctively French flavour in both tennis and table tennis. Patrice Hagelauer, former coach to Henri Leconte, was appointed at the LTA's performance director earlier this year and his compatriot Michel Gadul holds a similar post with the English Table Tennis Association. Ice skating is seeking a resurgence through the French-Canadian performance director Andre Bourgeois while his fellow countryman Yves Nadeau is speed skating's national coach.

Not all the foreign imports are new. The former East Germans Jurgen Grobler (rowing) and Horst Hoernlein (bobsleigh) have been working here for some years with the national teams and gymnastics has always recruited heavily from former Iron Curtain nations. The sport has 13 technical directors or coaches from Russia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria working under a British performance director, John Atkinson. Americans in basketball and baseball, a Latvian in luge and an Austrian in skiing are further evidence of foreign expertise at work in British sport. Britain's top diver Tony Ali says that the employment of China's Wang Quiang has revolutionised his training and technique.

Swimming also has Russian and Australian coaches yet it is only in recent years that the major sports have shed their xenophobic tendencies. From Advocaat to Wenger, via Vialli and Houllier, foreign coaches are now commonplace in football, accepted as bringing new-age nous to the game.But not all the foreign legionnaires have proved themselves five-star generals; football has had its share of dross - and Gross.

But the foreign force is with us to stay. Cricket now has a Zimbabwean coach and even Welsh rugby realised, like netball, that it needed a Kiwi to kick-start it again. The moonlight now rippling on our waters may well have the glint of gold.