Athletics: A sport too big for a Mr Big: Norman Fox, athletics correspondent, studies the progress made to restore a tarnished image

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THE quiet, steady plod of last winter's cross-country season could not have come quickly enough for the officials of the British Athletic Federation and particularly their new executive chairman, Professor Peter Radford. They all looked forward to a few days in the country; a break from the bad publicity that an ex-policeman turned superintendent of everything that moved in British athletics had brought upon them.

The Andy Norman affair all but wiped out the golden memories of success in last season's World Championships in Stuttgart. Sponsors dropped out and television began to lose interest. Today, sponsorship is gradually being clawed back, hopes of more medals in the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games this summer are high but Andy Norman, the 'Mr Big' who led the sport and its top performers to untold riches before he was paid off after the biggest scandal athletics in Britain has ever endured, will not go away.

The suicide of athletics writer and coach Cliff Temple, whom Norman had accused of sexually harrassing women athletes, left the federation no alternative than to dismiss Norman from the job as promotions officer, for which he had been paid pounds 65,000 a year. His 'departure' came not long after the resignation of the BAF's long- standing, successful, though not universally acclaimed, head of coaching, Frank Dick, who was concerned about the way the Norman-inspired greater riches that had come into athletics had been spread and was unhappy about suggested cost cutting in his area of responsibility. So the top layer of the sport was deprived of its most influential generals and an army of athletes were left at least temporarily relieved that their sport had been forced to face its most difficult problems. But could the new administration put the house in order?

Radford, a former international sprinter, took up office at an uncomfortable moment, knowing that any leniency shown towards Norman would immediately incur the wrath of the athletics writers. Understandably, in the weeks after Temple's death, it was difficult for any of his fellow writers to feel in a mood to be entirely objective about Norman's contribution to the sport. After the BAF's inquiry, Radford made a statement that recognised Norman's contribution, which was acceptable, but added a rider almost suggesting that the allegations against Temple had been misconstrued. Temple's close friends in journalism and the athletes he had coached were horrified and felt that the BAF's ban on Norman's activities in Britain was almost irrelevant if he could carry on being the person European promoters recognised as still the most powerful figure on the 'professional' circuit.

In effect they were right. The organiser of a Grand Prix meeting in Bratislava revealed that Norman was the person he dealt with over British entries. The BAF felt obliged to issue a warning to athletes that they could not use Norman as an agent because he was not on their list of approved representatives (not that they told him that at the time of his dismissal in April). Under IAAF rules athletes who use representatives not approved by their national federation risk sanction. Then, in a move that could only confirm the worst fears of its critics, the BAF decided that he could continue to represent athletes on the Continent but not in Britain. This was great news for the elite since almost all of the real money comes from competing on the Continent. It played straight into Norman's hands, hence his presence trackside in Bratislava last week.

Norman's tacit rehabilitation immediately re-submerged athletics in critical publicity at the very moment it was attempting to claim that the damage done earlier, not least the loss of major sponsors including Vauxhall, Interflora, Panasonic and Pearl Assurance, at a combined cost to the sport of some pounds 7m, was beginning to be overcome. Pearl made it clear that it thought athletics would not regain sponsors if its image was not greatly improved.

There is no doubt that many of those leading athletes, especially the members of Chafford Hundred, the club set up in 1990 by Norman's fiancee Fatima Whitbread specifically to bring together an elite group, will continue to refuse to join his critics. After all, without Norman, Linford Christie, Sally Gunnell and Colin Jackson would probably not have become rich. Yet for every satisfied sprinter or middle-distance runner who has been promoted by Norman on the lucrative Grand Prix circuit there is a host of long- distance runners, especially women, who say that his determination to promote only events that put 'bums on seats' left them paying their way and treated like poor relations. In addition, the accusation against Norman was that his undoubted gifts as an entrepreneur may have done the world of good for athletes on the Grand Prix circuit but left the grass roots in a poor state.

While never having criticised Norman and Dick by name for having taken and being allowed to take so much control over the sport (indeed he praises the success of British coaching in recent years), Radford makes it clear that he will oppose anyone who in future attempts to take a dominant role. 'We have to look again at coaching and development and what we do about them. We need to think afresh through concensus and collaboration.' Dick counters: 'It was the Radford Report of five or six years ago that made it clear that the sport had outstanding value from its coaching. Peter has talked about not wanting one person in charge. But this was the policy of the Wembley Convention in 1977, which was a response to Britain winning only one bronze medal at the 1976 Olympic Games.'

Power over coaching will be diverted from one man's hands into several, despite the appointment of Malcolm Arnold, Jackson's coach, to fill the void left by Dick. The new officers - the chairman Ken Rickhuss, a 63-year-old businessman, Eric Shirley, the 64-year- old new vice-charman, and Matt Frazer, 62, the new secretary - will be in the Radford fold. Ian Stewart, the former 5,000 metres runner who was Norman's assistant, is in charge of promotions.

On the financial front, a new commercial director, Barry Snellgrove, 46, with 10 years' experience in sports marketing, has been appointed. The BAF believes it must look at new areas of income with sponsorship and television unstable. That gravy train has contributed pounds 40m over the past 10 years but there are signs of the buffers hoving into view. The Norman-inspired head-to-head between Carl Lewis and Christie at Gateshead last summer, for which each man received pounds 100,000, is unlikely to be repeated.

The company that has had the task of helping the BAF restore athletics' image and attract back sponsorship money is Alan Pascoe Associates, whose managing director, Matthew Wheeler, could have done without revived stories of Norman's involvement but bravely says that the level of sponsorship this season is not going to compare unfavourably with previous years. He also says that the Norman affair has not been dramatically damaging. 'I really believe that we, and the media, are too close to it. If you speak to the man in the street, it's not as big an issue as whether Linford Christie is going to be the European champion or will Colin Jackson break world records, and so on. They would say 'Who's Andy Norman'?'

The most recent major sponsorship deal with KP Foods was worth pounds 1m over two years but was seen as peanuts by comparison with the pounds 4m paid by Pearl Assurance in 1990 for three title meetings a year for four years. What is more, KP bought the right to change the name of the historic AAA Championships to the KP National Championships, which was the equivalent of putting a sponsor's name in front of the FA Cup. BUPA has also become involved and will provide medical health care support for 200 leading athletes, which is worth about pounds 100,000 on the basis of what the BAF had to spend on medical care before. Wheeler says he is confident that all the major events this season will have sponsorship. 'Last year sponsorship came to about pounds 4.3m and we are very close to that already. It hasn't been the best time to approach sponsors, but this is a successful sport and we are now back talking about the sport itself rather than the politics.' Thus, Radford's early threat that all departments of the BAF would have to prepare 'worst-case scenarios' in case sponsorship failed to be replaced may not come about - though too late for Dick, who saw that demand as a threat to his coaching programmes.

Wheeler's 'people outside the sport', potential sponsors, casual spectators and television viewers, are not the ones who have been affected by the Norman saga. The ones Cliff Temple cared about were the developing athletes. His argument was that while there was nothing wrong with Norman directly or indirectly attracting millions into the sport, much less than pounds 1m found its way into the development of the young athletes upon whom the future depended.

Vicente Modahl, agent to a string of young athletes including the high jumper Steve Smith and the runners David Grindley and Curtis Robb, says that apart from affecting his athletes emotionally - 'It has been very unpleasant and has had a destructive effect on athletes' minds' - they have also suffered financially.

'I staged a high jump meeting in Liverpool with Steve and Xavier Sotomayor, the world champion, and it should have been easy to get sponsorship in Steve's home town. We might have expected pounds 7,000 or pounds 8,000 in sponsorship but I ended up losing about pounds 3,000. At least three or four companies didn't want to be involved because of the problems. I am trying to negotiate appearance and bonus fees with the BAF on their behalf but I can't say what the situation will be. Uncertainty brings confusion and that brings bad results.' Radford insists that with budgets already fixed there will be no change in appearance fees this season.

One way of making up any shortfall in income being considered is a registration fee - a poll tax in running shoes, has been one description - of all club athletes, with a figure of pounds 12 per head being mentioned. 'We are not happy about it at all,' says Dave Smyth, secretary of the Folkestone club where Cliff Temple was a coach. 'The gut reaction is: at a time when Folkestone is strugging to stay alive, why should we pay that after all the money the BAF has received over the last decade? This will be a big problem among grass roots people.'

Modahl believes that in the wake of the Norman, Dick and David Bedford departures, the sport now needs a 'strong man for a strong show'. It falls to Radford to provide it. 'Our sport has been hugely successful,' Radford says. 'But we have looked a little jaded, our developmental programmes are not so good as tennis and rugby, for example. And while promotions have worked well in the past, we have to make them exciting for the future.'

If, as Matthew Wheeler claims, athletics still has a surplus of money (believed to be pounds 5m) tucked away in the bank and is on course to replace all of its lost sponsorship, the question is whether it can feed the roots while at the same time fulfil the financial expectancy of those athletes Norman kept happy and still present itself as what Radford calls 'a sport standing for fair play and respect and with values'.

(Photograph omitted)