Athletics: Athens the crucible for Moorcroft

Pat Butcher finds the new man at the top is looking and still learning
David Moorcroft is well placed to appreciate the problems that athletes such as Kelly Holmes have had this week at the World Championships. In one of his final assignments for BBC before he takes over as the British Athletics Federation chief executive on 1 October, Moorcroft is looking out every day over the track where he had, "probably the biggest disappointment" of his career.

The difference, as he is quick to point out, is that he wasn't injured. Moorcroft came into the European Championships which inaugurated the beautiful Olympic stadium back in 1982 as the world record holder for 5,000 metres, which he had taken to the verge of 13 minutes a couple of months earlier in Oslo.

"I think I believed I was better then I was, not in a big headed way, but I wanted not just to win, but win in style. I even had a few conversations with Brendan Foster while I was out here. I'd watched him win the Europeans, and I wanted to win it like he did. I'd been on antibiotics, and I wasn't as sharp as I'd been when I broke the world record, but I still felt I could win it in style when what I should have done was just win it."

In fact, after six weeks of submitting to the novelty of being athletics' "most-wanted" around the tracks of Europe, he finished a drained third behind Thomas Wessinghage, in what was probably, in contrast, the best race of the German's career. "I blew it after the world record by trying to be too nice, too kind to to many people. And I think there is an analogy with this job. You can blow it by trying to be all things to all people."

"This job" as head of BAF has been described by his co- commentator, and also former world record holder, Foster as a "poisoned chalice" - an appropriate term in the land of Socrates. The propensity for in-fighting and subversion in British athletics sent the most recent boss, Peter Radford, back to academics after just three years. And Moorcroft has admitted privately that if enough people wanted him out of the job, he probably wouldn't survive.

"Its a bit like starting an athletics career. You either jog along and say, 'I'll be pretty serious and that will be good,' or you say, 'I'm going to go for it in a big way,' totally mindful of all the frustrations, injuries, illnesses, and all that. But that's what I'm there for. And it's pretty much the same here, in that you know there are certain things you can control, and certain things you can't. What I've got to do is manage the way through the controllable and the uncontrollable."

One of the things that Moorcroft will have to contend with is the re- emergence of Andy Norman in his favourite role as behind-the-scenes manipulator. Moorcroft has little reason to welcome Norman's return, despite being one of the many athletes who benefited from Norman's undoubted acumen. Moorcroft was a close friend of Cliff Temple, the athletics writer with whose suicide three years ago Norman was linked. Indeed, Temple wrote Moorcroft's biography. But any antagonism obviously has to be tempered by reality. "I suppose I have to be diplomatic and pragmatic about it," Moorcroft said. "He's clearly a part of British athletics. Several athletes use his talent, and it's up to them."

Where Moorcroft already scores over his predecessor, the private, patrician, Radford is in his capacity for communication. And so he should, with his broadcasting experience. "We've got to get a balance between the public's perception and reality. But we've got to go with perceptions, because the media and public identify with different things. If Jon [Edwards] and Colin [Jackson] had won, and we had got two golds and two silvers, it would have been perceived as a very successful games. In the same way that Atlanta was perceived as being poor, when in fact it wasn't too bad, people would be saying, 'thank God, we've got two golds'. In fact, we should say that's pretty average."

A ridiculously youthful looking 44-year-old, Moorcroft on TV and radio strikes some people as being hesitant, even bumbling. Certainly, in conversation, the words come tumbling out as if ideas, reflections, tangents, qualifications are crowded in too quickly. But he never loses the ultimate aim, even if the route can seem circuitous.

He is genuinely a nice man, and received wisdom is that nice guys come last. His former coach John Anderson has retorted that Moorcroft has always confounded low expectations of him; that he was dismissed as an academic no-hoper as a youngster, yet ended up going to university; and that, having failed to realise an early ambition to get a first foot on the athletics ladder and make his county schools cross-country team - albeit Warwickshire had the best youngsters in Britain at the time - he ended up on the topmost rung as a world record holder.

Given that he is seeing his new role comparative to his running career, perhaps the best indicator of his capacity for the job is how he quickly put into action the lesson he says he learned here 15 years ago.

A month later, he won the Commonwealth Games 5,000 metres title. "It would be really easy for me to say I had the 5,000 sussed, that I was the world record holder. But in hindsight, I never felt comfortable with it. Athens epitomised that. The Commonwealth was more about control, doing what I needed to do to win."