Athletics' choice is to sink or swim

Norman Fox says that one sport should learn from another's experience
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The Independent Online
Athletics must reorganise completely at top level or face the "tragedy" of losing its place as Britain's premier Olympic sport. Who says so? Not another disenchanted fan or bitter former British Athletic Federation employee, but the man who has revolutionised the organisation of swimming - which was itself in disarray not so long ago.

Athletics has no immediate prospect of finding anyone to take on what Brendan Foster has called the poisoned chalice in the wake of the resignation of the federation's chief executive, Peter Radford. David Sparkes, Radford's equivalent at the Amateur Swimming Association, has been there before. The ASA took on Sparkes, then a volunteer official, as a stop-gap administrator two years ago. His dynamism shocked the old guard, but he soon became chief executive.

For years the ASA was stifled, as is athletics, by the committee mentality, an inability to overcome the self-interest of well-meaning volunteers, and a directionless paid staff. Sparkes says many of the difficulties to which Radford succumbed applied when he took over.

"From what I've heard about athletics," he said, "the coaches and the athletes don't feel closely enough involved; there have been an awful lot of plans and not much delivered, and the communication from the top has not been good.

"I'm not saying we've got everything right yet. We know it's an uphill struggle but we're using professionals to do it. We are desperately trying to improve our communications, and in two years we've got a lot better. But six months into the job I'd got a vote of no confidence in front of me. There were real battles and I haven't got 100 per cent of the people with me now, but if you've got 51 per cent you can go forward. What athletics needs is a clear focus; some clear business plans, very clear leadership and bloody good communications from the top to the bottom, otherwise it's just going to fall apart. That would be tragic for a sport that can potentially deliver a lot of gold medals and a lot of pride for this country."

Sparkes, a former engineering company owner, went on: "People were worried that I might become a dictator. They wanted to know how the volunteers would respond and who would monitor the chief executive. My agenda started with: 'What are we here to do?' That was met with stony silence. There were all the platitudes about serving the members, but I said sport was a business."

He had three goals: to ensure everyone had a chance to learn to swim; to offer smooth pathways to success, and to be serious about it, not to say it was enough merely reaching a final. "We said we would only deliver those three objectives. Then I had to mould the 50 people we employ into an executive team - they didn't know what they were there to do. They would come to ask me whether we should accept a pounds 1m sponsorship or buy a packet of paper clips. If the professionals didn't know what they were doing, what chance the volunteers?"

He stresses the importance of volunteers. "In sport 99 per cent of the work is done by them. I can't single-handedly make swimming better or make swimmers swim faster, but I can provide direction, leadership and the structure in which the coaches and swimmers can perform to their best.

"Success is also about giving competitors a voice - athletics has done that a bit late. There is a competitor on our executive committee and one on every technical committee. They make a substantial contribution. Once they understand what the issues are, their view on how simple it seems to solve the problems soon changes. We had bloody great rows at the beginning, but now people see the objectives."

Many people in athletics, particularly the volunteers, considered Radford to be too powerful. Sparkes appreciates the problem. "I set performance indicators and tell the committee that is what I'm going to deliver. Later I meet one of them and he reports back - so I am monitored. But the committee now gets some leadership from the professional staff. The committees still decide the policies - the volunteers have got ownership of the policies, otherwise the top will lead the bottom with a big gap in the middle."

As for finance, he says: "Sport has to take a responsibility for funding itself." It also has to gamble. Swimming attracted back to Britain the world renowned coach Deryk Snelling,who for 30 years had been based in Canada. "We also send some of our best kids to the Australian Sports Institute to prepare them for what might happen when we get a British academy. We've used our funds, hoping that Lottery money will come through - so we are spending money we haven't got because we think it's important to give kids the best chance." His fear is that young athletes are not getting the same opportunities.