Athletics: Hope rises from the rubble

Against the odds: A former athlete they said was too nice has grasped the nettle of his bankrupt sport
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The Independent Online
INSTEAD OF a brass nameplate, a piece of paper stuck to the window announces arrival at the offices of UK Athletics 98, the interim governing body which has risen from the rubble of the old British Athletic Federation. The grandees of the BAF would never have sanctioned such squalor. A plain, flat-roofed brick building in the working district of Edgbaston, carpet squares, linoleum on the stairs, cardboard boxes piled high in every corner and furniture more MFI than Harrods. And an air of quiet tenacity at odds with the look-at-me splendour of the golden egg days. By happy and ironic chance, the NatWest Business Centre is a stone's throw away. If only some business nous had crossed the threshold a few years ago.

David Moorcroft checks the date on his watch. Fifty-three weeks since he took over as chief executive of the British Athletic Federation, 51 weeks since the BAF was declared bankrupt, pitching him into a frenzied round-the-clock rescue from which he and the remains of the sport are only just emerging. Last week produced the first solid piece of good news, off the track at least, for a month or two. The sport, quietly whistling on its merry way oblivious to the turmoil up above, gave Moorcroft's proposals for the establishment of a new constitution a near unanimous thumbs up.

In truth, there was no other option, but athletics has shown a remarkable propensity for manning the shovels at the bottom of the hole and so the vote - a thumping 97 per cent in favour from a turn-out of 52 per cent (double the average) from the 1,600 clubs - came as a relief to Moorcroft and his small band of faithful followers. Moorcroft can at least apply for his old job back now. Technically, he has been employed by the administrators for the past year, funded by a grant from the Sports Council. His job as chief executive disappeared beneath the bottom line of the BAF accounts. The adoption of the restructured constitution should trigger the release of new funds and the establishment of UK Athletics 98 as the permanent governing body of the sport. Old issues, the case of Diane Modahl, who is suing the BAF, for example, have to be resolved, but, for the first time in almost a decade, British athletics can begin to look ahead with optimism rather than glancing anxiously over its shoulder.

For that, Moorcroft must take much of the credit, loath as he would be to accept it. At any time, the former 5,000 metres world record holder could have walked away, back to television work and, as he puts it, living off his name. With him would have gone the last vestiges of the integrity of athletics and the prime asset of UK Athletics 98.

"I was just swept along with it really," he says. "I didn't know the extent of the mess before I took over otherwise I'd never have taken it on, but once I knew [he was informed about a serious problem three days before taking over his new post] it was a question of minimising the impact, informing staff all over the country, Buckingham Palace, the IAAF, before it became public.

"If I'd have been working for an ordinary company, I would have been leaping up and down and taking legal action. But this is my sport and my commitment was to work in a sport that has been part of my life and that didn't change because the BAF was broke. It just became a different job. It became much more of a mission, not quite that, but I can't think of a better word. It was about trying to carve out a successful future, a more effective future for the sport. It's not been depressing, it's been really rewarding." Interspersed with large dollops of despair. Within a few weeks of Moorcroft's arrival, 30 of the 36 staff at the BAF had lost their jobs. In July, the BAF offices were sold to pay creditors and Moorcroft led the move across town, trailing heirlooms like a repossessed family.

"Suddenly, you realise you're the focal point for a lot of people who are bruised and confused. I'd go home knackered, sometimes up, sometimes down. In that sense, it was not dissimilar to being an athlete again. You'd go through weeks when you were flying, then something would go wrong and you'd be thinking 'Oh no, here we go again'. Three steps forward, two steps back."

Other than his prowess on the track and his innate decency, little in Moorcroft's qualifications suggested he was the ideal man to run athletics. But, in the summer of 1997, the BAF were desperate, without a chief executive for six months and with no finance director. Ken Rickhuss, the BAF chairman, emphasised Moorcroft's abilities to "bring this sport of ours together" rather than his limited financial experience. Others, those who chose to ignore the single-mindedness which drove Moorcroft to the very pinnacle of his sport, questioned whether banging heads together would be his forte.

"That was one thing I really resented, this perception of me as being too nice to do the job," he says. "What I've tried to be clear about is where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do and to take people with me. I hope I've done that relatively pleasantly, but I'm very wary of pleasant being taken to mean ineffective." His countrywide campaign to transmit his vision of a sleak, inclusive, accountable, structured government has not been that. Part agony aunt, part door-to-door salesman, Moorcroft has traversed the regions, like the leader of the Conservative Party, listening to complaints and trying to restore shattered morale.

The format of his roadshows with the clubs was simple; a show of two halves. The first dealt with the past; the second with the future. The domination of the tracks of Europe by British athletes lent a resonance to his case as well as bringing a timely reminder of the commercial complacency - and the greed of some athletes - which prompted the mess in the first place. Moorcroft's protective instincts remain acute, even to the extent of mounting a spirited defence of Colin Jackson's bypassing the Commonwealth Games for the cash inducements of Johannesburg and Japan.

"Competing in Japan was the surprising thing, people didn't expect that because it was Colin and he's served Britain and Wales so well down the years," he says. "The athletes have got behind what we're trying to achieve, they're definitely not prima donnas. We have to recognise that their job is to become great athletes and that winning medals is the trigger for everything else. More than half the times they've stuck on the British vest, they've not got a penny for it." Many of them are still owed money by the BAF. The Modahl case, Moorcroft says, is a classic example of what happens when relationships break down and the law steps in. The bright new future, based on closer links between all the diverse areas of the sport and peddled so passionately these past six months, would consign such suspicions to the past.

In years to come, athletics might regard the collapse of '97 as the turning point in its fortunes. And some credit should be reserved for the old guard of the BAF. In appointing Moorcroft, they at least got one thing right.

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