Athletics: Radford puts spotlight on shortcomings

Mike Rowbottom reflects on a turbulent week for British athletics administrators
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The Independent Online
One of the innovations which affords the departing head of British athletics, Peter Radford, reason for pride is the commercial partnership recently established between competitors and administrators.

Under the new title of Concept Athletics, this 50-50 joint venture will attempt to generate fresh revenue for a sport currently in very public disarray.

When Radford appeared on a Channel 4 phone-in this week to explain why he had chosen this time to leave the sport, he made it clear that he felt he had taken it as far as he could against a constant undertow of dissent.

It is, indeed, the concept of athletics which is at the heart of the matter. The main administrators and elite athletes have embraced the professional ethos; the rank and file are mistrustful of the new order, and angry that they appear to have been ignored.

Radford's position has been, at times, close to impossible. He has had the task of trying to please all of the people all of the time, while having to point out that the British Athletic Federation could not be expected to fund all the way down to the grass roots, especially after losing pounds 750,000 in the last two years through falling television and sponsorship revenue. Radford was not helped by the fact that he did not have the common touch, and he failed to carry the 54-strong BAF council with him as he strove, in his own words, "to revolutionise the sport from top to bottom".

For as long as the current structure exists in the sport, none of the potential successors whose names have been floated - Mike Whittingham, Brendan Foster, Dave Moorcroft or even Sebastian Coe - would be likely to do much better, even if they were minded to try.

Roger Black, the Olympic medallist who has seen Radford's task at close quarters as a director of the recently formed British Athletes' Association, has been dismayed at the experience. "If you are trying to run a multi- million pound professional business you must be free to do it. Peter was working with an archaic system. Every three months he had to go back to the council knowing that they could vote him down or force him out of his job. That is not to say that the council members don't care for the sport, but it means that the man in charge cannot make big, quick decisions."

It would be unfair, nevertheless, to say that Radford leaves a sport in crisis. With a bid just in for pounds 5.5m worth of National Lottery money this year - which is likely to be well received - British athletics is proceeding more in expectation than in hope.

But even if the currents appear to be taking the vessel in the right direction, there is a clear sense of anxiety aboard over who will take the helm when the captain departs.

There is not likely to be a quick, straightforward replacement for Radford. When he takes his leave of the BAF - probably within a few weeks - to prepare for his new job at Brunel University, there will be an interim period where the BAF chairman, Ken Rickhuss, oversees the running of things while the management board takes the opportunity to review the structure of the sport. "We felt we needed not to be pressurised into making any sudden or hasty judgements," the BAF secretary, Matt Frazer, said. "This is an opportunity to see what is right for the federation for the next five to 10 years."

What looks certain is that the job of executive chairman, widely seen as a flawed model, will be discontinued. "It hasn't worked," Frazer said. "With Peter chairing the management board as well as fulfilling his other roles, he had to carry the can for everything. We may have been asking too much of one man. Maybe we need to divide the job up."

A likely new arrangement would be for a chief executive to take responsibility for negotiating sponsorship and television deals, while a separate head of administration dealt with athletes' services.

Such an arrangement, Frazer concedes, might be more attractive to men such as Foster or Whittingham, successful businessmen who are currently wary of being drawn into a task that has demonstrably worn Radford down. "It wouldn't be as onerous as asking one man to do both tasks," Frazer said.

Before any asking is done, however, there are some important consultations ahead. Next Thursday, the management board will talk to the chairmen of the regional associations, the spokesmen for the rank and file.

There will also be discussions with the Sports Council, whose senior members have made it very clear that sports expecting large sums of public money through the new World Class Performance programme must be seen to be efficient.

At this vital time for British sports funding, the Sports Council can call all the tunes.