Athletics: The self-serving attitudes killing British athletics

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The Independent Online
The financial failure of the British Athletics Federation threatens the future of the sport in this country. Mike Rowbottom examines its collapse and suggests a way forward.

As the three wise men from the insolvency practitioners picked through the wreckage of the British Athletic Federation's finances yesterday, two questions resonated in track and field circles.

How could Britain's most successful Olympic sport have got itself into such a dire situation? And where should it go from here?

The basic answer to the first query was spelt out on Tuesday by David Moorcroft, the newly installed BAF chief executive, who has seen what he understood to be a cash flow problem turn into the stuff of nightmares.

Falling sponsorship income, and lower levels of money in television rights have chipped away at the reserves of pounds 1.2m that the Federation announced in 1994.

At the same time, costs have risen, due in part to legal fees incurred in defending the Federation against a claim for pounds 500,000 in damages from Diane Modahl after her successful appeal against a doping ban.

Three years ago, the then executive chairman of BAF, Peter Radford, emphasised the need for the Federation to diversify from its dependence upon television money and sponsorship for big televised meetings.

That is something the Federation has signally failed to do. The most obvious, practical method of raising steady revenue is a registration scheme. Five or ten pounds per head per athlete per year. Net result to the sport: around two million pounds.

That sort of cash would have been more than handy right now. But such has been the resistance from the grass roots, and so archaic is the administrative system in British athletics, where all decisions have to be approved by an unwieldy 38-strong council, that Radford and his fellow professionals could not institute the measure.

The institution of a registration scheme was on the agenda for informal discussions due to take place last night between the BAF, the Sports Council and the Amateur Athletic Association of England.

Many in the sport suspect that the latter body, which has never got along with the BAF, is waiting to occupy the power vacuum which has been created by BAF's insolvency.

The question of releasing some of the funds the AAA has accrued over the last few years - more than pounds 1m - is something which is currently exercising minds in the Sports Council, which holds the ultimate sanction of stopping the flow of National Lottery money into the sport.

The Lottery panel have also made it clear in the past that they do not like handing over public money to organisations with archaic administrations.

Perhaps this traumatic time will offer the opportunity to transform the Council from being the sport's House of Commons to its House of Lords - a measure which is long overdue.

John Lister, who quit his position as BAF treasurer 18 months ago, spoke yesterday about the crucial misjudgements made when the BAF assumed control of the sport in 1991.

"The fundamental clanger that was dropped came in the handover of responsibility for the sport from the Amateur Athletics Association to BAF," he said. "While the AAA agreed to surrender all responsibility for events, coaching, administration and international competition, they kept their reserve fund of around pounds 3m.

"Not only that, they forced BAF to sign a contract that meant they took around 40 per cent of their profits. That meant that in the first three years of BAF's reign, when the money was still flowing in, the AAA took around pounds 500,000 in cash from them.

"The problem was there was no will on the board of directors of BAF to face up to realities. It is a tragedy for the sport. The Federation has destroyed itself, and the problem is that you can't have any confidence in what is left behind in the shape of the AAA of England.

"As a body they have been waiting for this to happen without being prepared to do anything to stop it. The only place to look for a new beginning now is to the Sports Council. If we are not careful we could be watching the death of athletics not only in Britain, but around the world."

The immediate problem is paying athletes for their competitive efforts this season, and guaranteeing events planned for next year.

Channel 4, who have a pounds 3.3m contract to televise domestic athletics for the next four years, said yesterday they were monitoring the situation closely.

Another proposal which might yield dividends for the sport is the reformation of the current boundaries within the overall AAA. At the moment there are three arbitrary blocks: Northern, Midland and South.

Splitting the sport into smaller units could access new sources of income from regional development agencies.

In the meantime, the BAF staff are working a day at a time, waiting to hear if and when they will lose their jobs.

"If I was in the position now of deciding if I wished to be chief executive of BAF," Moorcroft said, "clearly I wouldn't."