Athletics: Belgium's value-for-money lesson to Collins

For the first time in history Britain has no individual European champion
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The Independent Online

The King Baudouin Stadium was packed to its 47,000-capacity rafters on Friday night for the return of Belgium's golden girls. Between them, the sprinter Kim Gevaert and the high jumper Tia Hellebaut won three individual titles at the European Championships in Gothenburg - that's three more for Belgium, with its population of 8.5 million and its annual athletics budget of £750,000, than for great big Britain, with its 60 million population, and it's annual track and field income of £18m.

Gevaert and Hellebaut gilded their new-found golden reputations by winning their events in the Brussels Golden League meeting. Look out Audrey Hepburn, Georges Simenon, Eddy Merckx and the tennis girls: another two famous Belgians are on the way. As for British athletics, with its rich history and material trappings, it is looking suspiciously like a faded, old emperor with a crisis in the clothing department.

Amid the Belgian pomp at the King Baudouin track, just to put British athletics in its new-found place, a quartet of Kenyan middle distance runners broke the world record for the 4 x 800m relay, set back in 1982 by Garry Cook, Peter Elliott, Steve Cram and Sebastian Coe.

For the first time in history, British athletics has no individual European champion. It has no athlete in the top three of the world rankings. On form at least, were a global championship to have been held in 2006, Britain would have been medal-less for the first time.

And now - with the World Championships in 2007 and 2009 and the Beijing Olympics in between - UK Athletics are without a long-term chief executive. In announcing his resignation from the post on Thursday, Dave Moorcroft stated his intention to remain in place for six months to assist in the search for his successor. The sport owes a lasting debt of gratitude to a man who has dragged British athletics from bankruptcy to a state of financial wealth that no other governing body in track and field can match.

As the search begins for Moorcroft's replacement, though, the wayward direction in which British athletics has been drifting of late can ill afford to be ignored. It is hardly the fault of Dave Collins, the performance director of UK Athletics, that Britain is suffering from not so much a surfeit as a complete shortage of Europe-beaters, let alone world-beaters.

He has only been in the job since March last year and the loss to retirement of a golden generation was always going to leave the incumbent with a void to fill. He does have one world-class asset, but Paula Radcliffe is currently pregnant.

Still, Collins did himself few favours by deciding not to attend the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in March (unlike Bill Sweetenham, the performance director of British Swimming, and Dave Brailsford, the performance director of British Cycling), by issuing daily marks out of 10 for the British team in Gothenburg, by appointing Linford Christie as a "mentor" coach, and by defending his decision to approve a trip for Harry Aikines-Aryeetey, the world junior 100m champion, to train with another coach tainted by drugs, Trevor Graham.

It is only natural that such actions have called into question the wisdom of appointing someone without a track and field background to the key role of directing Britain's athletes through these dark days towards the bright lights of London 2012. With the chief executive departing because he wants to give another man six years to steer the sport to those Olympics, it would seem logical to consider change at the sharp end of performance direction, too.

Not that Moorcroft thinks that Collins ought to go with him. "It's really important that Dave's programme is given as long as is needed to work," he said. "It would be catastrophic to try to change that at this point."

That view is shared by John Taylor, one of the non-executive members of the UK Athletics Board, which will decide Moorcroft's successor and whether any other changes in key personnel might be appropriate. Moorcroft is one of the executive members of the board. So is Zara Hyde-Peters, who works in tandem with Collins as UKA's director of athlete development.

She has strong support from within the governing body to rival Jon Ridgeon, the managing director of Fast Track, for the chief executive's job. There might be a clamour for a sweeping wind of change in British athletics but don't rule out something more like a battening of the hatches.