Athletics: Buckner in very English row that will run and run

Former champion's modernising plans attacked as clubs blast governing body's 'credibility'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Walter Rye fought to keep amateur athletics as the sole preserve of the so-called "gentleman amateur", but was ultimately persuaded to drop the rule precluding "mechanics, artisans and labourers" from open competition. A century and a quarter later, the AAA of England are about to relinquish their jurisdiction in the face of opposition from a group of clubs fighting against a perceived lack of "democracy and accountability" in the proposed new English association due to come into being on 1 April next year under the umbrella of UK Athletics, the overall governing body of athletics in Britain.

The creation of England Athletics has resulted from the review into the modernisation of the sport in the United Kingdom undertaken by Sir Andrew Foster and the subsequent project to implement his recommendations, which has been led by Jack Buckner, the former European 5,000m champion and double AAA champion, with the assistance of Peter Radcliffe, the chairman of Bedford and County Athletics Club, father of Paula, and interim chairman of England Athletics. The adoption of the modernising proposals in the Foster Report is, in turn, a condition for the release of £41 million of government funding.

The 1,400 athletics clubs in Britain have been given until 25 October to respond to a poll about the proposals and, while an automatic transference of power is on the agenda of an extraordinary meeting of the AAA of England on 29 October, the Association of Great Britain Athletic Clubs (ABAC) is attempting to effect a turning of the tide.

Formed in April specifically to oppose the changes, its members - 120 strong and growing - are unhappy about the direction of UK Athletics, about the planned displacement of the AAA of England and about several aspects of the proposals, chiefly the introduction of regional councils in which elected club officials will have "a majority" but which will include paid officers of England Athletics and which will be answerable to a national council and in turn to UK Athletics.

"We do accept the need to change," one ABAC committee member, Mike Bateman, said, "but that doesn't have to involve so much sacrifice of democratic control and such a leap into the financial unknown. We don't feel the new body is sufficiently accountable to the clubs, who at the current time are the guardians of the sport, the custodians.

"We're not resistant to change. We're resistant to this change being imposed on us by a body that's got so little credibility in what it has achieved in the time it's been at the helm. Under UK Athletics, the sport has deteriorated alarmingly - in standard of performance and in numbers."

Buckner, who spent 12 months travelling the country consulting those invol-ved in the sport at the grass roots, conceded he had found "a huge level of frustration" among clubs about the "managerial-driven" approach of UK Athletics, but pointed to the crisis caused by the financial collapse of its predecessor, "the very, very democratic but very, very unwieldy British Athletic Federation."

New World

"What we've tried to do is strike a balance," Buckner added. "We've been round the country twice, talking to people, and we've ended up with proposals similar to those made by the AAA two or three years ago. It's nothing revolutionary. The negative group have been up in arms about a lack of democracy, a lack of accountability, but in the new world they will have more accountability. At the moment UK Athletics has no accountability, and the supervisory board in the proposals puts that in.

"I find it depressing that those who are against change are saying nothing about making the sport more attractive to youngsters. I have two teenage boys, and they play Twenty- 20 cricket. I love athletics, but it terrifies me that the sport hasn't moved on since I was competing. It's getting farther behind. If people want to keep squabbling about which people sit on which committee, then the sport hasn't got a future."

At Morpeth Harriers, where Bateman has been secretary for 30 years, the picture is not quite so bleak. The Northumberland club boast a climbing membership, a thriving youth section, and a record of success at national level stretching from the 1960s. "Clubs do need to be encouraged to recruit," Bateman said, "but I don't think having such a bureau-cratic set-up is going to do anything for recruitment at grass-roots level. What they should be doing is taking clubs with them rather than imposing a structure upon them."