Athletics: Foster on attack as Britons fall short

Former track great hits out at 'ridiculous' system and sees bleak times ahead

British athletics has been this way before, of course: hit by a gold shortage, scratching around for bronze or silver linings on the international stage. Back in 1976 the best of Britain's runners, jumpers and throwers returned from the Montreal Olympics with just the one medal, a bronze. It came courtesy of Brendan Foster in the 10,000 metres.

Thirty years on, the great North-eastern distance runner has watched despairingly from the BBC Television commentary box in the Ullevi Stadium while the not-so-great GB team of 2006 have struggled to make it on to the medal rostrum, not at global level but on the Continental stage at the 19th European Championships. The lack of success has not been his only cause for concern.

Like many former internationals observing from the wings here, the man who memorably won the European 5,000m crown in Rome in 1974, reducing Lasse Viren to a mere also-ran, has been nonplussed by the daily report sheets issued by Dave Collins, the former judoka and rugby player who was appointed as the performance director of UK Athletics 18 months ago despite his lack of a track-and- field background.

Athletes are given marks out of 10, accompanied with such trite comments as "should concentrate on the marathon," in the case of Mara Yamauchi - who ran in the 10,000m on Monday as a necessary exercise in sharpening up for the New York Marathon in November and who, with a degree from Oxford University and a career as a Foreign Office diplomat, might be able to work out for herself what her specialist event happens to be.

"Ridiculous," Foster said, shaking his head in disbelief. "Absolutely ridiculous. Athletics is the ultimate objective sport. The marks are already there. If you get first, you get a gold medal. If you get second, you get a silver. If you get third, you get a bronze. If you get fourth you get fourth place. That's the mark. It goes into the record books.

"If you've never been in the first 10 before and you finish in the first 10: good mark. If you've never been in the first three before and you finish in the first three: good mark.

"But to introduce, in the most objective of all sports, another level of what's supposed to be an objective measure is absolutely ridiculous. It worries you that somebody in the position of performance director - when all of the history of athletics has had objective measures, called positions - would suddenly think, 'Oh, I'll tell you what I'll do; I'll introduce some marks out of 10.' It does make me think, here we are in the home of Abba; is he trying to recreate the Eurovision Song Contest?"

Which begs the question of whether Britain - third on the all-time medal table behind only the old Soviet Union and the drugs-driven East Germany, but on course for their lowest placing at a European Championships - have met their Waterloo in south-west Sweden.

"It's nonsense," Foster said, continuing his theme. "I feel sorry for Dave Collins. He doesn't know enough about the sport, and if you don't know much about something you don't suddenly come in with radical, harebrained schemes. You come up with an idea and then you check it out. And I can't believe anyone's said, 'Hey, good idea.'

"I'll tell you what, when I ran in the Olympic Games and finished third in the 10,000 metres... I won a medal... It wasn't my best performance... Didn't run a great race... I'd sweated for years to try and get an Olympic gold medal and I got a bronze medal.

"As the Games went on and nobody else won anything, that bronze medal got a little bit rosier. I would have given myself a mark like six or seven, but if the performance director had actually dared to come to see me with a bit of paper saying, 'Brendan, I thought that was a six out of 10 and I thought you should have run a bit faster on the last couple of laps...' He's a bigger bloke than me, but he would have been flying out of the room with his bit of paper between his legs."

Which, presumably, would not quite be the effect that a man with a background in sports psychology (Collins worked with the England rugby union team in the days when Geoff Cooke was coach and Will Carling captain) might have in mind.

There have been glimmers of hope in Gothenburg, with Greg Rutherford (19), Rhys Williams (22) and Becky Lyne (24) all making the medal rostrum, and Mo Farah (23) showing signs of doing so in the 5,000m final today. Nevertheless, the British gold standard at European level has slipped from seven in Munich four years ago to none so far in Gothenburg, and Foster can still see a bleak picture on the global stage, looking six years down the line.

"The thing that worries me the most is 2012," he said. "The stadium will be ready and will look magnificent. The opening ceremony will be magnificent. We'll win medals in all the sports where you sit down: the show- jumping, the rowing, the cycling. Then, when it comes to the central bit, when it comes to stepping on stage for the athletics, it really worries that after every-body's joy and passion for the 2012 Olympics there will be no British athletes on the track to see.

"It's like a Doomsday scenario. And I wonder if it's already too late to do something about it."

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