Athletics: New chief eases pressure on Collins

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The Independent Online

Ed Warner's qualifications for the newly created role of chairman at UK Athletics were always going to arch a few eyebrows. A fun runner with the Fittleworth Flyers who came 2,887th in the 2005 London Marathon, and a millionaire City businessman whose latest financial column in the Daily Telegraph is devoted to Nasdaq's "hostile bid" for the London Stock Exchange, he is not quite the Coe, Cram or Foster figure that the sport at large had been expecting at its head.

Still, having been present at the Olympic Stadium in Athens on 22 August 2004, the 43-year-old is at least ready for the disappointments that are likely to lie ahead on the road towards the 2012 Olympics. Warner's visit to the track-and-field arena, as part of a multi-sport-watching Olympic family holiday, happened to coincide with a night of British failure on a grand scale: Paula Radcliffe's failure to make it to the finish line in the marathon, the failure of all three sprinters to reach the final of the men's 100m, and the failure of Phillips Idowu to register a valid mark in the final of the triple jump.

The Fittleworth Flyer might not be steeped in a traditional athletics background (he took up running to get fit for skiing four years ago and competes for his club in the West Sussex Fun Run League), but his appointment has come at a time when the sport in Britain is enduring an extension of the fallow period that he glimpsed in Athens three years ago.

The British team at the European Championships in Gothenburg last summer failed to win a single title in an individual event. That marked a new low for British athletics, but not necessarily an absolute nadir. With not one British athlete ranked in the world top three in 2006, the prospect looms large of an Old Mother Hubbard scenario - a completely bare medal cupboard - at the World Championships in Osaka this August and the Olympics in Beijing next year.

"I don't have a magic wand to wave over everything," Warner said. "I don't even know to what extent a magic wand needs to be waved, because clearly we're doing some things right and we've got strong ideas about what needs to be done. We've got to clear the way in front of our coaches so they can do what they do best. People have talked about crisis, and maybe some of the feeling of crisis and dysfunctionality has washed over the performance element. Maybe we've just got to give it time to breathe.

"Dave Collins hasn't been long in his job [as performance director of UK Athletics, since March 2005]. He's early in his cycle of delivery. And we've got lots of great young talent coming through. For all I know, we've got all the talent we'll need to win lots of medals in 2012. But let's allow the experts to determine that and do their job."

The first significant message of the Warner era is that Collins will be given the time and opportunity to do his job - despite widespread criticism of many of the performance director's decisions, such as choosing not to attend the Commonwealth Games last year and issuing daily marks out of 10 on athletes' performances in Gothenburg.

"My view is: we may well sit down with Dave Collins in five- and-a-half years' time and hail him as a triumphant success for British athletics," Warner said. "Is it unfair, the criticism he's copped early? Yes. But is one surprised at that? No. Because that's the way of the modern world in terms of expectations, which I've had as a fan, which the media has as representatives of the fans.

"Dave's a man with broad shoulders, he understands that. I've had good early conversations with him. I've read his plan. I understand what he's about. My view is: let's let the guy manage what he's got to manage."

The chairman's vote of confidence will come as music to the ears of the de facto manager of Britain's athletics team. It has been Collins' great misfortune that his first two years in his job have coincided with the retirement of a whole golden generation of British athletes. Then again, as a former judoka and rugby player, he has hardly been helped by his own lack of an athletics background.

The trouble is, with Niels de Vos, chief executive of the Sale Sharks rugby union club, emerging as the front-runner to succeed Dave Moorcroft as chief executive of the governing body, Britain's underachieving runners, jumpers and throwers seem destined to be led on the road to London and 2012 by three men with no serious background in the arena of track and field.

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