Athletics: Pidgeon continues to soar high above cloud of politics

Heiress to Paula Radcliffe's crown will get to the top her way, writes Mike Rowbottom

Like most 16-year-olds, Emily Pidgeon has strong opinions about what music should be playing in her family car. As her mother Jessica guided the Pidgeons' 4x4 with practised ease through the bustle of Cheltenham's town centre recently, her daughter leant forward and selected the favoured CD track of the moment - Christina Aguilera's "Fighter".

It is an appropriate choice right now for the young athlete who appears one of the likeliest candidates to fill the gap which will be left once Paula Radcliffe, whose medium-term plans are taken up with pregnancy, retires from the sport.

Ever since Pidgeon emerged as a 14-year-old to win the 2003 European cross-country trials against established internationals five years older - her coach, David Farrow, describes this as her "here I am" moment - British athletics has been on notice that this is a prodigious performer.

Nothing has happened since to detract from that. Last year Pidgeon finished 21st in her first attempt at the World Junior Cross-Country Championships, again facing runners four years her senior, and was beaten by one place to the distinction of being the first European. She then won the European Junior 5,000 metres title, and followed it up in December with second place at the European junior cross-country championships.

This season she appears set to contest her first World Junior Championships, in Beijing next month, where she has qualification times in four events. But her entry for this weekend's Norwich Union European Championships trials in Manchester leaves open the possibility that she might seek to make an impact at senior level this summer if she does well enough in tomorrow's 5,000m.

Pidgeon and her coach will make a late decision on her participation at Manchester after assessing the toll taken on her last weekend, when she won her eighth English Schools title. Either way, she remains one of this country's most precious sporting assets, a steadily achieving athlete who can look towards the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the 2012 London Games beyond them, with a justifiable sense of excitement.

Radcliffe herself acknowledged as much last year, when Pidgeon was chosen as her first athlete of the month, earning a training grant of £1,000. That gesture of support was repeated earlier this year, when Radcliffe - who is in email contact with the Cheltenham College schoolgirl - provided another training grant to the tune of £2,000.81p.

It is perhaps as well Pidgeon has friends in high places, since - like Radcliffe - she has yet to sign the new central contracts that UK Athletics has sent out to 187 of its leading performers. And unlike the world marathon champion, who is due to meet UKA's performance director Dave Collins to discuss the position next week, Pidgeon will definitely not be putting pen to paper and signing on the dotted line.

The contracts - 160 of which were already signed by the first deadline of 28 June - require athletes to make six annual appearances on behalf of UKA and also cover media appearances. Athletes will have to be available to compete in the European Cup, the major championships of a particular year, such as Olympics, worlds, Europeans, and the annual trials, and the major indoor championships, such as world or European.

Other elements contained in the UKA initiative, which has to be carried out for athletics to qualify for government funding through UK Sport, include measures to standardise athlete-coach relationships, requiring individual training programmes to be agreed with UKA performance staff. There is also a clause requiring athletes not to make "derogatory or offensive" comments about their governing body or sporting competitors.

From the UKA point of view, it is an attempt to regulate a notoriously variable and quirky sport with a view to improving general levels of performance. The emphasis is on pooling ideas for the common good.

The realpolitik, however, is stark. Athletes who do not sign will not be eligible for Lottery funding, and will not be paid to compete in the domestic sport's big televised meetings, although they will still be eligible to represent their country.

From the point of view of some athletes and coaches, it is a heavy-handed, meddling document which is attempting to wrest control of competitors from their individual coaches.

Pidgeon's father, Stephen, has outlined his objections in a forthright letter to Athletics Weekly, and Farrow has been equally outspoken in his comments. "This is a one-size-fits-all approach, and it is not appropriate for a sport that has produced such individual performers as Steve Ovett, Seb Coe, Daley Thompson and Paula Radcliffe," Farrow said. "None of them have gone down the established route.

"I see this as an assault on the athlete-coach relationship. This contract actually seeks to fracture that link. I believe this sport should be athlete-centred, coach-led and backed up by UKA in the form of support services. UKA talks about centring the sport on athletes, but they don't walk the walk.

"If the contract is so attractive, why have penalties for not signing it? That speaks volumes, surely? I also disagree with its view on intellectual property. If I have some coaching ideas for my athlete, why should they be handed over for inspection?

"UKA believe they are in the position where they have the power to judge everything. It really is 'We know best'. But who is in the best position to judge what is best for Emily: UKA, or her parents and her coach? Their attitude is very arrogant."

Collins does not concur. "The idea that these contracts seek to break up athletes and coaches - I'm sorry, that's a nonsense," he said. "It offers substantial financial support and incentives, as well as medical expertise. Is it a controlling contract? It is about partnership. It is about trying to help and advise people to perform better.

"But if we find coaches working in a less than optimum fashion, then yes, it is a controlling contract in that it is the responsibility of the programme to try and make things better. And quite justifiably so, because we are effectively working with public money. I believe the best coaches in the world believe in openly sharing ideas as they seek best practice.

"Many other sports working within the Lottery programme, such as swimming, rowing, cycling and sailing, have already introduced athlete agreements along these lines, and I haven't heard too many protests about that. It may be that the whingeing over these contracts is almost a sign of some of the malaise we have in the sport."

Collins robustly defends UKA's right to decide if an athlete's chosen course of action is acceptable. "If Alex Ferguson thinks something is reasonable at Manchester United, then I think it's reasonable," he said. "If David Brailsford, as director of performance for cycling, thinks something is reasonable, it is reasonable.

"This isn't a controlling contract, it is a very supportive contract. But if you are incompetent, it is a controlling contract."

Immediately, however, Collins stresses that there is no suggestion that Pidgeon, or her coach, are remotely incompetent. "Emily has clearly been performing to a consistently high level," he said. "I would be happy to sit down with her and her coach to discuss any particular issues they may have."

Any attempts at concord between the two parties are complicated, however, by the fact that Farrow has had his coaching licence suspended for almost a year following allegations that he had raped a senior athlete, something he has always denied.

Gloucestershire Police announced in December that they were taking no further action, but UKA has maintained its suspension as it conducts a standard inquiry which is being carried out by its welfare department, addressing the question of whether Farrow is a suitable person to be a coach. The process looks likely to go on for several more months. And although Farrow - who has had strong support both from his club, Gloucester AC, and Pidgeon's family - is effectively coaching as before, it is hardly an ideal position for anyone concerned.

Pidgeon, who has just completed AS levels in Latin, French, Maths and PE, has more testing times ahead of her. But she is tough, strongly supported and very capable of carrying out her ambitions - perhaps with those Aguilera lyrics running through her head: "It makes me that much stronger, makes me work a little bit harder, it makes me that much wiser, so thank you for making me a Fighter."

'Fighter' is written by Christina Aguilera and Scott Storch, and published by RCA.

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