Commonwealth disaster points to dark days in the run-up to 2012

Years of declining participation and short-sighted management have left British athletics groping around for the light switch, writes Tom McNab

Reality is a bitch. And nowhere does that bitch so clearly flaunt her charms as on the field of sport. The Commonwealth Games has provided a reality check for British athletics at, whatever the protestations of Clare Balding, an event which is not by any measure a world class track and field meeting.

It is impossible to imagine the swimmers or cyclists of 30 years ago returning, with the same performances, to challenge the competitors of the present day. Not so in athletics, where the great Scottish Commonwealth Games team of 1970 would match or even beat the present squad. In 1970, Scotland secured eight medals, including four gold. In 2006, two medals and no gold. More significantly, in 1970 Scotland had 34 top-eight performances; in 2006 they have had only five.

Unlike swimming and cycling, athletic standards are not, in the main, rising, except in the distances and in developing events such as the women's triple jump and pole vault. As an example, few women can now guarantee to dip under 11sec for the 100m or 50sec for 400m, when world records set 20 years back are over five per cent faster. Mary Rand's 1964 long jump of 6m 76cm off pulpy cinders would easily lead our rankings , and Kathy Cooke and Andrea Lynch would dominate women's sprinting with their performances of 30 years ago.

So what has gone wrong? It would be easy to lay all the blame at the door of UK Athletics, but the decline in participation levels and coaching stock pre-dates UKA's arrival. However, as Burns was apt to say, "facts are chiels who winna ding" - meaning that the truth will out - and the facts are that we have indoor facilities to die for and massive financial support for athletes. Wilma Shakespeare's English Institute of Sport has provided outstanding support in the areas of sports medicine and conditioning.

At this point, it is worth looking to swimming and cycling, where our performances are world class. It is not necessary to approve of all of Bill Sweetenham's methods to applaud him for the cultural change which he has enacted in British swimming. Similarly, the work of Peter Keen and Dave Brailsford has transformed our cycling and by 2012, with the construction of the London Velodrome, we will dominate the sport.

Sweetenham achieved a change in mind set in swimming coaches. And, like Keen, he focused on and invested in coaching at the sharp end, which has been in slow decline in athletics for at least 20 years. When cash first became available from the Lottery, physiotherapists, nutritionists and other support staff were paid. No provision was made for coaches. As a result, I have, over the past three years, covered the circumference of the earth and spent a thousand hours of coaching time in developing young athletes, one of them to world level, all without a penny of support from my governing body.

Clearly, there must be a change at the top of British athletics, a Sweetenham or Keen-style metamorphosis. The first practical step must be to fund and support those coaches who have a record of producing the goods, rather than appointing yet another layer of novice "professionals".

The second (and I believe this process has already begun) is to identify where the medals can be won in 2008 and 2012, for the pool of athletes from which this success will come is already known. All available expertise must be deployed . It is impossible to imagine that a great coach such as Wilf Paish could not help Kelly Sotherton to javelin-distances well beyond 40m. While we are at it, the heptathlon is a single event with seven components, with training and technical priorities, and Sotherton can no longer be left to decide these priorities for herself. Similarly, the skills of Sally Gunnell's coach, Bruce Longden, could be deployed to the advantage of novices such as Lee McConnell and Nicola Sanders, both potential Olympic finalists.

This form of rigorous technical auditing is essential. There are, for example, at least three of our horizontal jumpers who could, with specialised work, substantially improve their sprinting techniques. For myself, I would be happy to work with our relay team, and contribute £100 to charity every time they dropped the baton in competition.

Behind all of this must be longer-term planning, which means the steady professionalisation of coaching, and coach education must be brought forward. The strength of our past coach education was that it was joined at the hip with practical experience, and our programmes were the envy of the English-speaking world. The recent appointment of Calum Orr to lead in coach education offers an opportunity for a fresh start.

The omens for Beijing are not good, with only a handful of medals in prospect, and it is hard to see 2012 being much better. Can we turn things around by 2012? Not without root and branch change, and even with that it is going to be a hard ask to summon up a sufficient corps of experienced coaches. As things stand, most people have a better chance of encountering a Buddhist monk than a pole vault coach. What is certain is that a purely voluntary coaching force is long past its sell-by date.

The steady drop in adult competitors must be addressed, for they provide the pool of talent from which our future coaches and administrators will be drawn. There is a saying that "in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king". No. The one-eyed man is invariably banished for daring to declare the heresy of light. I hope we see the light, before it is too late.

Tom McNab was the British national athletics coach from 1963 to 1977.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application Developer

£30000 - £40000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Front-End UI Application ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Service Engineers - Doncaster / Hull

£27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Domestic Service Only Engineers are requ...

Recruitment Genius: Employability / Recruitment Adviser

£23600 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Employability Service withi...

Day In a Page

Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

The secret CIA Starbucks

The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

One million Britons using food banks

Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

How to run a restaurant

As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
10 best tote bags

Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

Paul Scholes column

I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...