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
Monday 27 March 2006
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.
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