Threat to funding for athletics as report calls for major reforms

There was some good news for British athletics yesterday with the release of Sir Andrew Foster's eagerly awaited review into its long term health. The former Controller of the Audit Commission, who was knighted in 2002 for his services to local government and the NHS, opens his report, entitled Moving On, with a clear declaration: "Athletics in the UK is not in crisis."

After five months of extensive consultation, however, Foster concludes that the sport is "at the crossroads", and requires "bold, radical steps" to be taken.

If the two Government bodies who commissioned this report, UK Sport and Sport England, accept the findings - and, this being an independent exercise, greater coherence between these two bodies themselves is also recommended - then British athletics has the opportunity to transform itself in the years between the Athens and Beijing Olympics after a long period of internal strife.

Among the key recommendations of the report are the reforming of the Amateur Athletic Association for England - established in 1880 - into a new, streamlined body, English Athletics. The AAA and its supposed parent body, UK Athletics, have always sat uneasily with each other, and deeply held differences in attitude have prevented the sport rationalising and simplifying its structure.

Foster spells out the fact that the sport has to get its act together, and soon - he suggests a route forward should be agreed within a month - if it is to access the bulk of the funding offered by the Government in the wake of the failed bid for the 2005 World Championships.

Of the £41m promised to UK Athletics, half is already going to capital projects such as a High Performance Centre at Picketts Lock, once earmarked to be the site of the 2005 Championships. The other half, Foster believes, should remain firmly conditional on the sport reforming itself into a structure which has UK Athletics at the top, as a strategic body concerned with élite athletes and anti-doping work, then English Athletics, and then nine English regions, or "hubs".

"The larger part of the resources available should be released only against demonstrable progress in implementing comprehensive and sustainable change," the document maintains. "This is the new compact."

But while Foster envisages a tight grip being kept on the finances, he believes money should be no object as the sport seeks a successor as Performance Director to Max Jones, who is due to retire after the Athens Games. "The aim should be to secure the services of the best available person in the world," the report adds.

He envisages the person being recruited in time to take over immediately after the Athens Games finishes, although he admitted that such a role in athletics was not clearly parallel to an appointment such as swimming made recently in putting itself in the hands of the Australian coach Bill Sweetenham. Unlike swimming, where most élite competitors can train together, athletics is a far more varied and complicated collection of disciplines. The hard fact is that no one obvious candidate springs to mind - but the hunt has not yet begun in earnest.

Initial reaction to the report was positive. George Bunner, recently elected as chairman of the AAA, believed the proposals could help to clear up the root problem between his organisation and UK Athletics - "It allows our roles to be clearly identified, so we can see clearly what we have to do," he said. "I think the idea of hubs is exciting."

There was a welcome, too, from UK Athletics, whose chief executive, Dave Moorcroft, was warmly endorsed by Foster in his introduction. "He is a man of integrity who carries the highest respect and knows the sport extremely well."

Foster acknowledged that there had been impatience voiced in some parts of the sport at Moorcroft's failure to force through structural changes, but made it clear that he was confident the former world 5,000m record holder could continue to play a "vital role" as chief executive.

Moorcroft made it clear that he intended to stay, quite possibly beyond the 12-18 month time scale in which Foster wants the key changes to have been effected. "There is unfinished business," he said with a smile. "Probably unfinished for quite a while."

That business has seen him embroiled in battles between UK Athletics, and the ill-fated British Athletic Federation which preceded it, and the traditional power bases at the AAA, and the three other associations in the South, Midlands and North.

Foster's report speaks of "destructive hostility between individuals and organisations, backbiting, prejudice and blindness to facts, disturbing resistance to change, self interest..."

Before the official appearance of his report, he breakfasted with members of the AAA and area organisations, and spoke cautiously about the reaction he had received.

"I was given a very respectful and thorough hearing," he said with a faint smile. "Views varied. I think quite a lot of people wanted to have time to read the report more thoroughly."

As Foster points out, there have been two other reviews of the sport in the space of the last six years, but, understandably enough, he does not want to see the labours of the last five months - offered on a pro bono basis - end up with nothing more than something else to file away in the "pending" tray.

"The proposals are sound and solid," he maintained. "The changes need to be managed within a period of 12 to 18 months maximum."

That process will also require a project board to which all relevant bodies will be invited - on the understanding that they sign up to the principle of change. "This is the train that is leaving and now is the time for everyone to board it, otherwise they will have missed their chance," Foster said.

Although improved results at international level is a clear long-term aim within this mass of suggested change, Foster was at pains to point out yesterday that the performance of British athletes in Athens this summer would not have any immediate bearing on his proposals. The man who spent 10 years addressing the problems of the National Health Service, and the Police, and the General London Assembly, has a longer-term vision. And this seems to be the moment when those within the sport must respond in kind.

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