Judo: Alexander grapples with faded glory

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The Independent Online
Until recently Britain was one of judo's leading nations, winning many of the sport's top prizes. Now, however, international success is rare.

On the eve of a World Championships that bode ill for the national squad, Philip Nicksan meets the woman charged with revitalising judo in this country.

When the British judo squad enter the fray at next week's World Championships in Paris, they know they will have their work cut out to match even the solitary medal they won at the last event in Japan two years ago. For most, it will be a bruising experience.

But there is little doubt that the new chairman of the British JudoAssociation, Lesley- Anne Alexander, has an even greater fight on her hands. And the prize is not just a medal but the reputation - even the survival - of the sport itself.

For British judo has never been at such a low ebb. In less than a decade - two Olympiads - the sport which produced the World Championship glories of Neil Adams, Karen Briggs, Sharon Rendle, Diane Bell and Nicola Fairbrother is bumping along the bottom track in world terms.

There is chaos in the coaching structure - a year after the Olympics there still is not a national team manager, and players young and established are increasingly resorting to training abroad.

Membership of the British Judo Association is down to an all-time low. In the mid-1980s, it was 40,000. Now, the official figures put it at 22,000, though that includes some recent cosmetic work: take away some 5,000 new young members attracted by lowering the age group from eight to six, and the real fall is to under 17,000.

Morale is low. The team returned from Atlanta without a single medal and there was a different kind of scandal after the Barcelona Olympics, with a shameful exercise in sports politics.

Now, what is left of British judo has turned to the housing director of the London borough of Enfield to sort things out. It is, in a way, an unlikely choice, not least because she is the first female chairman of any national organisation in the International Judo Federation.

Lesley-Anne Alexander is 37. She became a black belt at 16 and, for a short time, was on the British national team. But her demonstrative success has been at club level: the Willesden Judo Club, which she founded with her brother Leigh, has established itself as one of the strongest junior clubs in the country. This, to her, is one of the encouraging signs for the sport. "People underestimate the value of judo at grass roots level," Alexander says.

She is as proud of the thriving parents' beginners class as the fact that Sam Dunkley, the 60-kilo fighter who started as a child at Willesden, will be on the British team next week.

However, Alexander will scarcely have time to watch him, for the task facing her is daunting. Every area needs serious attention, starting with the national squads. "They have been unprofessionally managed," admits Alexander, who is accustomed to clear management structures: she is currently overseeing an pounds 80m housing development in her borough.

The recent appointment of a Belgian, Jean-Marie Dedecker, to run the national squad has fallen flat on its face with his withdrawal weeks before he was due to take up the post.

And with just two years to go before Britain's greatest judo showcase - the World Championships in Birmingham in 1999 - time is short to develop a squad truly capable of taking medals. Colin McIver, 1984 team manager, is currently tipped to step once more into the breach, but whether he can salvage anything remains to be seen.

This parlous state within the top competitive structure is the first thing that requires Alexander's attention. In addition to her plans for a new team manager and a group of specialised coaches, she also wants to set up a players' council, so that the voice of the competitor is heard, not just through complaints in the press; and to recognise the work of personal coaches.

Yet international medal success is only one aspect of her forthcoming work. Financial stability and increased membership are equally important. "Four to five years ago, we had nearly 1,000 clubs. Now we have 870, but I believe that the fall in membership has bottomed out."

Whereas the previous BJA chairman, George Kerr, spent considerable time on Britain's international standing - which resulted in the successful World Championship bid - Alexander will concentrate more on judo in Britain.

There is, however, some scepticism within British judo of her rise to the chairmanship. At the AGM last week, it was pointed out that she has been a director of the BJA during much of the time that it has sunk to its lowest level. But she won the clearest mandate, winning more votes than her two opponents put together. And she is not afraid to grasp the nettle. "The success of the 1999 World Championships, and our performance in the Olympics in 2000 will be the test of my chairmanship," she says unequivocally.

Her sights will be set there. But she would not mind a bronze or two next week to set her off, preferably from the 60-kilo men's category, so that she can hang it in the club at Willesden. It would give the encouragement she needs to set judo back on the road again to its former position as one of Britain's most bemedalled sports.

If she fails, it is in danger of becoming as peripheral as British wrestling.