Colin Jackson: Lottery funding has created a comfort zone
Tuesday 10 August 2004
Several of my old friends came out fighting after I said recently that I do not expect the British team to come back from Athens needing extra baggage allowances for their haul of medals. However, the likes of Darren Campbell mostly criticised me for speaking out at all; I didn't hear them arguing that I was wrong in my assessment. Then one or two major figures, like the British head coach Max Jones and Dave Moorcroft, the chief executive of UK Athletics, emerged after I had taken all the flak, and said pretty much the same.
We all want our athletes to do well, I certainly do, having only recently retired after competing internationally for 18 years at the highest level, but there is no point living a fantasy. We should accept that other than Paula Radcliffe, rightly favourite for the marathon, we're looking to some senior athletes, Kelly Holmes and Steve Backley, with outside chances of medals.
It isn't easy to work out why this group of British athletes has fallen behind. I start by looking back to the different circumstances my generation had when we were coming through, before Lottery funding completely changed the landscape. The sport was professional, but you couldn't earn any money except on merit, by winning. We had hunger; I had it, Linford Christie had it, Kris Akabusi, John Regis, Roger Black, Sally Gunnell, and we also had great role models, senior athletes who had achieved greatness. Daley Thompson was my inspiration, but we had Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Tessa Sanderson and others, crossing the generations.
I worry that Lottery funding of athletes puts them in a comfort zone. To get the funding, the athletes have to achieve certain times for each event. These are set at very good national standard, but below the levels required to actually win medals in international competitions. I fear that athletes set the Lottery times as their targets, and once they have achieved that and secured funding there is a natural tendency to pull back, cruise a little bit. It is great that the athletes can train full-time, and they have all improved, but I wonder if the hunger is still there. It's significant that our best medal hopes in Athens, Paula, Kelly and Steve, all came through the old system.
Although the facilities were more basic, I wonder if we benefited from a simplicity in approach. Athletics is very technical at the highest level, but in essence it is not that complicated: you run, jump a hurdle, put a shot, throw a javelin. In the early '80s in Cardiff, a group of us met every evening, in all weathers, pounding round a cinder track at Jenner Park in Barry until we were exhausted.
We were a group of 10 Welsh internationals, including Nigel Walker, the British champion sprint hurdler. We worked hard and were good friends but in keen competition too, and we pushed each other. We shared one coach, Malcolm Arnold, then the Welsh national coach, who remained my coach throughout my career. Several dedicated and talented athletes gathered in similar groups: the sprinters in London, the field sports in Loughborough, the distance runners in Scotland.
Now, it's all changed. The facilities in Cardiff are superb, but the Lottery hasn't built enough similar centres nationwide. The Lottery funds leading athletes' living costs, but they are taken out of groups too soon, working not with a single coach but different performance and technical directors, who aren't as well spread geographically as they were. The sport has become overcomplicated and fragmented.
Perhaps we need to rethink the system, simplify it again, get groups of athletes training together, spend the money primarily on quality facilities around the country, on developing better coaches, and encouraging more children to get into athletics. Provide a streamlined route for the talented and dedicated to come through.
Whatever, there's no point kidding ourselves. I'm hoping to see our athletes in great shape, performing at or close to their personal bests. But as for their medal chances, facts are facts, and I stand by what I've said.
Colin Jackson will be writing for 'The Independent' throughout the Olympics
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