Profile: Run-ins of a hard promoter: Andy Norman

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The Independent Online
IT IS hard to imagine anybody playing a practical joke on Andy Norman, the promotions officer of the British Athletic Federation, but it has happened on occasions. A senior figure within the sport tells of when the national team was away taking part in an event and a few of the coaches thought they would have some fun with Andy.

'We waited until he was asleep one night in his hotel room and then found a rubber snake which we put on his chest,' he recalls. 'We then crept out of the room and rang him up, waiting to see what happened when he woke up to find a snake on his chest. But the thing about Andy was he never even acknowledged the snake was there. You'd nip back into his room and see what reaction there was and there simply wasn't any.'

There is something slightly chilling about this story. It suggests a man who is either in possession of formidable sang-froid, or if he does get flustered certainly isn't going to give his colleagues the pleasure of seeing him in such a state. Control-freak? Or spoilsport? Or perhaps a bit of both?

Norman's invulnerability is legendary. In a career which has seen him rise to become the most powerful man in British athletics, many in the sport, both athletes and in the press, have pointed accusing fingers at him. Yes, they admit, he has done a lot of good in enhancing the status of the sport; but the sport has also had its problems, chiefly over money and drugs. The critics have tried to implicate Norman, though they have never got anything to stick.

But now Norman is at the centre of a controversy quite unlike any of the others he has been caught up in, and there have been enough of them. Norman is accused of spreading false allegations about Cliff Temple, the athletics correspondent of the Sunday Times, who committed suicide a fortnight ago. Upset by criticisms Temple had made of him in an investigative article last summer, Norman is alleged to have threatened Temple, suggesting to him that if he didn't lay off, a rumour might go around that he had been sexually molesting one of the runners he coached, Shireen Bailey. There were other factors that contributed to Temple's suicide, but Norman's allegation - dismissed out of hand by Bailey - was, according to the Sunday Times, 'the most sickening, and by no means the most negligible'.

The BAF is holding an inquiry into the matter - nothing new for Norman, who in 1989 had to answer to the then British Amateur Athletic Board after he had fallen out with Steve Ovett over appearance money. He survived that, as he has other threats to his power. Whether he will survive the Temple affair is another matter.

Norman is 50, a portly man almost as keen on eating as he is on athletics. He was born in Ipswich and grew up a competitor as well as a fan, representing Southern Counties at 400 and 800 metres. After leaving school he joined the Metropolitan Police, becoming a sergeant at only 23. He got a taste of athletics administration with Southern Counties and soon he had taken over as manager of the British Police team.

A police athlete from those days remembers Norman for his 'total dedication' to the sport. 'He had his own way of doing things,' he says. 'He was quite pedantic. But that was fine. He would always be there to meet you off a train and drive you to the meeting. He was terrific like that. I thought he was a really nice bloke, with his heart in the right place. If you were straight with him, he'd be straight with you. You couldn't kid him or pull the wool over his eyes. He certainly knew his stuff.'

For Norman, though, this was just the bottom rung. In 1984 he left the police for his present job, which in 10 years has given him an unprecedented degree of influence over many aspects of athletics, in Britain and overseas. 'He's been very clever at getting to where he wants with the minimum of interference,' a coach says. 'That's partly through a lack of control elsewhere within the Federation, and partly because he's engineered it that way.'

The job of a promotions officer is to promote events - to attract the best fields, and with them the sponsorship and the television coverage which will provide the money to pay the athletes. There is rather more to Norman's role than that, though. He is also a selector, and as well as representing the interests of the BAF, he works on behalf of individual athletes. Many feel there is a conflict of interests here. 'The problem with Andy is that he wears too many hats,' one senior figure says.

He might have carried off this trick rather more successfully than he has if he had been able to add diplomacy to his undoubted qualities as an organiser. 'Casually abusive' is how one athlete describes his behaviour. Another says that 'his trick is to belittle you, and then you've got less clout when it comes to arguing your case in a deal'. Norman has a sense of humour, a former colleague says, 'but not if it's directed at him'.

A more serious complaint concerns favouritism. Kriss Akabusi, the recently retired 400 metres hurdler, is one athlete who has gone on the record about his 'run-ins' with Norman, saying that the promoter had tried to keep him out of a big meeting after he had questioned why he was receiving rather less money than some runners. Such is Norman's might that you complain at your peril.

'Norman is very helpful to those who can be of some use to him,' is how one coach sees him - a view echoed elsewhere. 'If you're Linford Christie, he'll bend over backwards for you. The only question in his mind is, 'Are you going to put a bum on a seat?' He's got no qualms about that. If you're not, well, he might do you a favour, but you know that some time he'll call that favour in. Of course he's attracted a lot of money to the sport, but it gets redistributed among very few athletes.'

For a man who treats people in a way that suggests he doesn't care what they think of him, there is one area of Norman's life that he is sensitive about - his relationship with Fatima Whitbread, the former javelin world record holder. The British athletics scene was astonished when Norman, previously married to a Norwegian, took up with Whitbread in the mid-Eighties, and their involvement with each other was something they were sufficiently keen to keep from the wider public for Whitbread to refuse to identify her partner - or fiance as he had by then become - when interviewed by Hello] magazine in February 1992. 'Andrew', as Whitbread primly refers to him in other contexts, lives with her in Essex, his life and work virtually inseparable. Their engagement will have lasted more than four years by the time they marry in September.

Some of Norman's entrepreneurial skills seem to have rubbed off on Whitbread. In 1990 she formed an athletics club called Chafford Hundred (the name of a new town in Essex), which has done much to capitalise on the commercial potential of some leading athletes - among them Christie, Sally Gunnell, Colin Jackson, Steve Backley, John Regis and Yvonne Murray.

It was Cliff Temple's inquiries into Chafford Hundred that are understood to have particularly riled Norman. Yet there is a paradox in the way Norman is supposed to have reacted - betraying, on the one hand, how even he can feel threatened; on the other, the apparent belief that he can get away with anything. Can he? Many in athletics will hope that the BAF's inquiry will go a long way to determining that.