Radford exit leaves sport in disarray

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PETER RADFORD set British athletics in turmoil yesterday by announcing his resignation as head of the sport.

The 57-year-old executive chairman of the British Athletics Federation, who has divided opinion over his performance since taking charge four years ago, is leaving his pounds 70,000-per-year post to become Professor and Head of Sports Science at Brunel University.

Radford's decision, which was greeted with shock by members of the federation's council, was made on Friday night when he met with the management board's committee which monitored his position.

Geoff Parsons, director of the newly formed British Athletes' Association, said Radford had told him of his decision shortly before yesterday's council meeting at BAF headquarters in Birmingham. "It was a surprise to me," said Parsons, who had sat beside Radford at a meeting on Wednesday with athletics writers, where the executive chairman had defended his position and spoken of his hopes for the future.

"I truly believe that we are on the brink of an enormously successful period for the sport. I can only think that Peter must have looked at that position, taken into account the pressure he has been under, and decided that it was a good time to go. Personally I very much regret it because he has always been an honourable man with the best interest of athletes at heart."

Parsons expressed dismay at the "parochial" attitude of some council members. "Peter has been in an untenable position on many occasions," he said. "He has been instructed by the council to do something, he has done it, and he has then been slated by certain members for doing it. If only British athletes could have seen the goings on in that meeting they would be horrified. It does them no favours. It gives them no respect."

Radford's move follows the growth in recent past months of unrest over the BAF's financial worries (they declared losses of pounds 750,000 over the last two years), differences of opinion over this summer's fixture list and a long-running battle with the semi- autonomous AAA of England.

One council member, Mike Winch, declared last week that the sport was in "a state of war". Winch was censured at last Friday week's BAF management board meeting, which offered its full support for Radford.

On Wednesday Radford had declared that, despite all its difficulties the sport was "poised, ready to take advantage of a whole set of new opportunities ... available to it now". He foresaw a bright future, with National Lottery money becoming available under the new World Class Performance scheme and described "a wonderful scenario" of bids for the World Championships of 2001 and Olympic Games of 2008, both of which could be centred upon the National Stadium at Wembley.

But Radford acknowledges that he has been guilty of some failures in communication and the lower orders of the sport have grown resentful, convinced that BAF is only concerned with elite performers. Strong rumours circulated last week that the clubs were planning to move a vote of no confidence at the BAF annual meeting in March.

Radford, who won a bronze medal in the 1960 Olympic 100 metres, gave up a career at Glasgow University to become involved in the sport full time. He has presided over what he describes as "revolutionary" changes in British athletics, during which time Andy Norman made a controversial departure from his position as promotions officer and Frank Dick resigned as chief coach. When the sport's spokesman, Tony Ward, left amidst acrimony two weeks ago, the last of an order which had presided for more than a decade had gone.

Ward yesterday expressed his surprise at Radford's decision, accusing him of "deserting a sinking ship". "Having taken the sport down a disastrous road, it is irresponsible for him to dump it now," Ward said. "Having said that, there will be a lot of relieved people in athletics. The sport was in serious danger of tearing itself apart."

When he painted his rosy picture of the sport during the week, Radford pointed to a pounds 1m four-year contract with Channel 4, and one of pounds 4m with Reebok. He also said he believed that the support of long-term sponsors Bupa was soon to be increased.

But this is the wrong moment to believe that the public, sponsors and television will find athletics irresistible. With Linford Christie clinging on to fame rather than form, Sally Gunnell struggling against injuries, Colin Jackson apparently in decline, Steve Backley a permanent if gallant second in the world and Jonathan Edwards never going to pull in a full house, the British "elite" are a step behind the world's front-runners. Selling the sport this year was never going to be simple. Yesterday makes it no easier.