Running out of respect

Countdown to Gothenburg: Jackson's bitter riposte to BAF marks a new low in relations between athletes and officials
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The Independent Online
BRITISH athletics has just moved several strides nearer a two- tier system: one for professional competitors and another for amateurs. A week full of controversy and embarrassment, which ended in the sad withdrawal from the world championships of the injured Colin Jackson, left the British Athletic Federation near to despair over the control of their top athletes. A spokesman confessed: "We have professional athletes but we are not a professional organisation."

While Linford Christie and Colin Jackson, who are represented by their own company, Nuff Respect, were at the centre of the controversies, even the normally flawlessly diplomatic Sally Gunnell criticised the BAF for forcing a great athlete like Jackson to prove his fitness before next month's world championships.

In the event Jackson has merely proved that he was not fit by breaking down in training. His parting shot was to warn the BAF that it should never again question his credibility. Professor Peter Radford, the executive chairman, had earlier summoned Jackson to his office and castigated him for dropping out of last weekend's KP National Championships after one heat but running for $25,000 the next day in Italy. All the evidence now suggests that Jackson was not trying to deceive the BAF but genuinely believed treatment on Saturday evening had overcome the groin strain.

Radford is presiding over fast-approaching anarchy and has been humiliated. The fiasco of trying to explain why Christie was invited to pull rank and run in last weekend's 100 metres final as a guest after failing to qualify was bad enough, but to have the world championship selectors ignore him and name many of the athletes who had snubbed the Birmingham event was mortifying for this academic who has always been used to getting his own way.

Cynicism and confusion reign and it cannot be long before the top money- earners in the sport form some sort of association. For the moment Nuff Respect, a powerful but small agency, appears to be permanently thumbing its nose at Radford.

The latest events have re- emphasised the fact that for years the sport at top level was totally under the control of one man, Andy Norman. His responsibilities have now fallen to the efficient, but more straightforward, Ian Stewart. The result is that the BAF now tries to play a straight bat which tends to reflect the inflexibility that was the hallmark of Radford's tenure as Director of Physical Education at Glasgow University. Dealing with today's high- flying agents undoubtedly tests his patience.

Nuff Respect came into being three years ago mainly to handle Christie and Jackson's promotion off the track. Its name was clearly personal to Christie, who has never forgotten that someone once said he had a chip on both shoulders. Respect is something he genuinely believes the media refuse him. The company's remit was extended when towards the end of last year Norman, who had been banned by the BAF but was still able to act as an agent overseas, was told by Nuff Respect that they had decided against letting him continue to act on their behalf.

Until then Norman had been Christie's, Jackson's and just about everyone else's agent, negotiating appearance money and charging them 15 per cent per meeting for his influence. It seemed to make financial sense to ditch him and keep the money "in house", as Nuff Respect's main administrator, Sue Barrett, says. At the time it appeared that losing Britain's top two male athletes would substantially curtail Norman's attempt to re-establish himself, but time will tell.

As Norman's star fell, Christie and Jackson were joined at Nuff Respect by John Regis and Tony Jarrett. The company began to sort out deals with foreign promoters and negotiate with the BAF, which in the meantime had undergone some significant changes, not least the appointment of Radford. He immediately made it clear that he was in favour of spreading athletics' income more widely than was the case in the Norman days. Until last summer, Christie had continued to pay glowing tributes to Norman, whose sacking followed accusations that he had contributed to the mental torment of the athletics writer Cliff Temple, who committed suicide early in 1994. Norman had been a big influence on Christie in the athlete's early wayward days, but finally a rift occurred when he and Regis did not appear at a meeting in Stockholm after Norman had guaranteed their presence.

At about the time of the split, Barrett, who had been working for Alan Pascoe Associates, appeared on the list of BAF approved agents. Her lack of experience at the top level of wheeling and dealing hardly mattered. Christie, the world and Olympic champion, and Jackson were in such demand that she could hardly fail. That remains the reason why Nuff Respect still has only a handful of athletes in its care. Barrett's link with Christie was forged when she worked for APA, which retains the BAF account as "sponsorship consultants" and agents for their publicity.

Originally it was thought that Nuff Respect would expand and represent a large number of British and foreign athletes but that has not happened. The organisation has remained small but profitable, tending to confirm the original view that it was set up mainly to secure the futures of its little cluster of stars. In securing those futures it may also have changed the structure of British athletics for ever.