The Brian Viner Interview: Alan Pascoe - Pascoe faces biggest hurdle of all

`It takes a certain skill to have great Olympians in one decade and athletics in the hand of the recievers the next'
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The Independent Online
IN A CERTAIN Sunday newspaper supplement listing the richest people in Britain, the name of Alan Pascoe popped up in joint 971st place. Pascoe - the former Commonwealth and European champion in the 400 metres hurdles, and Olympic silver medallist, who in 1975 was ranked world No 1 - is not used to coming joint 971st. But in this particular hurdle race - for what is business, or for that matter life, but a series of hurdles? - he reckons he did not even deserve to be on the track. The list valued him at pounds 21m.

A considerable exaggeration, he insists. "I wonder whether I can take action to get hold of the balance between what I'm really worth and what they claim," he adds, amiably.

Still, even Pascoe would concede that he is a millionaire several times over, such has been the success of his various events promotions and marketing companies. The latest of them, Fast Track, born nearly a year ago, has been charged with the difficult task of giving British athletics back the spring in its step, following the financial collapse of the British Athletic Federation in October 1997. And the feeling in the sport - certainly the feeling of its Supreme Being, the chief executive of UK Athletics, David Moorcroft - is that, if anyone can do it, it is the formidably energetic and able Pascoe.

We meet at Fast Track's smart suite of offices overlooking Sloane Street in Knightsbridge. As I wait for Pascoe, I watch two or three women with poodles crossing the road. These are women who put on tracksuits only when they're planning to jump the queue at Harvey Nichols, confirming that Knightsbridge is a curious location for what in some respects has become the nerve centre of British athletics.

Pascoe arrives. His lanky frame has filled out somewhat since he retired from hurdling in 1978, but he is still a fit-looking 52. And he will need to be fit if he is to help Moorcroft rebuild athletics. A year ago, as he was preparing to launch Fast Track, he called several sports journalists he had known in his competing days.

"I was horrified by the extent to which they had written athletics off, largely because, however well we did overall, we failed to win any gold medals in the Atlanta Olympics or in the World Championships in Athens. It is true that athletics was at a very low ebb. It was basically structured on the Victorian concept of committees, and was not set up remotely as a business. Many of the events had lost their purpose and had become a fly-past for the athletes, who were receiving disproportionately large sums.

"But even so, by any criteria, athletics was still our most successful international sport. About 200 countries take part in the World Championships and any of them - Namibia, Surinam, Sudan - can take away gold medals. There aren't many gold medals to go round. It is really tough to get them. But that message is never put across and I guess it's not a message people want to hear. We will do very well, I believe, to get one gold medal at the World Championships in Seville this summer. So the management of expectation is important."

Pascoe is keen on phrases like the "management of expectation", a reminder that he is, first and foremost, a marketing man. And like Sebastian Coe - whom he recently appointed chairman of Fast Track Events, the arm of the company responsible for staging Britain's seven televised athletics meetings - he hated contemplating the mire into which athletics had sunk. As Coe bluntly put it: "It takes a certain skill to have great Olympians in one decade and the sport in the hand of the receivers the next."

For Pascoe, the descent of the sport into administrative and fiscal chaos was particularly maddening as his company, API, had raised, over 10 years, some pounds 30m in sponsorship. "We found a coaching sponsor, Post Office Counters, who put in a million a year, and wouldn't we love that now. But neither the governing body nor the coaches, who were the main beneficiaries, lifted a finger to make that sponsorship work. It was a typical example of the Victorian amateur approach to the sport. `We are prepared to take the money, but don't expect us to do anything'. It was like banging my head against a brick wall." After a 400 metre run up, to boot.

This time round, with Fast Track organising the meetings, Pascoe has a stronger grip on the product he is trying to sell. Yesterday, he announced a significant hike in the prize money available to athletes competing in Britain - nearly $750,000 (pounds 468,000) at the showpiece meeting on 7 August, with $15,000 (pounds 9,300) for winners. And he is already challenging conventions by reducing the number of simultaneous events, so that the long-jump, for instance, will no longer have to compete for the crowd's attention with the javelin and the pole vault.

"We are trying," he says, "to make it a one-ring circus. We are replacing the scratchy old PA systems. We are bringing in huge video screens, so that people will get the action-replays they expect if they are watching on television. Before, with information on cardboard scoreboards, if people didn't know where to look, they had no idea what was going on. But at the indoor grand prix in Birmingham this year, we stopped all track events and focused on the women's triple-jump, which worked out as we hoped, because Ashia Hansen was trailing until the last round. The crowd was clapping and chanting. It was wonderful."

Hansen's leaps forward are as nothing, though, compared with what Pascoe is trying to do. And he looks enviously towards the impressive new Heysel stadium in Brussels, where crowds for athletics meetings top 40,000. "They have African drums beating during the long-distance races and they do it very well. I would love to have such crowds and stadia here. On the other hand, when the javelin throwers came out after the European Championships in Budapest and Steve Backley threw 85 or 86 metres, only one person clapped out of 45,000. So Brussels is not a role model in every respect."

Besides, athletics meetings cannot be turned into son et lumiere spectaculars by will alone. They need money. And last year, there was very little of it. "We had a very weak TV deal with Channel 4 and the sport was run on a shoestring," says Pascoe.

As a result, the International Amateur Athletic Federation delivered the ultimate snub, downgrading events held in Britain, and recently restoring them to grand prix I status only in response to a spirited campaign led by Pascoe, Moorcroft, David Hemery and Coe.

Pascoe was delighted, but not as delighted as he was last October, at the end of what he describes as one of the best weeks of his life. To the BBC's chagrin, Channel 4 had pinched the rights to Test cricket. The BBC badly needed to reinforce its commitment to British sport.

It was already planning to bid for the rights to televise athletics but, following the cricket episode, the deal - some four times as lucrative as the Channel 4 agreement - was hurried through. Bluntly, did BBC executives throw more money at athletics than they really wanted to, in order to buy back some desperately-needed credibility? Pascoe is diplomatic. "I like to think of it as a fair deal for the BBC, as well as the right deal for the future of athletics," he says.

The BBC investment came as an enormous shot in the arm, if that is not too provocative an image in athletics. Pascoe is wearied by the fuss over drugs. "Other sports, soccer and rugby league in particular, have more drugs positives," he says. "Athletics is singled out, yet no sport in Britain has the testing regime we have. Any athlete is liable to be tested at any time, anywhere. If they go abroad they have to leave an address. If they can't be contacted, they can be suspended. Many of us would see that as an imposition, civil liberties and all that sort of thing."

Towards the end of his own career, Pascoe became increasingly aware of the use of drugs. "But the feeling was that it was an Eastern bloc thing, and particularly that it was the big throwers. From the details that have been coming out of Eastern Europe, it's now clear that there was widespread usage, from very early on. Horrific. It is possible that someone could still prove that I should have been the gold rather than silver medallist at the European Championships in 1971, because I was beaten by an Eastern bloc runner, but I would hate to think that was the case. I'm grateful for what I have.

"On reflection, though, there was a hurdler I always beat as a junior. And he wasn't from Eastern Europe. He suddenly came out one season and was two yards faster. But I knew that nobody had trained harder than me that winter."

Asthmatic as a boy and, in his own word, uncoordinated, Pascoe overtook many more natural athletes in his quest for gold medals, and it is the same single-mindedness that has served him so well in business. Moreover, his hurdling career gives him a useful perspective on the sport, and he has no truck with the theory that the golden age has passed.

"I remember people saying: `What will follow when Pascoe, Foster and Capes go?' And of course, what followed - Ovett, Coe and then Cram - was immeasurably better. Then when everyone was crying into their beer again, along came Sally Gunnell and Linford Christie. Now we have Jonathan Edwards, Steve Backley and Ashia Hansen and, at under-23 level, more depth than ever before."

With that depth, plus the strides made by Moorcroft in making athletics commercially viable, Pascoe believes that the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester could and should be a glittering showpiece. "I think it's very important for British sport. Until Euro 96, the two biggest events here were the World Student Games and the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.

"Neither was a success. So the rest of sport has to show that it isn't just soccer that can put on big events. In 2003 we will hopefully have the world athletics championships, which is part of the drive for the 2006 soccer World Cup. By then we will be ready to make a serious Olympic bid. I just hope it happens in my time." As do we all.