Transitional era troubles Arnold

Mike Rowbottom talks to the man in charge of British athletics after a problematic season
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The Independent Online
When Malcolm Arnold finds himself with a spare weekend - which is rare - he goes rally driving. Not the least attraction of this sport for the British Athletic Federation's chief coach is that it requires total concentration.

When you are travelling at 80mph, and your navigator is telling you to turn right in 60, 40, 20 metres, you cannot allow your mind to wander to, say, the vagaries of sports funding, or the criticisms of the media. Both these topics have preoccupied Arnold of late after a British Olympic performance which attracted widespread criticism.

As far as British athletics is concerned, the harsh words were largely unjustified. Despite the high-profile demise of the two defending Olympic champions Linford Christie and Sally Gunnell, the athletics performance matched that in Barcelona four years earlier. The men were fourth, the women 11th - sixth place overall.

Arnold, who accused sections of the media of treachery for some of their pre-Olympic coverage, was further enraged by the comments of Steve Ovett during the ITV commentary on the Performance Games held five days after the conclusion of competition in Atlanta.

Influenced perhaps by what was a dismally conceived meeting, the former Olympic 800m champion criticised British coaching and questioned whether there were any newcomers capable of filling the places of athletes such as Christie and Gunnell.

In reply, Arnold points to a number of athletes who performed well in Atlanta and have sufficient time on their side to do even better in Sydney; athletes such as Paula Radcliffe (22), fifth in the 5,000m, sprinters Ian Mackie (21) and Darren Campbell (23), and Ashia Hansen (24), fourth in the triple jump.

The bright British performance in the World Junior Championships the following week provided a further answer to Ovett's question, with Victoria Jamison and Tom Lerwill taking silver at 400m hurdles and 800m respectively. But Arnold believes this is a time of transition for his sport.

"We had great middle- distance runners," Arnold said. "Then we had a fantastic boom in sprinting and hurdling. When you come to a watershed, it's always the most difficult time. The public can't come to terms with the fact that Linford has had his day. They can't believe they have seen the best of this guy, who still looks like a chiselled statue.

"Certainly Linford is on the wane. That is not to belittle what he has done since 1985. The fact that we have had 10, 11 years of this brilliant athlete is something to behold. If we ever get another athlete like Linford, it will be staggering.

"Sally is hurting a lot - mentally as much as physically - at the moment. I hope she comes through it because she's got more to give."

Arnold's forecast for the third of Britain's world champions of 1993, Colin Jackson, is more optimistic. The hurdler he has coached for more than 10 years can, he believes, recover from the knee injury which undermined his 1996 season - to the point where Jackson is capable of breaking his own world record.

"Colin's attitude is such that I think he can run even faster than 12.91sec next year," Arnold said. "We have people like Jonathan Edwards, Kelly Holmes and Steve Backley around as well. But we have got to realise that there are more athletes coming through."

Those athletes, however, require greater assistance than they are receiving at the moment. The reaction of Damien Greaves after his fifth placing in the world junior high hurdles final is representative. "Fifth is OK," he said. "But I'm disappointed. I've got no hurdles coach, no training partners, no money and I've never done any winter training."

Arnold's frustration with this lack of largess is acute. "One of the problems in this country is that funding comes from so many different sources - the Lottery Fund, the Sports Aid Foundation, the Foundation for Sport and the Arts, the Sports Council, regional sports councils, Eddie Kulukundis, Uncle Tom Cobley and all.

"There are so many bodies giving out relatively small amounts of money to our sport. That means we have to spend an enormous amount of admin time chasing things up. It is no way to run a show."

The prime frustration for Arnold and his BAF colleagues at the moment is the shelving of their bid for pounds 9.6m of National Lottery money - made on 25 March - to train and support athletes over the next five years.

The latest news of the bid is that it will be considered again in January, with an allocation possibly arriving on 1 April.

"We don't know if they are going to deliver," Arnold said. "We don't know what our budget will be, which means we can't plan ahead. If people ran their businesses like that they would be sacked. The Government is fiddling while Rome burns. It doesn't matter to them, people sitting in offices, pushing pens and bits of paper around. But for athletes, as each week goes on, it's another opportunity lost."

Rallying time, you sense, cannot be far away.