Thursday, 23 August 2007

Halycon Nights

The black cinder track of the White City stadium saw, in its time, some wonderful races and world records but one in particular came to mind when I met Derek Ibbotson again at a recent British Milers Club meeting in Manchester.

It was on a fine July evening in 1957 that the stadium staged a mile race that would grip a crowd of 40,000 (normal in those days) and send them home happy. It pitted Ibbotson, Britain’s 5000 metre Olympic bronze medallist of the year before, against the Irish 1500 metre gold medallist, Ron Delany and the Czech, Stanislav Jungwirth, who exactly a week earlier had set a new world record for 1500 metres of 3:38.1 (before 421 spectators in Stara Boleslav!). The White City invitation race was part of an international match, London versus New York.

Though officially not allowed in those far off days there was a pace maker in the race. He was Mike Blagrove and he did his job admirably. Opening with a 55.3 lap ahead of Jungwirth and Ibbotson, he went on to clock 1:55.8 at the half way stage before dropping out. Jungwirth, full of confidence, took up the running and led at the bell in exactly 3 minutes. But Derek was waiting and waiting and he finally pounced and stormed home for a fine win. Delany ran second, Jungwirth third with the winner of the Emsley Carr mile that year, Ken Wood, fourth. For the first time in history four men broke 4 minutes.

The crowd waited impatiently for the result. It took an age in that era before electronic timing. Finally the announcer, Bill Lucas (very much of the old school) cleared his throat. “First,” he said slowly, “D. Ibbotson of the RAF.” The time (pause) 3 minutes 57.2 seconds, second…” But nobody really cared who was second and a huge roar echoed around the venerable old stadium. As far as the British crowd was concerned the world record was back where it belonged. Derek’s mark lasted just one year before the great Herb Elliott shattered it by 2.7 seconds racing in Dublin. It was almost twenty-two years later to the day that the record again came back to Britain when Sebastian Coe ran 3:49.0 at another famous stadium, the Bislett in Oslo.

Half a century on and here was Derek fresh from a holiday in Turkey, not looking much different and as ebullient as ever, willing to do the honours for the Emsley Carr Mile which was part of the BMC meeting.

Derek was incorrigible in his younger days and was just what the sport needed in those dour years of the fifties. He was, I suppose, the Max Miller of the track. Miller was a comedian of risqué jokes and innuendo, who was known as the ‘cheeky chappie’. It was Derek’s sobriquet as well; he was irreverent and certainly not in the Oxbridge mould that dominated British athletics at the time; more Alf Tupper than Roger Bannister. You almost thought that he was not too serious about his running until you raced against him and realised that you had made a very serious mistake.

In 1994 Derek came down to London from Yorkshire (his home county) and joined, in a quite extraordinary and fabulous week, all the living world mile record holders, except two, who had been gathered at the Grosvenor Hotel in London’s Park Lane. The occasion was the 40th anniversary of the Bannister mile. They were all there, iconic figures from athletics history – Wooderson, Andersson, Landy, Elliott, Walker, Ryun, Jazy, Snell, Bayi, Cram , Morcelli and, of course, Bannister himself. It was my job, as the organiser, to shepherd them round. They were like a bunch of schoolboys, fighting over any souvenir that they thought was viable; swapping autographs ad infinitum was de rigueur for the occasion. In the end I had to remember my decade as a schoolmaster to keep them under control. Derek, as you can imagine, was in his element

The runners lined up for the 2007 Emsley Carr mile. The weather was perfect; it was the balmiest evening of this wretched summer. Despite the sparse crowd and lack of atmosphere the winning time was very respectable, 3:54.24, the race won by an American Jon Rankin. Moumin Geele of Somalia was second in 3:57.82 and Australian Laclan Chisholm was third. Derek presented the trophy, the winner signed the famous book and it was over.

I do not know what Derek’s thoughts were as he watched but there may have been just a tinge of sadness when he realised two things: one, that this great race with its history, traditions and ceremonies that had once attracted the world’s greatest milers was now downgraded to this track on the outskirts of Manchester – just a few hundred spectators, no press coverage, no television; secondly, that his younger self would have finished second and would have easily beaten the first British runner home. It was, after all, 50 years ago for God sake.

Love it, not loathe it

Kelly Sotherton’s best javelin throw this year (30.19m) ranks her 230th in Britain. Her second best throw (28.59m) would rank her 315th. Her best ever throw (40.81m) would rank her 31st. Her best 2007 performance would earn her 480 points; her best ever would earn her 683 points. In a heptathlon you cannot afford to lose two hundred points in just one event.

Not, you must surely agree, a good augury for the Olympic bronze medallist as she awaits the Heptathlon in Osaka. Unfortunately the javelin comes sixth in the order of events and so, no matter how hard she tries and how well she goes, this great athlete (and she is a great athlete) will know that her current bête noire awaits.

On a white charger comes Mike McNeill, one time coach to Goldie Sayers and Mark Roberson, who has, thankfully, come out of retirement to help and to face an interesting challenge. If nothing else comes out of this partnership it is great to see him back. Javelin coaches of international calibre are not exactly two a penny in the UK.

Interestingly things started to go wrong after Sotherton’s great year of 2004 (Olympic bronze). A look at her javelin record in heptathlon competitions shows that five of her six worst throws since 2003 have come in the last two years.

McNeill has taken Sotherton back to basics which, once things started to go wrong, was obviously what was required. He is quoted as saying that “it’s better to think of the basics rather than be treated like a javelin thrower and expected to throw like a javelin thrower.” Having coaches, like John Trower and Mick Hill come in who are more used to the stratospheric distances achieved by Backley and Hill himself clearly didn’t work and McNeill has probably hit the nail on the head in his judgement.

That very great athlete Denise Lewis went through some tribulations in her outstanding career and what she learnt is that you have to embrace every event. Every event must be loved and none loathed. The problem often is that many coaches feel that there is a technical solution for everything when the wisest know that it ain’t necessarily so; psychological preparation, especially at this level of competition, is equally important.

Sotherton has not been the same athlete since her mentor, Charles van Commonnee, went back to Holland and maybe the general lesson is not to have a mishmash of coaches covering various events but rather have one person in charge. Whatever, we’ll all be rooting for her over the coming weekend.

Stop Press

In its preview of the championships in Osaka the American Track and Field News (The Bible of the Sport) forecasts ten finalists (top eight) and two medallists for Britain. They are: Devonish (F); Ennis (F); Sotherton (F); Sayers (F); Men’s 4x400 (F); Idowu (M); Men 4 x 100 (M); Sanders (F); Women’s 4 x 400 (F). With the latest news from Osaka Christine Ohuruogu should, perhaps be added to the list.

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Beware the Ides of August

To slightly misquote Cicero, may the Gods avert the omens that accompany the Great Britain team to Osaka for the 11th World Championships in athletics.

The omens that I refer to are the continuing downward spiral of British performances at global championships since 1993 (see graph), a spiral that has deepened in the early years of this century and the fact that, in the 2007 world rankings prior to Osaka only a tiny handful of British athletes have attained the top twenty in their events. Thankfully statistics can lie and athletes can exceed their grasp and put up performances of a lifetime; equally statistics cannot be ignored.

The targets for Osaka set by UK Athletics are fourteen finalists (top eight) and three medallists. At the last two world championships Britain had twelve and four (2003) and seven and three (2005) respectively. Three of the seven medals came in relays. If the current world ranking lists are anything to go by we have just three athletes ranked in the top eight going into Osaka: Jessica Ennis in the heptathlon (third); Goldie Sayers in the javelin (fourth); Chris Tomlinson in the long jump (seventh). Phillips Idowu is breathing down the world’s best in the triple jump ranking ninth. Much hope is being placed on the relay teams gaining finals and winning medals but the likelihood seems to be that only two of the four will reach the podium. If these statistics were to be replicated in Osaka Britain would, at best, equal its worst ever global showing in Helsinki two years ago.

Twenty-one men and twenty-two women are entered in the individual events in Osaka, making a total of forty-three. Assuming that two of our relay teams will reach their finals this means that 28% of our individuals must reach their respective finals if the target is to be achieved.

In selection the emphasis on the relays is very heavy. Marlon Devonish is only selected for the 100 metres and is seemingly omitted from the 200m in order to be completely fresh for the relay - it makes one recall Maurice Greene running ten races in Seville in 1999, winning three gold medals. Christine Ohuruogu travels to Japan not to be an individual contender but simply because she will add strength to the women’s 4 x 400 squad. Mark Lewis Francis (ranked fifth in the UK) is preferred at 100m to the European U23 and World Student Games champion, Simeon Williamson (ranked second) surely solely on the fact that he is an experienced relay runner. Lewis Francis has consistently failed to confirm his early promise, hailed at the turn of the century by all and sundry as a future world champion. He has never reached a global final and if there was any justice he would be travelling solely for the relay. This expensive over-emphasis on our relay teams indicates some desperation on the part of the federation and, of course, it is fraught with danger.

But setting our sights on finalists brings difficulties. Declining UK standards allied with increasingly tough IAAF qualification standards means that the number of events in which British athletes can compete is shrinking. Only one thrower is travelling to Osaka and overall we are not represented in ten of sixteen field events. Indeed we are not represented in 15 of the overall 43 championship events, almost a third of the total and in 14 others we have only one competitor. There is a diminishing return here: fewer athletes in fewer events means less finalists.

So what criteria would show an indication of success? The answer is that if we had 14 athletes achieving personal best performances in Osaka if would be a sign of the birth of a renaissance. But would it be an indicator that is acceptable to our over-bureaucratic sports councils? I think not.

An Endangered Species

It came as something of a shock to hear the PA announcer tell his occasionally listening audience at the recent Premier/Div 1 BAL meeting at Barnet that certain events would not start unless some volunteer officials came forward. It was something one frequently heard at meetings of a less prestigious calibre but hearing it at Copthall stadium made one realise a salient fact: athletics officials are an endangered species.

I’ve been to numerous meetings of all standards around the country and I could not help but notice that our officials, who carry out such a vital, and more often than not unappreciated, task, are steadily getting much older. Many years ago some ass proposed that there should be a retiring age for officials, I think around 60 was the cut off point. If such a proposal had gained favour the sport, by now, would have ground to a halt.

This begs the question: who is in charge of officials? Who is responsible for recruitment? Who is in charge of their welfare? There is a scheme afoot to recruit young men and women to become officials for 2012. Indeed professional, one-year contracts have been handed out for this very purpose.

The stark fact is that we cannot wait till 2012 because the problem is immediate; the sport is not even being reactive to the problem. Who should, in fact, be taking responsibility for the recruitment of officials? UK Athletics? England? The new regions? Or those former organisations existing in a sort of limbo, AAA of England and its former territories? Somebody somewhere needs urgently to take a lead.

Buckner’s report on a new competition structure is soon to see the light of day. No matter how dynamic and forward looking it is it will not function without qualified officials.