Thursday, 27 September 2007

The Barnum of Track

Some deaths fill one with a momentary numbness by their unexpectedness and that of Andy Norman last Monday is one such.

We had last met around this time last year at the World Athletics final in Stuttgart and as usual, in a hotel bar, we chewed the cud with some sadness over the state of British athletics, its stifling bureaucracy, its apparatchiks in seeming thrall to the two over-dominant voices in British sport, UK Sport and Sport England. Six months previously we’d both been speaking at an IAAF Workshop on One-Day Meetings and the World Athletics Final and it was obvious that here was a man revered by the sport worldwide, still sought out by the hierarchy both for his knowledge and forthright opinions.

Born in Suffolk 64 years ago he had been a modest middle-distance runner (which for some was difficult to imagine) who finally retired but athletics was in his blood. People tended to know him only for his work at national and international level but there was a grassroots side to him that many athletes, who competed at his midweek open meetings at the Crystal Palace, would testify to with gratitude and affection. So many would say, “Andy gave me my first lift up the ladder.”

He graduated from those promotions to directing the famous Friday night Coca Cola meeting at the Crystal Palace. His daytime job was as a policeman and he served as a desk sergeant at both Chelsea and Notting Hill stations. The credentials he brought to athletics promotions were those of a streetwise cop: he saw everything in clear-cut terms and wouldn’t suffer fools gladly; in fact he wouldn’t suffer them at all.

He learnt on the job, went to Oslo to learn the ropes from the promoters of the then most famous “spectacular” the Bislett Games. He made friends with the two great New Zealand runners, John Walker and Rod Dixon. “From them,” he once told me “I had an education. I found out how things worked and I was amazed that thousands and thousands of pounds were pumped into the sport on the backs of half a dozen athletes.”

In those days he had two trump cards, Steve Ovett and Brendan Foster and he played them to the full. When Foster retired he had Seb Coe. And he used it to full effect. “If you want Ovett,” he would tell promoters, “you have to take”, and then he would name a few athletes on the brink of an international career.”

In 1982 it was his forceful words at an IAAF Congress that brought an end to the era of ‘brown envelopes’ and shamateurism, that and the fact that he just casually mentioned to one or two of the older stars who had graduated into administration that he knew all about their lucrative careers.

In 1984 ITV made a very big, successful bid for the sport’s television contract and a proviso was that Andy would become the sport’s promotions director. Together with Sven-Arne Hansen (Oslo), Andreas Bruger (Zurich), Wilfred Meert (Brussels) and Sandro Giovanelli (Rieti) he formed the Euromeister organisation of leading European promoters.

I suppose you can say that his cup runneth over: the athletes loved him and the sport loved him for bringing success. In next to no time he became the most powerful man in British athletics.

The stories surrounding Andy are legendary. We worked together for almost a decade for the ill-fated BAF; I had done the PA Commentary at all of his major meetings. Working in Rome at the 1987 World Championships as Press Attaché for the British team, the team manger, the late Les Jones and I witnessed his arrival at the athletes’ hotel. It was not unlike the arrival of the Pope and it took him well over an hour to pass through the lobby. People didn’t exactly genuflect but they came damned close to it.

He was a larger than life, controversial figure, revelled in his image of being “a hard man” (though those that knew him knew that he was as soft as brie under the facade). The press loved him for the copy he brought them and I suppose you could say that, in the days before celebrities, he came close to being one.

“Everyone is happy for someone else to do the job,” he said. “If you succeed then they say ‘Well, didn’t we do well.’ If you fail, then they say ‘Where did you go wrong.’” I knew how he felt because in the eight years that we worked together I had to deal with him (and two others) being involved in drug allegations; with Steve Ovett accusing him of offering £20,000 to run against Seb Coe at the AAA Championships; his on-going battles with coaching director Frank Dick; with the Zola Budd affair and numerous other minor controversies. In the end he left BAF under a cloud over the Cliff Temple affair in 1994. Temple, a highly respected journalist, was threatening to write an article about the commercial interests of Fatima Whitbread who Andy was later to marry. According to Temple Andy was spreading rumours about his relationships with his athletes. Temple though was going through a deep, personal trauma and a divorce and the combination of the two factors drove him to commit suicide. The controversy was enormous and in the end he left the federation. A few months later Frank Dick also resigned, followed by treasurer John Lister the following year. Many point to those moments as the beginning of the decline of the sport.

Athletes moaned about the treatment they received from Andy but all would agree that he was always frank with them. If they weren’t good enough for a meeting he’d say so. He once told Linford Christie (in that rich, fruity, often mimicked voice) that he “wouldn’t fill a telephone box”, a remark that Linford gleefully reminded him of when the great sprinter was filling stadiums. He bemoaned women athletes always having to consult their coach before accepting an invitation to run at his meetings or failing to turn up because “the budgerigar died.” I can remember sitting in a commentary box warbling about a meeting when his large frame appeared in the doorway. “’For Gawd’s sake,” he said plaintively, “mention Chafford Hundred (Fatima’s commercial arm) else I’ll have no peace all the way home.”

For his last thirteen years he has been as busy as ever roaring round the world like Barnum, organising meetings in Eastern Europe and South Africa, representing some of the greatest athletes like Jonathan Edwards and Kelly Holmes, advising the IAAF, the EAA and, on the quiet, UK Athletics and England. With his talents he could have made a lot of money but that didn’t seem to bother him and when he parted from Fatima his home was a small flat in Birmingham.

The greatest athletics autobiography will now never be written and in the death of Andy Norman the sport has lost a man of immense drive and talent. We’ll never see his like again.

But it could be that he’s already organising the first ever Grand Prix in heaven with the greatest fields ever assembled in the history of the sport. Whatever, rest in peace, old friend.

(The final section of Osaka Review will now appear next week.)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Harry Edwards and Jack London were born in British Guiana (now Guyana), not Ghana.