Thursday, 6 September 2007

Osaka Review - 1

In just over twelve month’s time, in a time-honoured ritual in Beijing, the Olympic flag will be handed to the London Mayor for safe keeping until 2012. It is a solemn moment and should be a sobering one for those at UK Athletics in charge of Britain’s major Olympic sport. At that moment there will be just three full athletics seasons left before British athletes step into a competitive cauldron for, to slightly misquote Lord Nelson, Britain expects. Have the nine days of competition in Osaka shed any light on our prospects?

That the team exceeded all expectations there is no doubt. The majority raised their game. In our first new Blog we said that fourteen personal best performances “would be a sign of the birth of a renaissance”. Well, fourteen personal bests (six in the heptathlon) were set in the Japanese city and another was equalled so that particular mission was accomplished.

Not much has been made of the extraordinary success obtained by the British women. In past global championships they have played second fiddle to the men, often by a considerable margin. In Osaka they scored over double the men’s points (top eight) and leaving aside the aberrant Olympic year of 1984 (almost total boycott by the Communist bloc) scored second only to that of the great Olympic team in Tokyo in 1964.

This is not a momentary fling; these are the come-back kids. As can be seen in the chart our women began to ease past their declining male colleagues in Paris in 2003. Now they are really achieving: four of the five UK medals gained in Osaka were won by women. Of the fifteen personal bests twelve were achieved by them.

The reasons for this distaff success are manifold but clearly the level playing field brought about by lottery funding has been a major factor. Prior to 1997 women were second class athletics citizens in many ways. They were not considered commercially viable, very few were thought to draw bums to seats and so the vast majority of our female internationals had to combine work with their sport. In the main that has changed. Out of competition drug testing must also be a factor because it has always been realised that drugs would tend to assist sports women the most.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that our men are continuing to decline. Leaving aside the relays (always an easy option- never more than two heats required) our chart shows the men individual finalists (top eight) since 2001.

Male finalists: 2001-2007

Further analysis shows that in what were once our blue riband events, the middle distances, we now have a dismal record. In the 800 metres our last finalists are Curtis Robb and Tom McKean in 1993; at 1500 metres there have been two finalists since that year: Matthew Yates (1993) and Michael East (2004); at 5000 metres prior to Mo Farah’s placing in Osaka you have to go back to 1992 and Rob Denmark. At steeplechase we have had no top eight finishers since 1992.

In Osaka we had no male entries in the throws; in Helsinki we had no finalists and the problem is that our throwers in particular are in Catch 22: they won’t get the support unless they obtain the stringent standards and they won’t get the stringent standards unless they get the support, so their chances of competing against Europe’s best are very limited.

Our leading Hammer thrower Andy Frost had 24 competitions this year, 20 of which were of comparatively low calibre and almost all in the UK. He won all of his domestic competitions but didn’t qualify for Osaka.

In contrast Marlon Devonish ran 20 races prior to Osaka, 13 of which were in Grand Prix events, mostly abroad. He won just 5 of them but raced the best in the world. He reached the 100 metres final.

Goldie Sayers was our only thrower in Japan. Prior to Osaka she had just 7 competitions, 4 of which were abroad. She won all her domestic competitions and one overseas. In the championships she threw her worst distance of the year.

Why does all this matter? It matters because Dave Collins and his team cannot, in the three global competitions between now and 2012, continue to set such low targets as they did for Osaka. But as he raises his targets he may find himself in a spiral of diminishing returns. In the last five global championships British athletes have failed to reach finals (top eight) in 81.6% of the events but this was compounded by the fact that we did not enter anyone in 34.4%. Up until quite recently there has been talk of a target of British athletes reaching 50% of finals in 2012 but as the above figures indicate, even at this early stage, the ambition is unrealistic.

What the public – the spectators in the stadium and the television audience - want to see are British athletes reaching finals and a percentage of them winning medals. The 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester clearly demonstrated that this was the case. British athletes took part in every individual event and 60 men and 54 women reached the top eight. 30 of them won medals. There was momentary euphoria and for the briefest of moments athletics overtook soccer as the most popular television sport.

Of course the standard of the Games is much lower than that of the global championships and a prohibiting factor in improving our participation in the latter is the ever increasing IAAF stringent qualifying standards. The time differential between Japan and Britain will have been a major influence in affecting television viewing figures but so will the fact (as commentator Paul Dickinson pointed out) that British athletes did not compete in 11 of the 18 field events that were comprehensively covered.

Collins (and Max Jones before him) has frequently said that his job is not the furtherance of athletics standards in this country but is solely to provide the means for medals to be won. So the question for UKA is: who takes responsibility for ensuring that the low standards in events not covered by the Podium and Performance programmes are tackled?

Other questions are manifold. Are our coaches good enough? How can we persuade this generation and future generations of throwers and jumpers that the world of international athletics is for them? Should we, as an act of positive discrimination put our best throwers and jumpers on a par with track athletes as far as funding and support goes? These and other questions we’ll look at in Part Two next week.

Not Enough Doping

Of course it would not have been a world championship without a selection of doping stories. The most typical of the propaganda emanating from the governing bodies and WADA (World Anti Doping Agency) came from the IAAF who felt the need to tell the world that there was one “suspicious” sample from the 1060 tests undertaken. The emphasis was, you will have noticed, not on the fact that 1059 tests were negative but on the fact that one was “suspicious.” Instead of praising the fact that, taking the figures as an indicator, the championships were virtually clean and drug testing is working there was a seemingly pressing need to highlight the one possible positive sample.

The IAAF may have been, quite rightly, pre-empting a possible leak from the Japanese laboratory but it, the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and WADA are crying wolf too often. The testing figures from Osaka are in line with the annual testing figures of the past decade or more that show drug taking in athletics at less than one percent – hardly the huge menace to sport that is constantly being hammered home.

Meanwhile in Britain Heike Dreschler and Christine Ohuruogu were inciting the wrath of the seedier sections of the press deprived as they were, by the lack of a drug positive, of their only reason to cover the championship.

Dreschler, a candidate (successful) for the IAAF Women’s Committee, was picked on because she had been a victim of the East German state-sponsored drug programme and Ohuruogu because she had the temerity to win the gold medal after having served her time for missing three tests (there was no such outcry when she was selected). Don’t let this be the face of 2012 screamed a headline accompanied by the worst possible photo of a contorted Christine in action they could find.

I wonder how the journalists concerned would have fared under the STASI in the GDR and whether they would have had the courage to defy the all enveloping secret police with its 400,000 agents and informers where an act of defiance would lead to the deprivation of livelihood, torture and harassment and even death, not only for the individual but for their family and friends as well. It was a modern day Inquisition. As for Christine, it seems that she probably fell foul of some editorial conference where the assembled hacks were looking for a new angle and she should treat it with the contempt it deserves.


John said...

Osaka World Championships 2007

The original target agreed with UK Sport for these championships, as the basis for funding, was 9 medals, including 2 gold but in considering the poor performance at the previous three World Championship where the targets had been set at 5, 6 and then 7 medals the aim for 2007 became clearly unrealistic. UKA then conveniently lowered the bar and announced a new target of 3 medals and 14 finalists!

However, medals alone are not the only criterion by which UKA’s success as a governing body is measured with regard to Great Britain’s athletic achievement.


Great Britain won 5 medals:

Womens 400 gold and silver

Womens Hept bronze

Womens 4x400 bronze

Mens 4x100 bronze

Great Britain finished 10th overall in the medals table and 6th on the points (scoring 8-1 top 8 in each final)

Only 6 men reached a final, 0 produced a PB or SB in the final

Only 6 women reached a final, 3 produced PB’s in the final

In the relays all four GB teams reached the finals (the women’s 4x400 was a new National Record)

British athletics in terms of the size of the team:

NB: Every country could send 3 per event plus 1 if they are the defending champion (and have the A qualifying.)

individual events:

Men: (23 events maximum possible GB competitors =69. Actual sent = 21)

8 events - 1 competitor only
2 events - 2 competitors
3 events - 3 competitors

9 events - NO COMPETITOR! These were: 200, disc, shot, jav, 10,000mts, hammer, 20k walk, 50k walk and decathlon.

Women: (22 events maximum possible GB competitors = 66 Actual sent = 23)

6 events – 1 competitor only (only 5 athletes as Pavey is doubled up 5k/10k)
6 events – 2 competitors
2 events - 3 competitors

7 events – NO COMPETITOR! These were: 100h, disc, long jump, high jump, triple jump, shot and hammer.

Qualification was from the 1st January last year (2006) and the opportunity for the lower ‘B’ standard to be entered alongside ‘A’ standards was made significantly easier.

So why did we send such a small team? The simple answer is, nobody else either qualified or in the view of Collins, the Performance Director, was good enough. NB: of the 36 athletes on UKA’s World Class Podium lottery funding, 12 failed to make the team either through injury or non selection (Radcliffe excepted, who recently gave birth)

So who’s in charge of the 16 events where we didn’t manage to get any British representative? UKA has four appointed and highly paid Directors responsible for: Speed, Endurance, Throws and Jumps and each has a team of professionals to exact the best possible results in competition.

They have massive government funding, dedicated High Performance Centers and superb medical back up. Are they responsible (if so why are they still employed?) or is it the athletes’ fault? Has the world moved on or have we remained stagnant? (The UK All Time Performance lists clearly show that we are dropping even against our own standards)

Whichever way you look at it, something is seriously wrong. Of the 45 GB athletes (men and women) only 12 made a final but 36 are on World Class Podium Lottery funding of which only 25 made it to Osaka.

We have huge talent in this country and great facilities. And there is certainly no shortage of cash to lottery fund athletes and pay for all the staff and support.

The evidence proves that the system devised by UKA does not work. Just look at our depleted team and our results set against what were the original targets year on year for every global competition since 1998 when UKA took over….. And they think London will be a huge success!!

What is the remedy if we are to be sufficiently successful in London 2012?:

1. A review and reallocation of government/lottery funding

2. Drastic surgery and change within the Administration.

3. A financially rewarded, performance incentive programme open to all at 17+

4. Paid club coaches (on performance)

5. A complete restructuring of grass roots and club competition with financial incentives for graded performances.

Keeping good (currently voluntary) coaches on board and ensuring the 17+ age group remain interested and motivated via 1-5 above. This is critical solution to the future.

John Bicourt

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