The Olympic stadium in Seoul, South Korea, is an imposing edifice standing alongside the Han River and it was here in 1988 that two young women assembled for the final of the Olympic high jump. Diana Davies was 27 years of age and the British record holder with 1.95m, a mark she had set six years previously; Janet Boyle from Northern Ireland was 25 and had set a personal best of 1.92m in qualifying. A third British competitor, Jo Jennings, just turned 19, had come fourth in the recent World Junior Championships and had missed qualifying in Seoul by the proverbial whisker, jumping 1.90m, a personal best.
In the end Davies finished eighth equal in the final and Boyle finished twelfth. As we sat in the stand, feeling that this could be the dawning of a new age in the event in the UK, little did we know what actual significance this day would have. It was the last time that a British woman high jumper reached the top eight in a global competition; the last time that three British women were selected for a global competition and the only time three British women have all cleared 1.90m in the same competition. . In 1988 the tenth best UK performance was 1.84m; in 2007 it is 1.81m. Finally, only five women in the past eight seasons have cleared 1.90m and no British woman high jumper has been selected for five of the six global championships held this century.
Why have I highlighted women’s high jump? Mainly because the event sums up nearly all our field events. Only eight field event athletes went to Osaka including just one thrower. They (especially the throwers) have, from the dawn of the modern era, never been a part of the athletics culture in this country. In the sixty years that we have chosen (since the birth of a coaching scheme in Britain) you can count the names of those who have reached their throws finals (top eight) on the fingers of one hand. In the men’s Discus: Weir and Pharaoh; in the Javelin: Backley, Hill, Bradstock and Ottley. In the women’s shot: Oakes and Bevis Reid; in the Women’s Discus: Ritchie and Head. And so on.
British field event performances, Global championships 1947-2007
Some of these names are lost in the mists of time and in those six decades, covering twenty-six global championships, we have mustered just fourteen individuals (nine jumpers and five throwers) who have climbed the podium.
There has over the decades been a general acceptance that we had a paucity of talent in the technical events. Occasionally a great talent would emerge and be lucky enough to link with an equally talented coach but once they had retired the event would drop back into mediocrity. The women’s triple jump at the present time is a prime example. The respective federations were never proactive except for the odd gimmick. In the late 1960s that doyen of women’s athletics, Dame Marea Hartman, launched a Big Girls initiative. The idea was to encourage big girls to take up throwing. “We want,” burbled Marea on television after, one suspects, one Campari too many, “Big Girls to look good in shorts.” The scheme, to say the least, was not an overwhelming success and sums up the general thinking about throwing even to the present day.
It is an enduring disgrace and you get the feeling that our throwers in particular are viewed as second class citizens, a sideshow to the main events. You only have to witness their travails this year, including banishment at the Throws Fest to an outside field which was downhill and therefore not acceptable for record (or personal best) purposes, to share their frustration. They have not received even the crumbs off the sumptuous plates of lottery funding (only one thrower on the World Class Podium list in 2007). In the Grand Prix events staged by Fast Track they receive (if they receive anything at all) token recognition
This is in sharp contrast to the cries of anguish that went up when our distance runners stopped performing well on the world stage. Former champions and record holders also went on TV to relive their glories and bemoan the decline These appearances were followed by an immediate rush to set up expensive initiatives (the St Mary’s College campus etc.) in an attempt to revive former triumphs. That nothing similar has ever been mooted for our throwers in particular makes one ponder whether “the heavies”, as they like to be known, are looked upon by UK Athletics as a lost cause.
Why ask this question now after all these years? The simple answer is 2012. The Olympics is the first global championship to be staged in Britain since 1948 and as indicated in part one of this Osaka Review, Britain Expects. Expecting to see British athletes on a regular basis in both track and field events is surely essential in making the Games a success. And as Seb Coe has pointed out staging the Olympics is not just for an all too brief orgasmic rush of sporting fervour but is to provide a legacy for our sporting future.
Superficially over the years our jumping standards appear to be better than our throwing but a look at the rankings compared with ten years ago show not much improvement in top performances and a generally alarming decline at lower levels. In other words the exploits of Jonathan Edwards, Phillips Idowu, Chris Tomlinson and Ashia Hansen have tended to obscure the real picture. Standards in the throws have also generally not improved between 1997 and 2007 (the period of UKA’s tenure in charge) or have got worse.
So the real questions are these: is it through a lack of talent that our field event performances generally lag behind the world or (a heretical query this) is it that our field event teaching (in schools in particular) and coaching is and never has been good enough to enable our best to compete at global or even European level?
Many years ago I wrote an article titled Don’t Put Your Daughter in the Circle Mrs Worthington (with due apologies to Noel Coward). It was a light hearted piece with a sting in the tail and highlighted the severe imbalance between the earnings of track athletes on the European circuit and the throwers who were never invited and if they were would be lucky if they got expenses. In other words, as the title implied, why take up throwing?
In those days there was not the competition from other sports that there is today. Rugby for both men and women is a much more attractive proposition (and a lucrative one if you’re male and good enough). Rowing is the glamour Olympic sport of the moment that attracts men and women of power and talent. Respective athletics organisations in the UK (and God knows there have been enough of them) have done nothing, down the years, to further or glamorise throwing or to some extent jumping with the result that I still could not recommend that the Worthington’s daughter should contemplate a life devoted to a throwing circle. So much more must be done to attract endowed talent into the sport and to retaining it.
The professionalisation of coaching per se is long overdue but our coaches have to accept, in any case, that they have to be judged by results, they have to be accountable. This may be anathema to many but a look at the statistics down through the decades shows that technical expertise is missing in some areas of coaching. We may have to acknowledge our deficiencies and import the latest and best techniques and research; we may have to send our top coaches abroad to learn.
This is absolutely the right moment for UK Athletics in cooperation with the home countries and the regions to right a century or more of wrongs and be proactive about our field events. There are many initiatives that could be taken.
The Performance Director has to recognise that it really is in his best interests to assist with the development of our weakest events. Beijing would be an excellent starting point. Even though, as Peter Matthew in Athletics 2007 has pointed out, qualification in throwing events is a much tougher proposition than it is in track, our throwers this year have achieved Olympic A or B standards in six of the eight events; likewise in the jumps. Select any athletes that have so done the standard so far, support them and give them the necessary international experience to compete well in the Chinese capital. Appoint a supremo for field events and throws in particular; invite overseas opposition in to compete in our Jumps and Throws Fests; bring in the world’s best coaches to run Master Classes with Britain’s best. And so on. The solutions are not simple but they are not rocket science either.
In the third section of this review of Osaka from a British viewpoint I will look at the base of the pyramid of athletics in Britain and discuss how decades of vested interest and internal bickering has placed us right into the hands of our sporting quangoes to detrimental effect.