There'll always be an England/And England shall be free/If England means as much to you/As England means to me. (Parker & Charles)
The hoary and jingoistic wartime refrain above has been the theme song of those of an elderly persuasion who have fought tooth and nail to retain an English identity in British athletics. Most of them can hark back to those supposedly halcyon days of yore when the Amateur Athletic Association dominated not only the sport in Britain but, in its formative years, the world. This domination got up the noses of the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish but it was probably justified for England had (and has) approximately 85% of the athletes and clubs and 95% of any international team. At the last Commonwealth Games in Melbourne 18 of the 22 medals won by UK athletes were captured by those from England and two each by those from Scotland and Wales.
So it might come as something of a surprise that at the last count Scotland has a full-time staff of 20 operatives; Wales 13 and Northern Ireland 6. Total staffing – 39; England has 5 staff and the nine regions a maximum of 4 each. Total: 41. Try to explain to any alien who might enter into our orbit the fact that the “Celtic fringe” (15%) collectively has almost the same staffing to operate athletics as does England (85%) and you would, from a logical viewpoint, have some difficulty. You might also question the logic of the policy setting body (UKA) having the same number of staff as all those organisations who have to implement it But then as it does not do radical so our sport does not indulge itself with logic either.
The NW of England has four staff. The population of NW England exceeds that of Scotland and Northern Ireland combined and is well over double that of Wales. Further investigation would probably show that these statistics are reflected in terms of numbers of athletes, coaches, clubs etc. So, why the extraordinary imbalance in staffing? The answer lies in the politics of devolution over which no one in sport has any control and the politics of top athletics administrators who seem to have an irrational fear of the clubs and their more vociferous members. It is patently obvious, given the complex planning that is required in all areas of athletics, that a staff level of 4 is totally inadequate to do the job; the real question for debate is: what is the optimum number required to successfully run a particular region? Unfortunately that figure has already been arrived at in England and the answer is a blanket figure of four.
This firmly stipulated number is obviously not the outcome of considered consultation but is a result of the angry backlash by the grassroots against the overblown UKA bureaucracy that inexorably grew under David Moorcroft. The worry for those attempting to revive an English administration from the doldrums of seventeen years is that sensible staffing would invoke yet another grassroots rebellion.
Some would say that it has already begun. Having four professional operatives was just too much for the inaugural chairman of the NW region. In a much publicised resignation with a few others he felt that three was a perfectly sufficient number and objected to the imposition by England of a fourth. We must have democracy he cried. He’s about a hundred years too late.
At the forefront of criticism (much of it well founded) of UKA and undoubtedly of England when it finally gets going, is and will be the Association of British Athletics Clubs (ABAC). It will disappoint some I know in the organisation when I say that I have always had doubts about it. I’m not sure who it represents; I know what it’s against but haven’t a clue what it’s for so I have some scepticism.
A few weeks ago I caught a debate on radio between a mild mannered women MP who chaired a Commons committee and an exceedingly arrogant, loud mouthed biker. The subject was the considerable number of deaths incurred by motor cyclists on the roads of Britain. All attempts at coming up with an agreed solution to the carnage failed because the biker shouted the MP down by constantly bawling: “Back off, back off. Leave it to us.” I think that UKA Chairman Ed Warner had a similar experience with a club man early in his tenure.
This mantra, common amongst club officials, shows a collective amnesia to even the recent past. They invoke a halcyon time that never was because the history of athletics politics in Britain is worthy of Shakespeare, full of conspiracies, plots and treason. Not many top officials have left our sport without a metaphorical knife between the shoulder blades, plotted to oblivion by some faction or other.
One prominent official sighed to me recently, “If it all crashes down athletics will still go on.” It is a false hope because a large proportion of our clubs are, as Jack Buckner’s excellent report on competition points out, incapable of coming to terms with modern society. Jack became the Dr. Doolittle of athletics – he talked to the athletes, something that officials and administrators have hitherto seemingly deemed impossible. And what he heard made him realise that the situation in our sport is far worse than he imagined. So, sorry ABAC there is no back to the future.
What should be the way forward? I suppose the first question is: should there be an England entity at all? Back in 1991 the clubs of England voted for BAF to be set up on a regional basis not a national one but in the best traditions of Tammany Hall those in charge of England added the AAA to the regional bodies that sat on the council of BAF thus ensuring, sooner rather than later, the demise of the new body. But as political devolution is here to stay the question is actually irrelevant anyway.
If there is to be an England then it must have the same autonomy as the “Celtic fringe” countries. It’s funding from Sport England must be direct and proportional by its size to the funding received by the other national bodies. Its terms of reference must be clear as must its relationship with UK Athletics – it would be so easy to return to the days of trouble and strife. It must have a good working partnership with its nine regions allowing them to exercise flexibility concomitant with the state of the sport in their respective areas.
England has a great opportunity to set a vision for athletics in this country something which UK Athletics sadly seems incapable of doing. It must show leadership; it certainly must be more transparent in its dealings with athletics at large; it must insist that the sport is athlete and not club centred. It must lessen its reliance on government and lottery handouts by gaining sponsorship and it must finally stand up to those Luddites who have vociferously opposed a registration scheme for almost fifteen years.
England’s administration and those of its regions must consist of a blend of youthful dynamism and experience – for over a decade now the sport in this country has totally ignored the experience available to it and it shows.
Its officers must display what the Spanish call cojones in its dealings with government, sports councils, UKA and the ubiquitous militant tendency within athletics. In those dealings when conditions are laid down or opposition is mooted they must be prepared to insist on answers to a pertinent one word question – Why?
Time is fast running out for 2012 and England and its regions should be thinking in the longer term with a vision to make the major Olympic sport in this country attractive and entertaining again.