Jack Buckner highlighted some crucial points about the future of our sport in the introduction to his excellent work in progress, the Competition Review.
He said that:-
• athletics could easily dwindle and become a minority sport.
• that if change doesn’t happen the post 2012 environment for athletics will be very bleak indeed
• currently we are asking them [young athletes] to compete in a framework that has changed little in the last 30 years
• sports need to capture the imagination of young people.
British athletics has the opportunity to change, to turn itself around with the staging of the XXXth Olympics in London in 2012 but to do so radical reform of its competitive structures is required and the auguries, based on recent history, are not good.
The Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002, with its glamour and excitement also provided such an opportunity. Spectators and television viewers, enthused by what they saw, wanted more and kids wanted to take up athletics. What was presented to them were drab and dreary clubs taking part in drab and dreary competitions. The sport sank back into its comfort zone of not just 30 years but, in some cases, a century.
When Jack had the temerity to speak to young people about their attitudes to athletics he found that not only were we failing to attract young people but were losing them in droves. For today’s youth athletics is highly unfashionable compared with the other major sports.
Where I disagree with Jack is when he says: “The conclusions of this report are not critical of any individual or organisation.” I think he is wrong not to criticise because it is the attitude over recent decades of the many individuals and organisations that provide competition, along with the critical failure of the various governing bodies to address the issue, that have landed us in the dire position that we are today. As a sport we fear change.
So let us be critical (nothing new here then). Take, for example, the 38 year old British Athletics League. The BAL has not changed its format in all that time. In its early days it was sponsored and was, for a short period, actually televised. Its last sponsor was the Guardian Royal Exchange. The method of renewal was somewhat quaint. The League’s chairman of the time sat down annually with a GRE representative (usually in the hospitality tent at the end of the cup competition) and, after a short discussion, a glass of wine and a handshake, a metaphorical puff of smoke would emanate to indicate that all was well for the following season. Then, one year, inevitably, the metaphorical puff did not appear.
Since then the BAL hasn’t had a whiff of a sponsor and so a couple of years ago it announced an overhaul of its format to try and attract sponsorship. With a fanfare of trumpets the results of its deliberations were announced. The first division would become known as the BAL Premiership and the subsequent three divisions would be known as BAL National. That was it, apart from an, apparently, not over popular tweaking of their cup competition.
As you might possibly imagine BAL hasn’t exactly had to stem a stampede of would-be sponsors and you have to wonder how on earth the “hugely committed individuals with incredible energy and enthusiasm who run our sport”, as Buckner calls them, came up with such a crass solution to the League’s problems. What BAL needed, along with the rest of the leagues, and has done for years, is to plan for change with a clean sheet of paper.
As Jack has pointed out, to ignore the accelerating social changes that have taken place over the past couple of decades is a gross failure by administrators. League athletics, based on the false assumption that the sport is thriving is, especially in the lower divisions, not fit for purpose.
The spectacle of very young athletes travelling for hours on coaches to compete in one event and often against just one competitor and then await more hours before the journey home is a classic example of the problems being faced in the leagues’ lower divisions. Clubs delude themselves if they feel these are examples of fun or good practice. How on earth can they be classified as enjoyment?
Jack is right when he says that the majority of the sport wants big changes to the competition structures. It is not so much that I am concerned about his review that addresses those changes, but more about the ability and indeed the will of UK Athletics to deliver it.
When asked the 64 thousand dollar question as to what will be done with regard to competitions that refuse to fall in line with the plans, Zara Hyde Peters said: “Nothing is planned as, so far, all the competition providers have been willing to engage in discussions. The sport may end up deciding what its preferred competitions are and this "consumer driven" approach may be the best solution.” The best solution for whom? Not for athletes, who are never consulted, that’s for sure.
Not good enough and, frankly, a cop out. Why? Because the BAL, UK Women’s League, National Junior League, Young Athletics League and all the other sundry organisations are all examples of this “consumer driven” approach that has led us to the mass of disparate competitions that we have today. Central authority disdained organising club competition so clubs and individuals did it for themselves. As a result clubs have been sucked into a vastly expensive, complex competition vortex, involving thousands of miles of travel, from which, because of a lack of alternatives, they cannot escape.
County and territorial championships are continuing their steady decline. In the 2007 Cumbria county championships 42% of the entries were in the Under 11/13 age group, whilst only 17% were U20/Senior. Only 15% of track events required heats, all in the U11/U13/U15 age groups. 62% of the 16 uncontested events were field events. I suspect that many other counties display similar problems.
In the Northern Under 20 and Senior championships there were less than 5 competitors in 13 events, 11 of which were field events. Just over half were in the Under 20 age group.
Clubs, counties and regions and their representatives are in a strait jacket and only central authority can cut them out of it. UKA and the national federations have to grasp the nettle and recognise that if we are to arrive at 2012 with a modern, attractive sport that can entertain and deal with the massive interest that the Olympics will generate a wholesale reform of domestic competition is needed. They need to organise, drive through and invest heavily in radical competition change. A key question will be: at what level of competition should we be endeavouring to attract the public? Whatever level is chosen UKA has to persuade our top athletes to take part even if it requires financial incentives.
The above criticisms may seem harsh to some but we live, as Shakespeare put it, in “most brisk and giddy-paced times” and before we know it we will suddenly arrive on the eve of the XXXth Olympics in 2012 in London. If we are still appeasing the usual suspects who are still whinging to Athletics Weekly, listening to Luddites crying “back off!” and generally still pussyfooting around then we are as Shakespeare also put it “doomed for a certain term to walk the night.”