Sunday, 16 December 2007

Bums on Seats

“You,” said the late Andy Norman, in that often mimicked, slightly rasping, fruity voice to the tall, majestic black man, who had just asked a favour, “you couldn’t fill a telephone box.” The recipient of this remark was the man who would become Britain’s greatest ever sprinter, Linford Christie and it delighted him to quite frequently remind Andy of his absolutely false prognosis.

“Bums on seats” though was an imperative of Norman and he mostly succeeded at various televised meetings around the country throughout the eighties. The most difficult to sell was the AAA’s with its interminable heats structure and a look at the 2007 meeting (now sadly renamed the UK Championships) at Manchester’s Sports City showed that things haven’t changed much.

It has recently been announced that the Olympic Trials and UK Championships will move to the piecemeal Alexander Stadium in Birmingham and memories have been stirred of some great championships there in the past. 1988 was a particularly vintage year: a baking hot weekend, large crowds, a star-studded cast and intense drama – all the ingredients that have made British athletics great in the past.

But it doesn’t matter where the venue is, if the structure isn’t right then the crowds won’t come. Indeed, if they become bored and restless they’ll not return and the numbers will swiftly fall away as they have done in Manchester. With nostalgia now dispensed with for expediency’s sake, it is the right time to look at the format of this 128 year old meeting.

The biggest mistake, in my judgement, has been to try and entice the public in over all three days by spreading a number of finals. What should be done is to run during the whole of Friday and Saturday an entire programme of track heats and semi-finals with field event pools/finals. Sunday can be then be a star studded affair displaying, within a 3 hour or so programme, the very best of our athletes competing in finals and for places in a major championships. Small adjustments could be made to the programme (perhaps semi-finals and finals for 100 metres on the Sunday) but that should be the general format. Such a programme would simulate, to a certain extent, a major championship with every track event except the longer distances having heats and semi-finals. It would encourage a greater entry.

The aficionados – coaches, relatives, officials – will attend on the first two days anyway but on the third day the publicity should be concentrated on attracting the general public, of selling the sport and filling the stadium. Even at this level of competition the emphasis is still insular: of pleasing ourselves, of doing everything as we’ve always done it and frankly of being somewhat smug about it. We have ignored the Hemingway dictum that as soon as a sport becomes enjoyable enough to the spectator for the charging of admission to be profitable, it becomes entertainment.

That great panjandrum of Performance, Dave Collins, should be persuaded that places at the Olympics et al are not solely his and his team’s patronage but are prizes to be won in combat. Athletes and coaches need to know well in advance exactly what they have to do to make teams; they should not to have to wait for the puff of smoke to emanate from Athletics House, accompanied by some tedious, clichéd homily. The paying public too deserve to know that if athletes achieve a qualifying standard and finish first or second in an event they will be going to Beijing or Berlin or Barcelona. It’s no good calling a trial a Trial if it appears to have no bearing on selection. In the past this cut throat part of the championships was a major selling point for the public.

And what about the two track walks that take up an inordinate amount of time in the programme? They have been there, in one form or another, since 1880 and when you saw such great world class exponents and Olympic medallists as Stan Vickers, Ken Matthews and Paul Nihill strut their stuff, they were tolerable. But their milieu was the open road over 20 and 50 kilometres and sitting for almost an hour watching even these men walking twenty-five laps around a track tested the patience and even the soul of spectators many of whom would decide it was the moment for a cuppa.

Today these events are pure tedium; the great days of great British competitive walking having long gone. Last year at 20 kilometres our top walker Dan King ranked sixth in the world; our second ranked walker, Andy Penn, came 73rd. This sounds great until you realise that I am talking about the women’s ranking lists. Penn was, at 20K, only a fraction under 2 minutes faster than our top woman, Jo Jackson. It seems to me that the various governing bodies should either get behind walking in a big way or put it out of its misery. It is a disgrace that these events are still on the programme and the 10,000 metres, once a great highlight, is relegated to some far flung outpost of the sport. If we must have walks then make them road walks with finishes in the stadium.

The argument against running the 10,000 metres in the main championships is that by omitting it you enable runners to compete at both 5 and 10K (not something that any current British runner would contemplate at World or European level). But British athletes, like Gordon Pirie and David Bedford, have achieved the double in the past, when the championships were run over just two days. The neglect of the 10,000 metres Europe wide is appalling and to paraphrase one of our greatest ever coaches, where there are no 10K races there are no 10K runners. Only ten British runners beat 30 minutes (and Paula’s record) last season. This event badly needs a showcase and it should be restored to the championship weekend.

None of this is rocket science. But, as with competition generally, there is a great lethargy about the national championships. Our sport has been in a deep slumber and woken to find it’s no longer as great as we thought it was. Hey guys (regretfully few gals) its 1670 days, as I write, and counting.

Don’t Mention Christine

Could we now have moratorium on Christine Ohuruogu? Can we all – athletes, coaches and administrators – adopt a Trappist vow on her drug case? It has raised more hackles and more debate than if she had actually failed a drug test. The problems have lain, not with the athlete but with those who have a visceral belief that anybody failing to abide by the rules is a drug cheat and should be banned for life. In Christine’s case (and with many others who are now admitting to missing tests) it is, as well as her own carelessness, the sheer inflexibility of the system that is also at fault.

It does not seemed to have dawned on those at UK Sport who administer anti-doping that if an athlete is into imbibing performance enhancing drugs he or she and whoever is monitoring their intake is going to be damned careful that they do not get caught evading tests. It is, to say the least, self-defeating as Konstadinos Kederis and Ekaterina Thanou found out in 2004. So the Independent Sampling Officers (ISOs) catch the careless and the great hullabaloo that has accompanied Christine over the past eighteen months ensues. More flexible arrangements of these matters would not ensure that those into steroids would get away with it.

The problem is that so many in our sport believe that there should be a lifetime ban for those guilty of a doping offence (not necessarily of doping). However when it comes down to the legalities and a little word called justice wiser heads prevail over emotions and over the decades the maximum sentences for doping have fluctuated between two and four years, with a lifetime ban for a second offence.

Many over-zealous administrators and sections of the media are, however, very unhappy with this situation and are constantly looking for ways and means to circumvent it. The British Olympic Association’s (BOA) pernicious bylaw that hands down a lifetime Olympic ban for doping is a classic example and, it appears, is also a means of subverting accepted sporting law.

Both the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and World Anti Doping Agency (WADA) rules do not go nearly as far and the former president of the latter, Dick Pound, went so far as to recently criticise the BOA (globally almost on its own with such a rule) for its sanctimonious insistence of continuing with it. He went so far as to suggest that if tested in a court of law the bylaw may well be found to be unlawful as well as unjust.

But arguments about all of this are for another day. I understand from a spokesperson for UK Athletics that Christine will shortly begin to receive the benefits she deserves from World Class Podium and will be travelling to South Africa next month on the excellent UKA preparation camp in South Africa. Good news at last for this most beleaguered of athletes.

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