As we enter this all important last year of the 29th Olympiad and Beijing approaches all too swiftly there seems to be change in the air presaging a new dawn for British Athletics. We’ve had these dawns before over the past few decades of course and each one has, unfortunately, proved totally false. So the question this time round is with what frame of mind should we appraise this possible renaissance? Should we look at our history as a sport and vent our cynicism on the current efforts of UK Athletics and England or can we detect a genuine desire for change? There are certain straws in the wind to indicate that we should be cautiously optimistic.
When Ed Warner and Nils de Vos entered Athletics House they were appalled by what they found: UKA had become, under David Moorcroft and most particularly Adam Walker, a grossly overblown, dysfunctional organisation that had been unfit for purpose for years. Though it is proving a tense time for the employees de Vos is carrying out a most necessary drastic pruning of the organisation.
After a decade or so UKA has finally recognised that its role in the domestic athletics firmament is purely one of setting policy. Its chequered history has shown that it has been almost totally incapable of delivering the policies that its seemingly endless deliberations have conjured up. It became an ultra tick-a-box organisation. Now, streamlined and led by two men who carry no baggage from the past it can, with due consultation with the implementers, set policies that can revive our ailing sport.
To be fair to UKA the AAA of England showed, in its seventeen years of history, the truism of Lear’s observation that nothing will come of nothing. In its desperate attempts to retain the ancient order it spent all of its time and energy spilling more metaphorical blood than Macbeth. It did nothing, so it achieved nothing. Now it and its satellite territories, still crazily in existence, hope that history will repeat itself so that they can reassume what they consider to be their rightful mantle.
Luckily for the sport new England, after a very hesitant start, is moving forward. There is fresh blood (hopefully to be unspilt this time round) and new ideas as was witnessed at a recent gathering of council members of the nine regions along with England Board representatives. Few, if any, of the old order were present, which means that fresh thinking will at last flood into the sport. As England Chairman, John Graves, recently observed it is vital to grasp the opportunities that this realignment of responsibilities has presented.
Selecting the right person for the post of England Chief Executive now becomes crucial. Again our past history has shown that the appointing of the right people for top executive jobs has not been British athletics’ strongest forte. Frankly there have been some awful choices. The new England CEO has to be able to successfully ensure that the policies arrived at are the culmination of consultation with those that have to implement them and not, as has been the tendency in recent times, to be edicts handed down from on high. He or she, whilst giving the nine regions some independence and flexibility, must also ensure that England athletics as an entity moves forward with a cohesion of purpose. The worst that could happen is that opportunity for athletes depends on their postcode.
It is also vital that faith in the voluntary sector is restored. The multiplicity of activities that comprises athletics requires a large army of volunteers; up until now the devotions of such people have been ignored and even despised. England and its regions need to urgently retain and then recruit; people need to be wooed into the sport and their efforts need to be understood and recognised.
This does not mean kowtowing to the vociferous malcontents whose only modus operandi is to abuse those who run athletics in Britain. In the main they represent no one but themselves and to have no agenda except that of “leave it to the clubs”. A look at the only structures that the clubs are actively involved in, the malfunctioning leagues, gives, if such a course were ever to be embarked upon, a glimpse of a future ten times worse than that we have been through.
Savings of well over £1 million are likely to accrue from the reduction in staff planned by de Vos and it will be interesting to see where those savings will be invested. As mentioned in a previous Track Chat there is serious professional understaffing in the English regions and this situation will worsen if more and more implementation is given to them.
As well as boosting staff in the regions money must also be found to fund a new competitive structure for the sport and UKA and the home countries must also begin the process for the professionalisation of coaching.
What’s past is prologue, writes Shakespeare and in our instance it is that we acknowledge and learn from our mistakes. We stood at a crossroads and embarked on the wrong road. Now we have the opportunity to take the right path. We cannot afford to err again.