That the team did perform very unexceptionally (to say the least) is clearly shown by the statistics. Britain finished eighth equal (with Australia) in the athletics medal table and sixth in the final placings table, its worst Olympic position since 1976; athletics was the fifth best British sport in terms of medals.
The facts make grim reading:
- Britain gained only 16 finalists from 47 events, just over 34%.
- Only 2 individual male track runners reached their finals
- It did not enter athletes in 12 events
- There were no male throwers in Beijing
- In the men’s middle- and long-distance events Britain failed to produce a finalist (top eight)
- Only 4 out of 26 (15.4%) individual male competitors set personal bests. In
- contrast 9 women out of 30 (30%) did likewise including 2 national records.
- Although half a million pounds was expended on the relay teams only two reached the final (botched sprint take-overs in the others). Neither of these reached the podium.
- One of the four medallists (Germaine Mason) did not receive lottery funding and lives most of the time in Jamaica; another (Tasha Danvers) spends a considerable time in the USA (though she wisely flew back to Britain for funded medical treatment to an injury).
- In the ten years immediately prior to lottery funding (1987-97) British athletics averaged 17.4 finalists in global championships; in the ten years following the introduction of lottery funding (1999-2008) it averaged 13.2.
- Under the present Performance management covering 2005-08 in three global meetings Britain produced 35 finalists, an average of 11.6.
- In terms of medals in the same period Britain won just 11 medals in three championships.
Between 1987 and 1997 (before lottery funding) British athletes won 55 medals in eight global meetings; between 1999 and 2008 (during lottery funding) they won 34 medals, also in eight meetings, a fall of 38%.
That’s the statistics. What’s the story?
The overall poor performance of the British Olympic team in Atlanta in 1996 prompted the introduction of lottery funding, although athletics actually didn’t do too badly that year with six medals and thirteen finalists. Beijing has highlighted the stark contrast between those sports federations who have successfully used lottery funding to boost their medal tally and UK Athletics (UKA), which hasn’t. Although it has received probably around £50 million in lottery funding over the past decade or so our athletes have shown little or no improvement over that period.
The question is whether UK Sport’s requirements for lottery funding are suitable for such a diverse sport as athletics, or whether UK Athletics has had the competence to apply the funding wisely. Put more succinctly, are those who run UK Athletics, especially its performance sector, up to the job? The signs I have to say, with just four years to go to 2012, are not propitious.
Since the formation of UK Athletics, after the insolvency of the previous federation (BAF), coaching has degenerated significantly. As is now well known, the separation of Coaching from Performance in David Moorcroft’s tenure as CEO was a monumental disaster that led to years of neglect for this most vital aspect of our sport. Coaching became Coach Education and the development of existing coaches stagnated, causing considerable disillusionment.
There is a close correlation between our throws performances (only two places filled out of a possible twenty-four in Beijing) and the historical lack of good quality throws coaches (and indeed lack of throws coaches per se). Middle and long distance running presents a different but equally troubling story, especially on the men’s side. Only six of the eighteen places available to men were filled and none got a top eight position – indeed only Baddeley reached the final. The women filled fourteen of the eighteen places available but only two reached the top eight. There was a sad all-round lack of tactical awareness from both sets of runners. You have to go back twenty years to discover a male British middle-distance medal. Maybe our endurance running coaching ain’t what it used to be.
On the BBC Brendan Foster angrily lamented our running decline. “The whole basis of British athletics used to be middle and long distance running,” he said, “and the people who run the sport have allowed it to evaporate completely. They’ve lost control of it, let it go. We know who is responsible.”
With only four men setting or equalling personal bests in Beijing you also have to question the physical and, more importantly, mental preparation for what was the most significant event of the team members’ lives. Quite a number of British athletes peaked at the Trials in Birmingham only to be a pale shadow of their former selves in the Bird’s Nest stadium. The cyclist and rowers collectively looked as if they expected to win medals; our athletes, with obvious exceptions, looked as if getting to Beijing was enough. This, considering that there is a sports psychologist in charge of Performance, is surprising.
Moorcroft’s farewell poisoned chalice to the sport was his failure to appoint a coach as Director of Performance. The now almost forgotten Foster Review recommended scouring the world for the best available candidate. Top coaches like Keith Connor flew in from Australia to undergo psychometric testing only to fall by the wayside; Charles van Commenee from Holland was actually in-situ at UK Athletics but rejected. In the end they found their man in Edinburgh, sports psychologist Dave Collins. In a recent interview he angrily noted that people weren’t exactly queuing up for the job.
It was Collins who actually took hold of the chalice, for he inherited a failing structure. In Athens, Britain was lucky. Three golds were won thanks to Kelly Holmes (who had trained and was coached overseas) and the sprint relay team. Too much euphoria and UKA failed to see the warning signs – terrible performances at the two previous world championships and 33% fewer finalists than in Sydney.
But Collins hasn’t understood coaching and some believe that he hasn’t understood athletes either (remember his publicly scoring athletes out of ten for their efforts in Gothenburg in 2006?). More recently, the insistence that Kate Read, the 10,000 metre runner, run a fitness trial the night before her Beijing race has astounded many knowledgeable coaches. What would Paula Radcliffe’s reaction have been to a similar edict? What was the advice of Collins’ endurance coach?
Like his predecessor, Max Jones, Collins has always insisted that his brief has been top performance and that the development of the sport is not his concern. Like Jones (who should have known better) he has not appreciated that poor standards throughout the sport have a direct affect on the number of athletes in his Podium group.
It’s no good citing bad luck. Good luck and bad plays a part in life and in sport. Bad luck is so often matched by someone else’s good - Kelly Sotherton was below par; Sanya Richards did not run her usual race, and so on.
Beijing has been yet another wake-up call for UK Athletics. For years it has cancelled the alarm and gone back to a complacent sleep. Now is the time, regretfully, for a clean up of the Augean Stables as far as the Performance sector is concerned. It is time for accountability to kick in for the professional staff.
To recover from years of mediocre performance in the span of one Olympiad is a Herculean task and one does not envy whosoever takes it on. The performances of our athletes at this year’s World Junior Championships (with the exception of Stephanie Twell) are discouraging but this year’s Olympics has shown that there is talent out there in every sport and you can be sure that athletics is not an exception. The questions are: do we have the right coaches and are we able to support them with the right structures?
Steve Cram, BBC athletics commentator and Chairman of the English Institute of Sport, was critical of Collins’ reaction to our performances in Beijing. He hoped that UK Athletics would be “honest about things.” We all say Amen to that.
(Next time: Europeans Woes)