Tuesday, 4 November 2008

Yet Another Brave New World

It could be said that British athletics over the past fifteen years has behaved like an unruly volcano, erupting with a regularity that is now embarrassing. The latest eruption, created by the new establishment at England Athletics, will cast another set of dedicated people into the cauldron of the job market.

It is just four years since Sir Andrew Foster’s report on the future of English athletics was published. It too was to supposedly herald in a new era for the sport: nine regions instead of the overblown three, professional staff nearer to the clubs (the supposed cutting edge of the sport), nine volunteer regional councils to provide supervision. There have been teething problems, there always are, but generally speaking progress has been made. So the question has to be asked: why yet another dramatic u-turn?

And, of course it’s only a year or so since UK Athletics also indulged itself in a bout of job shedding, though in that particular instant slimming down the organisation was urgently required. But it surely cannot do the reputation of our sport any good to see redundancies being frequently used to clear up the inadequacies of higher management or to implement the changes in policy of the increasingly chameleonic Sport England.

British athletics has always been governed by an inner circle of power that is notoriously closed. The present administrations are no exception. I am told that the regional councils were kept in ignorance (on the advice of the sport’s Human Resource unit) of these changes for fear of leakage to the professional staff. Not much faith there then. These recent events have exposed the convoluted, supposedly democratic election system for the sham that it is. It ensures the vast majority of the sport plays no part in decision making processes including consultation.

Though we know, from the document issued by England AA, the how and the when of this dramatic change we are not clear as to the why and it is probable that we never will be.

My own suspicions, as always, lie with the sport’s paymasters. Sport England (at the moment a rudderless organisation requiring a new Chairman and Vice Chairman) is just entering a new funding phase and has been told by the government's Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to change direction and give more autonomy to governing bodies of sport. This is the very same Sport England who, a decade ago, following BAF’s bankruptcy, decreed that athletics was incapable of organising itself.

Our sport surely deserves to know why the decentralisation of Foster should, in the space of just three or four years, regress to the centralisation that it felt was detrimental to the future development of grass-root athletics.

The constant dramatic twists and turns of policy are demoralising for the sport, whose support for new stratagems has been severely dented by the failures of recent years. The nobility of intent has always been undermined by a failure of application. Schemes planned by the regions have now to be abandoned. Athletes will be let down. The unseemly rush to dismantle the existing structures will lead to the abandonment of proposals and ideas that were going to benefit athletes and the sport in the nine England regions.

We can glean from the statement issued by England AA Chairman, John Graves and CEO, Mike Summers some of the effects their actions will have. Gender equality in administration will suffer even more The paucity of women on regional councils has, so far, been partly counterbalanced by the appointment of some fine professional staff that have made excellent contributions in their regions. There is no guarantee that they will continue in the sport. Ethnic representation is almost non-existent both professionally and voluntarily so there is a danger that the administration of British athletics will continue to be run by middle- and not so middle-aged Caucasian, grey-suited males, once called the blazerarti. If the history of gender inequality in athletics administration is not known to the present incumbency, I would be delighted to enlighten them.

Believing that “established competition providers” can “best deliver a revitalised competition structure” is na├»ve and flies in the face of recent history. League athletics in Britain has failed to develop at least over the last couple of decades and attempts to change the structures have met with stubborn resistance. Travelling long distances for inadequate competition has become de rigeur for thousands of youngsters competing in the more junior leagues and is partly responsible for the alarming drop-out rates that concern us all. David Jeacock, secretary of the British Athletics League recently visited some French league meetings and underwent a road to Damascus moment. He found the meetings “fun” and recently referred in his annual report to “that po-faced puritan approach to sport that so often seems to infect us.” He has hit the nail of our current competition structures right on the head.

Two of the new core objectives of England AA are to “increase participation across a wider cross-section of the community” and “to improve the quality of experience of every participant.” If these objectives are to be met then it is the governing bodies who need to tackle a re-invigoration of our competition structures. It is a task they have studiously avoided for decades.

Coach development now appears to be a part-time role for 19 newly appointed “field-based club and coach support officers” working under “three team leaders.” For such a vital section of our sport that has been disgracefully neglected over the past decade or more this seems poor recompense. Frankly, it is difficult to reconcile the roles of club support and coach development in just one person; they will have expertise in either one or the other but it will be a rare animal indeed that will have sufficient expertise in both to be effective. I suspect that in many cases support will consist of alerting coaches to courses that are available to them and be left at that.

Coaching needs urgent, full-time attention. It is unfortunate that we have had to wait so long (over six months and counting) for the appointment of a UKA Strategic Head of Coaching Development and it seems probable that the England AA Board may have jumped the gun in swiftly looking to appoint these “support officers” before a coaching strategy is in place.

At first glance (and we still await the detail) all these significant changes appear to be structurally based, which follows the pattern of the past ten years. Presumably the “intensive consultation” has found that coaches and clubs are all eager to be developed. The opposite has been my experience and, it seems, that of a lot of equally experienced people around the country. There are, at a liberal estimate, about one hundred properly functioning track and field clubs in Britain. This leaves about four hundred who are probably content with their lot, whose voluntary officials have no more time to give and who are in despair at the Brave New Worlds being conjured up by bewilderingly changing administrations.

What incentives are to be offered to voluntary coaches to develop? Most Level 2 coaches I have met are also content with their lot and cannot see any point in expensively (in time and money) leaving their comfort zones and qualifying for Levels 3 and 4.

All this probably sounds curmudgeonly but there is undoubtedly a certain naivety about this restructuring. It assumes much including the fact that retention of the nine regional councils without professional support will be welcomed by them. The council members might conclude that it is but a sop to the voluntary sector.

It would be interesting to know who were intensively consulted across the sport about this umpteenth change in policy and structure and one hopes that England AA will publish a list in the not too distance future. Meanwhile, we await the detailed plans with interest.

Super Radcliffe (on two counts)

All praise to Paula Radcliffe for two achievements: one, a stunning third win in the New York Marathon and two, insisting that the 2012 Olympic stadium retains an athletics legacy when the curtains come down on the quadrennial bonanza in just under four years time. Black marks to Jacques Rogge, IOC President for saying that a hand over to King Soccer would be acceptable, thus effectively pulling the rug from under Sen Coe's feet.

Just when it should be backing Radcliffe’s remarks UK Athletics remains stolidly silent on the matter. Not a public peep on the legacy has emerged from Solihull’s Athletics House; nor from England Athletics. Both bodies, but especially the former, would have a responsibility for organising a programme of meetings there in the aftermath of the Olympics and so an indication of their intentions would be useful. Indeed British Athletics intentions regarding the stadium will, very shortly, become an imperative.

The ageing Crystal Palace is no longer a suitable stadium for Big Time athletics, yet it is the only stadium in our capital city worthy of the name. It attracts sell-out crowds for the Grand Prix meetings staged there. Yet UK Athletics or Fast Track or whoever dictates policy on these matters insist on carting Grand Prix and international meetings around the country to make do and mend stadia in order, presumably to "take athletics to the people". For decades the only venue for major athletics meetings in Britain was the old White City and travelling there to compete was often a highlight in many athletes’ careers. It seems to have escaped the notice of those in charge that football takes its major internationals to Wembley; that England Rugby has its base at Twickenham and Tennis stages its major tournament annually at Wimbledon.

Does the Trappist silence on this matter augur badly for our sport? Does it mean that the coterie that runs British athletics have no faith in their ability to stage athletics that will attract the public? Do they mean to bend their knee to soccer and quietly give up? Has no one learnt the lesson of the 2002 Commonwealth Stadium? Are there no exciting plans for staging top class international athletics in Britain once the Olympics is over?

One way that both UK and England Athletics could support a post-Olympic athletics legacy for the stadium would be to announce that they are moving their administration there, lock, stock and barrel, immediately after the Games.

(Next time: a potted history of the woeful administration of athletics in Britain).


Anonymous said...

Tony, I'm sure you're right that England Athetics is being 'guided' (bullied?) by Sport England. The problem with the development of the nine regions was that there was inadequate guidance initially. wih a naive assumption that allowing each to develop 'in its own way' was the right thing to do. It simply lead to inconsistency and inefficiency. The best Regions were creative and efficiently managed; the worst little more than a shambles. The calibre of the personnel recruited was very variable. Bringing the sport closer to 'local people' was a laudable aim and I suppose, in theory, the new system ought to do that ..... but I suspect that won't be the case. Finally, I have yet to find anyone, from Regional Chairs to club members who knows of any consultation. Many will regard these past years of England Athletics existence as a sheer waste of time. But don't despair ...the vast majority of athletics nationwide will still be run by the legion of volunteers who are the real talent in our sport, many of whom are active through the highest levels. You don't have to be paid to bring the real expertise into our sport. Salaried staff have time and more administrative support, but the dedicated volunteer is often more committed and often has the skills gained in their own working life (often at the highest levels of business, industry and education), plus a lifetime of knowledge of athletics, to bring to bear. They are no longer the 'blazerati' - the one thing I've achieved above all else in forty years in the sport (I say this somewhat tongue in cheek)is getting rid of technical officials' blazers! Which might lead some to identify me!

Anonymous said...


Could the low numbers of women and members of the ethnic minorities you complain of be down simply to the fact that they don't volunteer in the first place? All athletes have a mother and a father. In the same vein, how can you explain the good number of ethnic minority athletes compared with the very small number of ethnic minority officials and administrators? No one is keeping anybody out - they're just not coming forward.