Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Fear of Africans

Writing in the Canadian magazine Athletics (December 2008) that doyen of British running coaches, Frank Horwill, reported that three years ago the then Endurance Director of British athletics, Alan Storey (no longer in that position) opened a symposium by declaring: “We will never close the gap on the Africans in distance running.”

Frank does not record whether the symposium immediately broke up, thus becoming the shortest in running history, but he does reflect that it is not surprising that the decline in British men’s endurance running continued under Storey’s watch.

This rang a bell with me. Forty plus years ago in Modern Distance Running I quoted the famed Hungarian coach, Mihaly Igloi reflecting on his days as a runner back in the 1920’s.

“To us,” Igloi wrote, “record breakers like the Finns Paavo Nurmi and Hannes Kohlemainen seemed singularly gifted and equipped: their performances out of reach of normal mortals. These records, said Hungarians, were the products of special components, not of any particular training systems, and were helped by climatic and other conditions in Scandinavia. We, it was alleged, did not have the same natural ability or the same conditions – so our athletes did not search for ways to improve.”

Fast forward seventy or eighty years and here is a British coach echoing the same sentiments. Igloi tells us that he and other athletes soon rejected such nonsense. He went on to coach three wonderful runners, Sándor Iharos, László Tabori and Istvan Rozsavolgyi, who had collectively set ten world records in just fifteen months in 1955-56 and whose undoubted Olympic destinies were shattered by the brutal invasion of their country by the Soviet Union just days before the Melbourne Games. Igloi emigrated and was highly successful in the United States.

The decline in European and British endurance running over the last few decades has been staggering. Olympic gold is the raison d’être of today’s politicians and sporting bureaucrats. Sadly Europe’s distance runners have been, to say the least, remiss in such provision. In the past twenty years Europe has supplied just 6 gold medallists out of the 36 available. In overall medals won the situation is much worse, just 14 out of 108 were won by Europe, a paltry 13% and two of the fourteen were of African origin.

In 1984 with 4 Olympic medals out of a possible 18 the African runners were coming; by 1988, with 11 they had arrived. In Beijing with 16 they were in total control. The only European runner to take a medal was of Algerian origin.

Compared with yesteryear standards have plummeted. Taking 1988, 1998 and 2008 as our yardstick of two decades and the tenth best performance in each event as an indication of overall health, 2008 produced the worst European performances in every event and the worst British performances in four out of the six (with the remaining two just a few tenths off being worst).

Horwill cites Professor Tim Noakes’ two variations, in his book Lore of Running, between European runners and their East and North African counterparts. Firstly, African runners devote one-third of their training to work between 80 and 100% of VO2 max; Europeans devote just 10%. Secondly, the height/weight ratio (a major factor in distance running) of the East African is superior.

There are also cultural differences. Running is a trade for hundreds of Kenyan runners. It is a way of extricating themselves and their families from the grim realities of agricultural life in that East African country. The 1990 ATFS Annual listed the winners of 85 marathon races for 1989 with only 3 (3.5%) being won by Kenyan runners. In 2007 the list had grown to 157 races with an astonishing 70% being won by Kenyans. Of the other 2007 listed major road races 65% of the winners were from Kenya.

So we know why the Africans are so good: running as a way of life from an early age; superior training, often three times a day; benefits from 60% of training time being at altitude; a good deal of training devoted to working at between 80 and 100% VO2 max and strong financial incentives to be successful. But why are the Europeans currently so bad even compared with their forbearers?

At the Atlanta Olympics I stood next to a well-known British coach watching the men’s 10000 metres unfold. The winner was Haile Gebreselassie in 27:07.34. There was a grunt of satisfaction from the coach when a British athlete ran in tenth, almost a minute behind. “Second in Europe,” was his satisfied comment as he went off to proffer congratulations. Back then I knew that we (and by we I mean Europeans as well as British) were in trouble.

But was Alan Storey uttering an unmentionable thought that is buried deep in the collective psyche of European runners and coaches? Do they see the exploits of Bekele, Gebreselassie, Tergat et al as being “out of the reach of normal mortals”? Is this why some British coaches ignore such exploits to lower their thinking and their runners’ ambitions to declining European standards? Is the problem more psychological than technical or physiological? Can African distance runners be challenged?

Occasionally Caucasians will emerge to do so, men like Craig Mottram, Alan Webb and earlier Bob Kennedy but the European challenge has been sparse, mostly coming from Spain. You have to return to what I have termed the “golden decade” of British athletics, the eighties, to find performances that would match those of African runners, especially at 800 and 1500 metres and when you study that period, when Coe, Cram and Ovett ruled the global roost of middle-distance running and David Moorcroft missed breaking 13 minutes for 5000m by a whisker, you find an interesting phenomenon.

To get into the British Olympic team in both 1980 and 1984 at 1500 metres was some herculean task. In 1980 there was automatic selection for Seb Coe and Steve Ovett; the third spot went to an emerging Steve Cram. Four years later the task was even harder with Coe and Cram globally ranked second and third and Ovett just over a second behind the latter. Did British middle-distance runners resign themselves to second best status? Did they consider the trio’s performances to be out of the reach of normal mortals? Were they psychologically shattered? Hell, no; in 1984 Britain had six men in the world top twenty at 1500 metres (Graham Williamson with his 3:34.13 would have made the Olympic team of every other country except Britain); similarly we had four at 800 metres. They rose to the challenge of their peers. As a result eleven of the top all-time British performances at 800 metres were set in the late 70s and the 80s, only three so far this century; at 1500m the tally is eight and two.

Not surprising then that the new UK coaching supremo, Charles van Commenee, appointed Ian Stewart, an uncompromising 5000 metre runner of the seventies, who won 5000m bronze at the Munich Olympics, to replace Storey. He will be supported by men like Coe, Cram, David Bedford and Brendan Foster as well as two of our finest women athletes, Paula Radcliffe and Liz McColgan. Initiatives have been tried in the past with generally disappointing results, including (as Horwill pointed out) establishing a centre of excellence at a college institution. It will be interesting to see if Stewart, also the promoter of UK televised meetings, will resurrect the 10000 metres to its rightful place at the UK Trials and Championship meeting as a precursor to reviving that neglected event.

The problem, however, is Europe wide and it is not just athletes that need targeting but coaches as well, for fear begets fear. New attitudes are required and psychological assistance to attain positivism. If we are to bring about a renaissance in events that once thrilled crowds across the continent the best European coaching talent and sports psychologists must combine their expertise.

Former European Council member Luciano Barra argued in IAAF New Studies in Athletics that dramatic falls in viewing figures for athletics events in major European countries are mainly due to the decrease in European endurance standards.

"The less the audiences see athletes from their own countries," Barra wrote, "doing well in the showcase running events, the less likely they will be to tune in again."

The fear is endemic,the problem acute. The longer we prevaricate the worse it will be.

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