Since his arrival as Head Coach of UK Athletics (UKA), Charles van Commenee has shown how crass and destructive was the decision by the previous incumbents of Athletics House to appoint a sports psychologist to lead Britain’s international athletes, a man who misspent millions of pounds and subsequently failed to meet his own overly modest medal target in Beijing. The stupidity of Moorcroft’s decision is emphasized by the fact that van Commenee was working at UKA at the time, seemingly ignored because the CEO had decided, apparently on the advice of Sir Clive Woodward, that a coach was not the best person to lead athletes. The Dutchman soon flew back to Holland to take up duties there.
One fears that the decisions made between 1997 and 2006 will haunt British athletics for some years to come and indeed will have a detrimental effect on our performances in 2012 which is why (as I read somewhere) van Commenee’s resolve to resign if he does not meet his own target of eight medals in London is not one I agree with. He needs more time to right the wrongs of a decade of maladministration, especially in relation to coaching.
He may have problems in areas where he has no direct control. England Athletics’ unseemly rush to comply with its paymasters latest wheeze, abandoning its nine regions in the process, seems to have left coaching in an angry limbo. And coaches have been angry for some time, not so that England AA seems to have noticed. The new system, hardly in place, is already generating a lack of confidence in Level 3 and Level 4 coaches. Such coaches tell me that communication is non-existent, e-mails go unanswered. No one seems to know what is going on.
The current state of coaching would have made Geoff Dyson burst a blood vessel, something that those who knew him (as I did) would confirm he was always prone to do. With Geoff (founder of our coaching scheme back in 1948) it was always Apoplexy Now and it finally led to him being hounded out of British athletics in the early 1960s. But he left behind him a legacy that was the envy of the world. Traces of his work are still around us, some of it inevitably septuagenarian in nature, in men who have more coaching wisdom in their little fingers than the majority have in their whole bodies.
In van Commenee, by his actions and pronouncements, one recognises a man of similar persuasion, a man who knows athletics and athletes. He clearly does not suffer fools gladly so in British athletics he will have a hard time of it. He has been described as a volcano and I for one look forward to hearing the eruptions that are necessary to put Britain internationally back on the right track.
Prior to the world’s finest athletes descending on Berlin’s Olympic stadium in August a few hundred administrators from around the globe will assemble for an IAAF Congress. I’ve been around a few of these massive talking shops and it has amazed me each time that so much time and money is spent and perhaps wasted on what, in the end, primarily turns out to be nitpicking of changes to the competition rules. It gives those who love to indulge themselves in such pedantry a field day. As usual on these occasions a very few self-appointed experts dominate the discussions; the rest are bored to tears.
It’s obviously too late to change the format for 2009 but surely the IAAF should think of doing so when mostly the same people gather again in Daeju, South Korea two years later. Our sport is not in such great shape that discussion on its future by the top administrators from each country would be a waste of time. Why not, over three days, have seminars on the three fundamental areas of athletics: coaching, competition (including officials) and facilities without which athletics could not function. It really is time that the world governing body interested itself in what is happening below its athletics ivory towers.
Living up to the hype
British performances at the world cross country championships in Amman disappointed many including many of the athletes themselves. The real question (and it applies even more to track and field as well as we shall see) is whether our athletes lived up to expectations. I think most of them did. What they didn’t live up to was the hype generated by good performances achieved in the gold fish bowls of British and European competitions. We were up to it again after last weekend eulogising runners for being in the top five in Europe; we have yet to learn that, in world terms, European standards no longer serve as any criteria.
One of the problems seems to be the spin spawned by the need to sell the televised meetings. Our young sprinters have had enormous pressure put upon them over recent years by being put on a par with the Americans and Jamaicans; heads to heads built up at Crystal Palace and Gateshead, arousing media and public expectation. The latest is Mark Lewis Francis “challenging” Usain Bolt in a street sprint at Manchester. Have you ever heard anything so ridiculous? A look at the world rankings lists is all it takes to bring about a sense of reality.
Let us take the careers of three young British sprinters: Mark Lewis Francis, Harry Aikines Aryeetey and Craig Pickering, all lauded to the skies as future Olympic champions, even world record holders. The former two won World Junior titles; Pickering was European Junior champion in 2005. After he won his title in 2000 Lewis Francis was named as his successor by the Olympic champion, Donovan Bailey; after his success in 2006 Aikines Aryeetey was dubbed Britain’s big hope for the 2012 Olympics. Pickering has somehow found himself to be the next big white hope. And of course it has been natural for the athletes to believe the stories, to revel in the interviews, to have expectations that, frankly, have exceeded their grasp. Such disappointments can be mind shattering.
90% of British athletes who will be contending in 2012 are probably known to us. Anyone contending for the final of the 100 metres in London should surely now be running sub-10 seconds. Only three British sprinters have ever run under that time, the last, Dwain Chambers, ten years ago. It is inconceivable to me that there will be a British 100 metre finalist, let alone a medallist, in three years time in London.
Shaping the destinies of sprinters in their teenage years to gain bums on seats is, to put it at its mildest, a dubious practice. Let us praise Lewis Francis, Aikines Aryeetey and Pickering for what they have achieved, not for what we would like them to.