Britain’s Head Coach Charles van Commenee whilst satisfied with the UK overall performance of third at the inaugural European Team Championship in Portugal described our performances in the throws and women’s jumps as “appalling.” It is a familiar ancient refrain.
Seemingly, since time immemorial, such lamentations about Britain’s field events have been expressed. We have always been aware of our deficiencies. When Walter Knox, the first ever salaried Chief Coach, was appointed by the AAA in 1914 he decided to give his main attention to field events. Because of the First World War his tenure was very short lived and we had to wait for 34 years before a similar appointment was made. When he returned from the Berlin Olympics in 1936 the 400m silver medallist Godfrey Brown strongly criticised our field event performances and bitterly attacked the AAA for being so dilatory in tackling the problem.
When Geoffrey Dyson launched his coaching scheme in the late 1940s one of the express aims was to improve field events; when I (and others) launched a national league for clubs in 1969 it was in the hope that field event standards would improve. Neither has worked. After sixty years there is a woeful shortage of field event coaches and after forty years there are still pathetic field event performances overall in league events at all levels.
Every country has its traditional weak events and Britain is no exception but our continuing low standards in jumps and throws should surely by now have warranted an in-depth investigation? Is it, for instance, that ethnically we in Britain cannot match the size and power of the Slavic peoples? Or is it that when we can match them such men and women gravitate towards sports, such as rowing and rugby, that are either more lucrative or more satisfying or both, than athletics?
Since the introduction of lottery funding there has always been a strong gravitational pull towards the more successful running events, especially the sprints. Millions of pounds have been spent and wasted in a mostly elusive quest for gold. It is a world where the rich have got richer in terms of lottery support and the poor have got poorer. What UK Sport’s one-suit-fits-all lottery policy fails to recognise is that in throwing events, in particular, athletes mature more slowly than their sprint counterparts. Unfortunately over the past decade the ends of all this spending have not justified the means and field event athletes and the decreasing band of coaches have become disincentivised. What, they ask, is the point?
In the women’s high jump the current UK record of 1.95m was first set twenty-seven years ago. Since the introduction of lottery funding only one woman, Susan Moncrieff, has been selected once to compete at a global championship. In the 2009 England regional championships a total of 15 women competed in the three competitions. Only one exceeded 1.85m (first achieved by a British woman in 1971); four exceeded 1.75m (first achieved forty-five years ago). Six jumped 1.65m or lower (a height achieved by Dorothy Odam at the 1948 Olympics, jumping off loose cinders into a sandpit using a scissors technique). The questions are: are our best coaches technically capable of taking athletes beyond 1.95m and are they capable of recognising talent when they see it?
In the men’s Hammer only one thrower has represented Britain at a global championship since the introduction of World Class Performance in the late nineties. In the women’s triple jump and shot put no one has represented Britain (nor look like doing) since the retirements of Ashia Hansen and Judy Oakes.
Most of our field events, especially the throws, are dead in the water. Our top proponents receive scant, if any, support. Philippa Roles (who actually was selected for Beijing in the discus) had to drive a suburban train in order to support her lifestyle and do athletics.
This year UK Athletics have adopted the IAAF entry standards for Berlin. In two events, the women’s high jump and Hammer, the UK record would have to be broken to achieve the A standard. In the men’s Hammer only one UK athlete, Martin Girvan, has ever achieved the A standard (in 1984). The litany goes on.
In its introductory blurb about the World Youth Championships UKA says that it “aims to provide experience for aspiring under 18 athletes.” Unless you’re a jumper or thrower that is. Of a paltry total of 19 athletes in Sudtirol there are just one male jumper and two female throwers. It is difficult to understand why the federation instead of choosing the IAAF entry standard adopted much harsher selection standards for the World Youth Championships, only aiming to take those who could finish in the top eight. In other words it has adopted a policy that will surely disencentivise potentially promising young athletes (and their coaches) especially in the field events. The highest differential came in the men’s Hammer with a 14.2% difference between the UKA and IAAF standard, both the women’s and men’s javelin standards, however, run that close.
Even when our throwers (with obvious exceptions) get to a major championship they do not perform well. Leaving aside the excellent javelin exploits of Backley, Hill, Whitbread and Sanderson, the number of top eight finishers since 1948 in each of the other events can easily be counted on the fingers of one hand. We’ve all watched in despair as British throwers seemingly freeze in the circle and perform well below their season’s best in qualifying rounds. There is seemingly little or no mental preparation for the task in hand. A cosy league fixture one week and facing the world’s best the following is too daunting a task.
So how can UK Athletics attempt to end almost a century of mostly despairing field event performances? Here are a few ideas:
(1) It needs to follow the endurance example and be advised by those who have been steeped in jumping and throwing almost all of their lives. They already have the excellent Bob Weir in charge of the heavy throws, and he should be joined on a panel that will draft a future policy document by the likes of Steve Backley, Jonathan Edwards, Steve Smith, Judy Oakes, Fatima Whitbread, Tessa Sanderson, jumpers and throwers who have performed excellently at the highest level.
(2) It needs to publish details of all Level 3 and 4 coaches in the various field events and their locations so that barren areas in the country can be identified.
(3) It needs to launch a campaign within the sport to recruit jumps and throws coaches, targeting former internationals and looking urgently at the professionalization of coaching to make such an exercise worthwhile for those taking part.
(4) It needs to arrange Jumps and/or Throws internationals for seniors and juniors against other European countries.
(5) It needs to put together a programme of support for those identified as having the necessary potential to reach international standards.
(6) It needs to review the sizes of implements used by those in the junior age groups.
(7) It needs to tell the various senior and junior league organisers that their meetings will not be sanctioned unless qualifying standards in field events are instituted forthwith.
(8) It needs to encourage the setting up of specialist clubs, like the Hammer Circle, in all eight field events.
(9) It needs to insist that more field events are staged at our televised meetings.
(10) It needs to ensure that entry standards for the various championships are always those of the IAAF and EAA.
One thing we can all surely be agreed upon: it isn’t rocket science.