Wednesday, 12 August 2009

When the Blind lead the Blind

The blindness of those currently running the governing bodies of British athletics to the current disillusionment, frustration and inevitable anger of voluntary administrators, coaches and officials is matched only by that of the quangos who govern them. It means that the promised great new dawns for the sport frequently handed down from on high have remained ephemeral. Ten years of disenfranchisement have taken a severe toll. The enthusiasm and innovative entrepreneurship of volunteers that were once a hallmark of British athletics have been sucked dry by a bureaucracy that doesn’t perceive that athletics has a soul let alone understand the nature of it.

Whether UK and England athletics will be ready to deal with the enthusiastic aftermath of the London Olympics is already questionable just under three years before 2012.

The recent cynical emasculation of the voluntary regional councils by those who run England Athletics displays the contempt with which they view experienced volunteers. Funding has been cut off making the councils more impotent than they were before. In the very north of England (and it may very well be the same elsewhere) important competitions and other programmes for the benefit of athletes have had to be cancelled through a lack of funding.

There has been no explanation of why, just a few years after they were heralded as the right way forward for the sport the professional offices of the nine regions were abruptly shut down creating an unsavoury game of musical chairs for jobs in a hastily concocted new hierarchy. But what’s new? Those that run British and English athletics are so comfortably entrenched that they see no need whatsoever to account for their actions to the rank and file of the sport.

Illustrations of that entrenchment can be seen in the literal farce of the2008 England AGM when nobody knew who was supposed to turn up and in the end only eight did. The recent explanation on the England website as to why the incumbent chairman will be unopposed to serve a further term beggars belief. There was one other candidate but it was decided that he or she did not meet the criteria laid down by three people: the Chief Executive of UKA, a member of Sport England and the Chairman of the England Athletics National Council. So, in a supposedly democratic Britain, you have to apply to even be considered as a candidate, meeting criteria laid down by a tightly knit group of the Establishment. Thomas Paine you should be living at this hour.

In what, I suppose, could be considered his acceptance speech, the incumbent chairman said that he was “delighted to have been part of the successes and development of the sport over recent years.” This is pure PR-speak. Those of us with rather less rose-tinted spectacles wonder what successes and what development he is referring to.

Is success measured by the fact that, despite avowals to bring about change in its structure he has managed to avoid introducing, at board and council level, any ethnic or gender diversity, retaining a cosy all-white, all-male, middle-aged hierarchy in a total contradiction of Sport England’s policy? Or that England has been successful in steering clear of tackling the most urgent developmental task facing the sport: producing a radical, exciting new competition structure for all levels of athletic competence? Or that the organisation has succeeded in having no policy to stem the increasing haemorrhaging of athletes, officials and coaches? Suddenly the expression Drop Out doesn’t just refer to teenagers.

It is the failure to grasp the simple fact of the old adage that you can lead a horse to water but you cannot make him drink that is UKA’s and England’s most serious problem. Top to bottom dicta from those whose management experience outweighs their knowledge of the sport are treated with scepticism. What has developed over the last decade is a tendency for most coaches, administrators and officials (and therefore most clubs) to decide solely to do their own thing. There is a definite “thanks but no thanks” attitude to policies dreamt up without prior widespread consultation.

Communication to the sport from the two major organisations is woeful. Leave aside the fact that athletics no longer generates any interest to sports editors it is worrying that nobody, except for a chosen few and not always then, knows what is going on or what their future intentions are. The target age for the UKA website appears to be between fourteen and seventeen. The England website (including, extraordinarily, messages from the now cashless, impotent regions) tells us little. There is no forum left where the rank and file administrators and coaches can meet with the mostly unelected few to discuss the state of the sport and its future. Hence the fact that so many volunteers are metaphorically in dark cinemas heading for the Exit signs because they do not like the film.

The present administrators clearly had no idea of the poisoned chalice that was being handed down to them. Ten years of virtual carnage of the coaching scheme, of creating tick-a-box organisations obsessed with quantity rather than quality, of observing an obsequious complaisance to the paymasters have taken an enormous toll. And the voluntary sector, in failing to supervise its finances adequately, must also take its share of the blame.

It is responsible on two counts. Firstly by bankrupting the British Athletics Federation in 1997 and then compounding the deed by refusing to even contemplate the institution of a registration scheme that would give athletics some independent financial control over its affairs and partly unshackle it from the quangos’ iron grip. A conservative figure of 100,000 athletes registering to compete at £30 per annum would bring in £3 million that could be shared amongst the nine English regions to carry out much needed work. It would give some power to the voluntary sector who, given its record, would need to provide tightly controlled and well audited business plans. I can hear two howls of dismay already: firstly from the club stalwarts who think government owes them a constant free lunch and secondly from the current professionals who would see some of their power ebbing away.

For the last decade and counting we seem, as Shakespeare put it, to have been “wedded to calamity”. Spending millions on a chosen few athletes whilst the rest of the sport languishes in relative penury has been an act of blind lunacy that has come home to roost. But then when the blind lead the blind you inevitably blunder into disaster.


John said...

Tony, an excellent analysis of how the government and it's quangos, UK Sport and Sport England have managed to wreck the potential development of athletics in Britain over the last ten years.

What a dismal and disgraceful state of affairs!

Richard said...

We live in an era of managerialism. Everything has to put on paper, it has to have a SMART target (especially the M) which leads to a tick box. Thus, it can be said that the target has been achieved. The piece of paper says so. Even if the reality is plus ca change, plus le meme chose-or worse. Paper is King. Change the seats around again.

John said...

Sorry, you've lost me there!

Provillus said...

Wow! Wonderful read! So, its all started a few decades ago the dictatorship. Today, I've heard so many things about freedom but as I can see freedom is not really there. Provillus

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