Sunday, 27 September 2009

Concrete Ceilings

It is ironic that in a recent interview Gerry Sutcliffe, the British sports minister, castigated the Football Association for not honouring a pledge to make its council more inclusive with greater representation for ethnic minorities , women and fans. “Rugby and cricket got rid of old farts,” Sutcliffe said, “football’s old school cannot continue.” He should look at UK athletics and then pause for further thought as to the action to be taken with soccer.

British athletics discarded its blazerarti but replaced it with an inexperienced bureaucracy supported by selected compliant volunteers that has led the sport into the worst state of its 129 years of existence and will take years to correct. This is the saga of on-going white, male, middle-aged dominance of the control of athletics in Britain that has existed since the AAA was formed in 1880.

In the 1920’s the AAA brusquely rejected overtures for affiliation by a newly formed women’s association despite the fact that English athletes had swept the board at the first women’s international meeting in Monte Carlo. Peter Lovesey wrote in his history of the AAA: “Whether male chauvinists won the day or the AAA simply took fright at controlling what was regarded in some quarters as at best risqué and at worse dangerous to health the WAAA went its own way.”

After almost seventy years the era of separate associations came to an end with the forming of the British Athletics Federation and inexorably positions of power in BAF were immediately and greedily swept up by the men.

In the eight global championships held this century black athletes have won 57% of UK medals; in the same period our women athletes have won just over 56%. Both these percentages are higher than they are both demographically and in terms of athlete participation, with the black athletes considerably so. But in the administrative corridors of power, where vital decision making takes place, both groups are highly conspicuous by their absence. By appointing an ex-black sprint champion and a woman Paralympic champion as non-executive directors UK Athletics believes it has satisfied any criteria laid down by its paymasters. Not so.

The impact of black athletes, mostly but not exclusively from the Caribbean, on our international success, has visibly grown over the last few decades. Indeed it has to be said that our record would be much the poorer without them. Yet the viewpoint of the black athletics community is rarely heard at any level in the sport.

Fringe organisations like the Association of British Athletics Clubs (ABAC) and the British Milers Club (BMC) follow the same pattern as the main governance in being white male dominated.

The autumn of 1967 in the USA saw the emergence of an angry, black sociology professor from San Jose State, Harry Edwards. His athlete acolytes were sprinter Tommie Smith and 400m runner Lee Evans. Both were to win gold at the forthcoming Mexico City Olympics but both had supported Edwards throughout the autumn of 1967 and spring of the following year, in calls for a black boycott of the Games.
The issue was the rampant racism that was still extant in the USA, a racism that was reflected in the Jim Crowism in sporting structures. Edwards was, as one writer put it, “pushed by anger not to radicalism which is only an argument for change, but towards violence or at least the threat of violence.” He orchestrated demonstrations that turned violent at the famous New York Athletic Club (NYAC) indoor meeting at Madison Square Garden in 1968 because he alleged that the NYAC barred blacks and Jews from membership; he demanded that South Africa should continue to be barred from the Olympics because of its apartheid policies. More interestingly Edwards called for the “desegregation of the United States Olympic Committee administrative and coaching staffs.”

There was no boycott but a podium demonstration in Mexico by Smith and John Carlos that was beamed around the world, a silent iconic moment of such power, intensity and even beauty that it helped to shift significantly (but by no means absolutely)attitudes to racism in the US. On a much lesser scale it set in motion changes that would impact on women and black participation in athletics administration with the dissolution of the white, male dominated Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and its replacement by a solely track and field association.

In 2008 a black woman, Stephanie Hightower, was elected President of USA Track and Field and is Chair of its Board of Directors. Hightower, a former world class hurdler was, at election, Chair of the USATF Women’s Track and Field Committee. Would that happen in the UK? Of course not.

Contrast the democracy and structure of the world’s strongest athletics nation with what occurs in Britain: Hightower’s equivalent, Ed Warner, is appointed (with the mandatory approval of the government’s sporting quangos), not democratically elected by the sport. He has at best little or no background in track and field. Along with the USATF the IAAF has a women’s committee. No part of British athletics has such a committee. Earlier this century a Valuing Diversity programme was set up by UKA covering women, disability and ethnicity. It withered on the vine.

Black coaches have made a great impact on our sport over the past decade. Many of our great sprinters and jumpers have moved from the competitive arena to coaching with ease and success. Only one, the former European triple jump champion and Australia Chief Coach, Keith Connor, has been considered for a major role. But he was twice turned down; firstly for a regional coach’s job in 1990 and secondly in 2003 for the UK Athletics Director of Performance post when he was (along incidentally with van Commenee) extraordinarily overlooked in favour of a sports psychologist with no coaching background, Dave Collins. Rightly disillusioned he returned to Australia; Collins was sacked after four years.

Those male coaches that have been appointed by UKA are on short term contracts. There is no career path for them. When the curtain falls on 2012 a number of those contracts will be terminated. It must be galling for our coaches to find that they (32 global medals this century, 10 gold) are overlooked in favour of an influx of coaches from Canada (7 global medals this century, no gold).

Women have been unable to make such an impact. The only woman coach to be professionally appointed in Britain was former Olympic discus thrower Meg Ritchie who was appointed National Coach for Scotland in 1999. Her background though was not in the UK but as a professional coach in the USA at the University of Arizona and later at Texas Tech. There are other former women international athletes at Level 4 (one even has a MA in coaching) who are producing Olympians but in terms of international duty and other appointments such as the recent national mentor posts or the England managers they are ignored.

And on those rare occasions when women have reached positions of regional responsibility they are met by alien macho behaviour, posturing, shouting down, condescension, caustic e-mails and, in coaching, poaching by predatory males. So when this subject is mentioned to those who govern us, who look sorrowful, metaphorically wringing their hands, saying it is dreadful and something must be done but you see women just don’t apply, it’s a cop out. The real question is whose responsibility is it to ensure far more equitable representation at the decision making levels of the sport (which the IAAF is doing as far as women are concerned)? It is that of UK Athletics and England and the other national bodies who have the power to bring about change.

In his book Souled Out? How Blacks are Winning and Losing in Sport American journalist Shaun Powell surmised that the percentage of blacks participating in a sport should be roughly reflected in the numbers that coach and manage them. The same of course applies to women. Why? Because those who govern athletics in Britain are only hearing one-third of the story; everything that comes to them comes from a white, male perspective. How many of those working in the respective headquarters in Solihull understand the needs of women athletes and coaches? How many can empathise with black athletes and coaches and their lifestyles? Without such understanding there is no mutual way forward. A century of white, Caucasian thought will be further sustained for decades to the detriment of the major Olympic sport in Britain.

And should a woman or black man be lucky enough to be considered for a position in the sport often a dialogue with the deaf ensues and candidates then find, as Powell points out, that the interviewers “rely on a tired formula: Go with whom you know” (and with the present UK hierarchies, whom you employ).

Those who have tried to right these wrongs have soon realised that they have taken on a task of Sisyphus. In order to drill through the concrete ceilings that stop their advancement more cooperation and spirited lobbying is required. Suffrage did not come through women deciding not to ruffle the feathers of men; blacks must remember the courage of Tommie Smith, John Carlos and indeed of the white sprinter Peter Norman who joined their protest on the podium. Each paid a price for his bravery.

In the USA there is a Black Coaches Association and a whole raft of women’s coaches associations in many sports. Over a hundred women athletics coaches turned up in Croydon in August for a women’s coaching conference. They could form the power base of a women’s athletics coaching association. Are these the ways forward to bring about a radical change in a century long age of stereotypical thinking? Only time will tell.

Friday, 11 September 2009

That's All Folks!

As with Bugs Bunny so it is with the ever shortening athletics season. For the general public Athletics 2009 has been about nine, pulsating days in Berlin and Usain Bolt; for aficionados it’s been around nine weeks. But now it’s all over and it’s time to lower the curtains. It is not finis, of course, if you live in the southern hemisphere, where the season is just starting. Not so you’d notice in the northern half of the globe because news from the south is minimal.

When the IAAF launched its new Diamond League in March its President, Lamine Diack said: “It has always been one of our dreams to see the circuit of our best meetings going to each corner of the world. And today, we are all sitting here and are proud to say that the dream has come true.” Well, not quite.

Of the fifteen selected meetings eleven are in Europe, two are in the USA and one each in Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. By not travelling south of the equator great cities like Sydney (2000 Olympics); Melbourne (2006 Commonwealth); Rio de Janeiro (bidding for 2016 Olympics); Auckland (1990 Commonwealth Games); Johannesburg (1998 World Athletics Cup); Cape Town (2010 FIFA World Cup); Jakarta (2011 South-East Asia Games) will not see the world’s very best athletes in action.

How can this be? How is it that other sports like rugby, cricket, golf, tennis, soccer, play at a high level for nine or more months of the year, taking their competitions to southern climes when it is out-of-season in the north (or vice-versa) whilst athletics, apart from some cross-country and indoor, goes into training hibernation after more like nine weeks?

It’s partly habit, of course, the old “well, we’ve always done it this way” beloved of so many in athletics including, regrettably, many coaches. Little research has been carried out on the comparative physiological requirements of different sports but I find it difficult to believe that they are so much greater in track and field than they are in, say, tennis, where the best players, for nine months or so, can play upwards of fifteen hours competitive tennis in a week between flying to venues around the globe. And still train.

Anyway, many athletes run week-in, week-out arduous cross-country races and sprinters and jumpers compete in indoor meetings; athletes of undoubted talent from Australia and New Zealand in particular have always travelled northwards in search of fame and fortune after their summer seasons.

John Landy did it in the fifties as did Herb Elliott, Ron Clarke and Murray Halberg in the following decade. The late Andy Norman persuaded the New Zealanders John Walker, Rod Dixon and Dick Quax to come to Europe every year for the summer season with no detrimental effect on their performances. Most of the above set world records in the northern hemisphere. More recently Craig Mottram ran the Europe circuit for a number of seasons. So it appears that talented southern hemisphere athletes can endure up to eight months of combined competing and training without harmful effects on performance. It surely follows that European and American athletes can do likewise.

To truly reach, with the Diamond League, “each corner of the globe” as Diack put it, the IAAF has to do one of two things. It either has to extend the programme by another six meetings or so or it has to cut down on the number of European meetings on the circuit. Given the close ties between the European promoters and the world governing body this might prove difficult. Some of the proposed meetings have a long history with the Weltklasse at the Leitzegrund track in Zurich, for instance, going back over 80 years.

But if we are to embrace what the IAAF calls “the athletics family” south of the equator, if we are to help develop the sport in that vast area, then tough decision will have to be taken.

The IAAF is to be congratulated on its concept which is certainly more equitable in terms of the distribution of events and of prize money but its success will be governed by the television coverage that it can attract. The whole series needs to be aired ideally on terrestrial television but at least on mainstream satellite and certainly not tucked away on obscure pay-to-view channels in various countries. Without television world-wide the Diamond League will be just another self-indulgent exercise by a sport that needs to frequently convince itself that it is more important than it really is.

A Pretence of Democracy

Steve Backley, one of the world’s all-time great javelin throwers, is the interim vice-president of the UK Members Council a body that meets twice annually to sustain the pretence that democracy reigns in our sport in Britain.

He now has to go through an election process to confirm his original appointment. Knowing Steve as I do then, should there be such an election process (doubtful as you will see), it is more than likely that he would get my vote being perfectly capable of expressing robust views where necessary.

It is the process of this election that should give grave concern to the vast majority of the sport. It is a similar procedure as is operated by England Athletics where recently, some may remember, a challenger to the incumbent chairman was rejected by an Establishment vetting panel appointed to assess candidature suitability.

A similar all-white, all-male athletics establishment junta has been set up to decide whether suggested candidates can become nominations to challenge Steve. Whilst not suggesting that the vetting panel has anything but fairness and the good of the sport at heart it is surely right to point out that the process is open to abuse and manipulation. It is also a process (no doubt instigated by our unelected sporting quangos)that looks so daunting that very few would seemingly wish to undertake it which is probably the whole purpose of the exercise.

What is extraordinary is the submissiveness of the rank and field of British athletics to the processes that have over the past twelve years eroded its ability to influence the development of the sport. Typical of the docility has been the total lack of protest and even comment on the administrative changes made by England leading to the abolition of the nine regional offices and as a consequence the demotion of the nine regional councils to talking shops. The auguries for the replacements are not propitious but all this has been greeted by a deafening silence.

“To stand in silence,” said Abraham Lincoln, “when they should be protesting makes cowards out of men.”

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Pawns of Power

Twice in twenty-one years two young South African women athletes have been caught up in the power politics of world sport. In 1988, Zola Budd a 21 year old white woman from the highveld near Bloemfontein became a pawn in the battle to save the Seoul Olympics from yet another boycott. In 2009 Caster Semenya an 18 year old black woman from Aganang in Limpopo province has been deemed the victim of sexism and racism by no less a man than Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa.

Budd was an extraordinarily talented runner who set records in South Africa that would never be recognised because the country was ostracised from world sport through its apartheid policies. As her grandfather was English the 17 year old was rushed to Britain by her avaricious father Frank, received a passport almost overnight and was thus eligible to compete in the Los Angeles Olympics. Controversy rode her back from that moment.

Whilst in LA she inadvertently tripped-tumbled to the track the American favourite Mary Slaney ensuring that neither of them would win a medal and earning for herself a lasting notoriety. Over the next three years she won two world cross-country championships and set British and Commonwealth records. But most of the time she was homesick, spending more and more time in Bloemfontein finally catching the eye of Sam Ramsamy, the powerful head of SANROC (South African Non Racial Olympic Committee). The frail, diminutive runner, it seemed to him, was a God given gift as the epitome of apartheid.

The 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh had been boycotted because of renegade rugby and other sport’s tours to South Africa. New Zealand was fearful that its 1990 Games in Auckland would suffer the same fate; it was also due to stage the World cross-country championships in 1988 where Budd was due to run. Horse-trading took place between the country and SANROC. The deal was that if the Kiwis kept Budd out of the championships SANROC would ensure there would be no boycott of the Commonwealth Games. The campaign was successful; Budd was harassed on cross-country courses in England; Scandinavian and African countries wrote to the IAAF asking for an investigation. The story was world-wide news; the pressures on Budd were enormous. The British Amateur Athletic Board (BAAB) reluctantly withdrew her from the team as much for her sake as anyone else’s.

The President of the IAAF, Primo Nebiolo had assured the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President, Juan Antonio Samaranch that Budd would not be in Seoul thus preventing yet another boycott. In March, 1988 the IAAF suspended Budd until its next Council meeting, ironically to be held in London, alleging that she had “taken part” in meetings in South Africa.

The IAAF Council and the world’s media descended on the Park Lane Hotel in April. It was a weekend of obduracy on all sides. Press conference followed press conference. The BAAB, to its everlasting credit, refused to condemn Budd until evidence was produced that showed that she had participated in meetings in South Africa. That evidence was never forthcoming. All she had done was follow a road race on a bicycle and then at a track meeting been introduced to the crowd. The IAAF construed this as “taking part”; the BAAB did not.

Sensing blood after the New Zealand affair the big guns of African sport joined in, including Lamine Diack from Senegal, IAAF Council member and President of the African Athletics Confederation (CAA) who led the attack on Budd and the BAAB. This is the same Lamine Diack, now President of the IAAF, whose organisation has been accused of racism in the matter of Semenya.

The IAAF instructed Britain to conveniently ban Budd for twelve months. Failure to do so would lead to the country being banned from the Olympics. The BAAB demurred and decided to hold its own investigation. Zola’s formidable Afrikaner mother Tossie flew in, saw the state of her daughter and sent her back to South Africa. The saga and the investigation were over.

There is no doubt in my mind that if the BAAB inquiry had followed its course the conclusion would have been that Budd did not compete in South Africa and a massive confrontation with the IAAF and IOC would have taken place. Budd’s return to South Africa halted that. This had been power politics at its worst and did the IAAF little credit.

South Africa re-entered the sporting fold with the release of Nelson Mandela and the return of democracy. Budd represented her country at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
On the surface there is little similarity between the cases of Budd and Semenya but dig deeper and they soon appear. Declaring just hours before her running in the 800 final in Berlin that gender tests were to be carried out on Semenya was an act of insensitivity for which the IAAF has been roundly condemned. The last thing that SANROC, CAA, IAAF considered in their eagerness to outdo the others in the Budd case was the athlete herself, taken at age 17 from a cloistered environment in Bloemfontein and cast on to the world stage in a matter of weeks. In both instances a duty of care was absent.

The disingenuousness of Athletics South Africa knows no bounds; its president Leonard Chuene comes out of the Semenya affair with little credit. It studiously ignored the extraordinary improvement of over 16 seconds in 13 months by the young woman; it never asked the question ‘why?’ Clearly without forethought Chuene immediately accused one of the world great multi-ethnic organisations and its black president of racism, an accusation that is so crass as to deserve the derision heaped upon it. Nonetheless such nonsense hasn’t stopped prominent politicians like Jacob Zuma and Winnie Mandela getting in on the act. Inexorably it seems both the IAAF and South Africa are backing themselves into corners from which it will be difficult to extricate themselves without losing face.

In 1986 Diack refused to present Zola Budd with the gold medal at the world cross-country championships; 20 years later at an IAAF Golden Gala he invited her to be his special guest, calling her ‘one of the athletics family’. Budd, now living in South Carolina on a two year work visa so that she can run (successfully) in the American Masters Classics road running series, was stunned. I wonder what she, now 43, thinks as she views the Semenya case.

The media frenzy that followed Zola for four years in the eighties is long gone; for Caster, I suspect, it is just beginning. What is clearly needed is not wild speculation and even wilder headlines but compassion for the young woman from Limpopo.

Honouring Arthur

It’s good to know that moves are afoot to celebrate the life of Arthur Wharton, the world’s first black professional footballer, by erecting a statue to him in the town of Darlington where he arrived in the 1880’s from what is now Ghana. As a goalkeeper he played not only for Darlington but for Preston, Rotherham and Sheffield United. Perhaps athletics should follow suit in view of his achievements.

Wharton was also a great sprinter, I guess the Usain Bolt of his time. In the AAA Championships of 1886, running on cinders at the old Stamford Bridge track in London he set a world best time for 100 yards of 10 seconds, the celebrated ‘even time’. It was later ratified by the AAA for record purposes.

Wharton was a great all-rounder (he represented Darlington Cricket Club at the AAA’s) who after his triumph joined the famous Birchfield Harriers based in Birmingham. He won the AAA’s title again at Stourbridge Cricket Club the following year and then became a successful professional ‘pedestrian’. In 1889 Arthur turned full-time professional footballer. His running days were over for, as Peter Matthews drily points out in The Guinness Book of Athletics Facts & Feats (1982) his goalkeeping “presumably giving him little chance to exploit his speed.”

After his sporting career Arthur Wharton worked for 15 years as a colliery haulage hand in Yorkshire. He died in 1930 after ‘a long and painful illness’ (presumably emphysema) and was buried in an unmarked grave in the pit village of Edlington, a forgotten star. In the late 20th century a football fund raised the money for a headstone which has been in place since 1997. If you want more details go to

Who is we?

I frequently go to the UK Athletics website in the vain hope of gleaning information about what is going on in that organisation. For far too many weeks now I’ve been greeted by a large photo of Olympic champion Christine Ohuruogu standing somewhat sheepishly in front of a blackboard, chalk in hand, on which is written 3½ times, We must get kids more active. Presumably she has been given one hundred lines for not doing so. What I really want to know before the photo is thankfully removed is: who is the 'we'?