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.