Tom McNab’s post-Lon­don ver­dict


Athletics Weekly - - News -

LAST WEEK, I wrote about the treat­ment of athletics as a com­mod­ity, rather than as a sport fol­low­ing Michael John­son’s com­ments that the less pop­u­lar events in our sport should be scrapped. Re­move events and you deny youth the op­por­tu­nity to test them­selves in them, and the events die.

But there is also no ev­i­dence that re­plac­ing a few “un­pop­u­lar” events would in­crease pub­lic in­ter­est in athletics. There are other fac­tors that might im­pact the pop­u­lar­ity of our sport, some of which were raised – di­rectly or in­di­rectly – by John­son.

De­par­ture of Usain Bolt

If athletics lacks the strength to sur­vive the de­par­ture of Usain Bolt, then it does not de­serve to ex­ist. What John­son was re­fer­ring to was me­dia in­ter­est. Now any loss there is regrettable, but the fu­ture of athletics par­tic­i­pa­tion does not rest upon the me­dia. In the USA, there is vir­tu­ally no TV in­ter­est in athletics, but it nev­er­the­less has a thriv­ing high school and col­lege cul­ture. Athletics has al­most cer­tainly been de­clin­ing in Europe for the past two decades, for dif­fer­ent rea­sons and at vary­ing rates in dif­fer­ent coun­tries, and it is a pity that the IAAF has failed to keep reg­u­lar tem­per­a­ture checks.

Mak­ing Bolt some sort of globe-trot­ting IAAF am­bas­sador will be like a fly danc­ing on a can­non­ball. This is be­cause the process of de­vel­op­ing athletics is lo­cal, and clubs cre­ate gov­ern­ing bod­ies, not the other way around. And grow­ing the sport at lo­cal level is a slow, low-key en­durance event, not a pub­lic re­la­tions sprint.

When I first started, in 1949 with Shet­tle­ston Har­ri­ers, ath­letes ar­rived from schools in their mid-teens. Now they ar­rive in hordes about five years ear­lier. There is con­se­quently a much greater wastage-rate. Our clubs are still ran­domly-based, but most are ill-equipped to deal with large groups of chil­dren, and we have no practically-based na­tional syl­labus. Few clubs have even a sin­gle ex­pe­ri­enced coach of qual­ity in each of the tech­ni­cal events. That said, in those post-war days our gov­ern­ing bod­ies were pas­sive, there was no coach­ing, and the com­pet­i­tive pro­gramme was sparse. So we have come a long way. Our cur­rent prob­lem is that a de­creas­ing vol­ume of se­nior ath­letes means a smaller pool from which to draw fu­ture vol­un­teers.

The Gatlin ef­fect

This was a topic of heated dis­cus­sion be­tween John­son and Steve Cram in the BBC stu­dio. Firstly, the crowd did us no favours as a sport­ing na­tion by boo­ing him. As John­son said, the IAAF ban was too short, and that al­lowed Gatlin to sur­vive and go on to com­pete in Lon­don. And no one booed the other medal­lists who had been con­victed of drug of­fences. Gatlin was tar­geted be­cause he could, and would, spoil the Bolt farewell party.

Where John­son was spot on was in stat­ing the main prob­lem for the IAAF was Rus­sian state­spon­sored dop­ing. What he did not say was that it had al­ready ex­isted in the Com­mu­nist bloc for over half a cen­tury, dur­ing which the IAAF had turned a blind eye to it. And what he did not say was that other East­ern bloc dop­ing at gov­ern­mentlevel had van­ished since 1992, so dop­ing as a whole has al­most cer­tainly de­creased since then. A re­luc­tance by the IAAF to face in­con­ve­nient truths goes right back to their for­ma­tion in 1913. In 1912, the Swedish Fed­er­a­tion had parked their en­tire Olympic team in Stock­holm for over three months, in clear breach of am­a­teur rules. Eight years later came Amer­i­can col­lege scholarships, pro­vid­ing free ed­u­ca­tion in re­turn for ath­letic ser­vices. Both of these breaches were ig­nored by the IAAF.

In the 1933-36 pe­riod, both they and the IOC ig­nored the bla­tant per­se­cu­tion of Jewish ath­letes. Only John­son’s AAU took at­ten­dance in the 1936

Berlin Olympics to a vote, which was lost by a mere one and a half votes. And after WWII the IAAF ig­nored the East­ern bloc de­ploy­ment of reg­i­ments of state-spon­sored ath­letes. This pat­tern of eva­sion had been by then firmly es­tab­lished. East­ern bloc of­fi­cials were privy to every IAAF de­ci­sion on drugs.

Con­cerned par­ents

Seb Coe claimed that par­ents would be re­luc­tant to bring their chil­dren into athletics be­cause of dop­ing. I have spent over 50 years of my life with par­ents, and that is­sue has never once arisen. Their chil­dren are much more likely to make con­tact with drugs at their lo­cal youth club, or even at their school. For over a cen­tury French par­ents have known that the Tour de France was ran­cid with drugs, but there is no ev­i­dence that they ever kept their chil­dren away from cycling clubs.

There are things that should change. It should un­doubt­edly be the IOC that funds the drugtest­ing pro­gramme. Leav­ing it to in­di­vid­ual na­tions, some of them with cor­rupt gov­ern­ments, is a recipe for dis­as­ter. Every ath­lete in the top 20 should be tested by an in­de­pen­dent IOC-funded body reg­u­larly. It should con­tain not only testers, but FBI-qual­ity in­ves­ti­ga­tors at phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal and whistle­blower-level. We need an ab­so­lutely ruth­less or­gan­i­sa­tion, to­tally in­de­pen­dent of gov­ern­ing bod­ies.

Relay medal de­bate

John­son came down hard on the GB re­sults in Lon­don, in terms of value for money. He has a case, but it would be wrong to de-value relay medals. Toni Minichiello made the strong point that the num­ber of ath­letes win­ning in­di­vid­ual medals un­der Bri­tish coaches had dropped to zero. And Goldie Say­ers ob­served that we had filled so few places in field events. She also made the point that other sports had a stronger body of paid coaches from top to bot­tom. What we may be see­ing here is an en­gine which is no longer con­nected to the wheels. My grand­daugh­ter is Bri­tish age-16 100m freestyle swim­ming cham­pion, but from the out­set she has been pro­fes­sion­ally coached. She was also world-ranked as an un­der-15 in biathlon, with a

4:50 1500m. But her athletics and swim­ming ex­pe­ri­ences were poles apart in qual­ity.

It would be the ul­ti­mate logic to have all of our po­ten­tial medal­lists coached by the world’s best coaches, but that takes a mech­a­nis­tic view of coach­ing, putting it on the same level as surgery. Coach­ing is about the per­sonal re­la­tion­ship be­tween coach and ath­lete. The re­la­tion­ship be­tween Minichiello and En­nis changed from meet­ing her at age 11, guid­ing her through ado­les­cence into adult life, in what is a very tech­ni­cal event. Would hand­ing her over to a for­eign coach in 2011 have pro­duced the same re­sult? Yet that nearly hap­pened.

Lottery fund­ing

John­son has a point in terms of how we have de­ployed our Lottery money. But it will not be easy to re­solve, be­cause it is ul­ti­mately de­pen­dent on a very high qual­ity of vi­sion­ary lead­er­ship, a three-di­men­sional un­der­stand­ing of per­for­mance, de­ploy­ing every re­source at our com­mand. Ten years ago, if any­one had sug­gested to me that Bri­tish gym­nas­tics would be ahead of most Euro­pean na­tions, then I would have scoffed. Yet they have done it. And so can we, by us­ing our ex­ist­ing re­sources to cre­ate rich ath­letic ed­u­ca­tion pro­grammes for novices, var­ied and at­trac­tive types of com­pe­ti­tion, coach ed­u­ca­tion rooted in suc­cess­ful prac­tice. We can trans­form our sport, by pro­vid­ing a rich ex­pe­ri­ence of athletics at every level. This will not be easy, and it will take time.

Are we at cri­sis point?

John­son’s claim that athletics is at a cri­sis point as a sport needs re­vis­it­ing. Re­ally? What cri­sis? Cer­tainly, the IAAF has to clean up its sta­ble, but the fu­ture of the sport as a par­tic­i­pant ac­tiv­ity is at lo­cal level, and ex­presses it­self dif­fer­ently in every na­tion. And, with­out be­ing com­pla­cent, I think that, with some changes of em­pha­sis, we can be as ef­fec­tive as any na­tion on earth. And its po­si­tion at the heart of the Olympic Games is al­ways go­ing to be a trump card. Athletics is, I sus­pect, at a static point in most na­tions, with ex­cep­tions like Ja­maica, where it is now a ma­jor sport. And if it is grow­ing in other na­tions like China, it is from a very low base. I doubt if we will see any rad­i­cal de­vel­op­ments in Europe, and noth­ing will hap­pen in the United States.

Im­pact of TV pre­sen­ters

John­son made no com­ment on the im­pact of TV pre­sen­ta­tion of athletics. Prob­a­bly just as well. I deal mainly with coaches and ad­min­is­tra­tors, and the gen­eral feel­ing among them is that there is too much vac­u­ous blether­ing, too lit­tle hu­mour and lit­tle depth of in­sight. One of the best mo­ments at the worlds came in the de­bate be­tween Cram and John­son over Bolt/Gatlin. That was, for a brief mo­ment, re­al­ity.

But it was sig­nif­i­cant that when the sub­ject of coach­ing came up ear­lier from Toni Minichiello, it pe­tered out pretty quickly. TV pre­sen­ta­tion could be im­proved, but I am not cer­tain that it would re­sult in greater view­ing num­bers.

Usain Bolt and Justin Gatlin: each has left a legacy that will change the sport for­ever

Toni Minichiello: high­lighted the lack of medals won by ath­letes train­ing with Bri­tish coaches

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