Tom McNab’s post-London verdict
IN PART TWO OF HIS LONDON 2017 ANALYSIS, TOM McNAB LOOKS AT HOW THE SPORT CAN BOOST PARTICIPATION AND PERFORMANCE
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.
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.
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