Athletics Weekly - - Spotlight - PIC­TURES: MARK SHEAR­MAN

IFELL in love with ath­let­ics as a young­ster and I am be­com­ing in­creas­ingly con­cerned about its well-be­ing. Ad­di­tion­ally, I be­lieve the en­vis­aged prob­lems of the fu­ture ac­tu­ally took root dur­ing the years of in­volve­ment by my gen­er­a­tion and there­fore there is a feel­ing of guilt.

For many years cross coun­try has been re­garded as the foun­da­tion of en­durance events and al­most all our top en­durance ath­letes, whether 800m or marathon run­ners, have fea­tured promi­nently in cross coun­try at some stage of their de­vel­op­ment. The only real ex­cep­tions are those ath­letes who stepped up from 400m to 800m.

There­fore ex­am­in­ing the win­ter sea­son might be a good start­ing point to dis­cover what is go­ing amiss, the likely cause and a pos­si­ble so­lu­tion to the prob­lem.

The high­point of any sea­son should be the world or Euro­pean cham­pi­onships for those gain­ing se­lec­tion, but for the ma­jor­ity of ath­letes it should be the na­tional cham­pi­onships and the In­ter-Coun­ties.

The lat­ter event pro­vides the op­por­tu­nity for the bet­ter class run­ners from the in­di­vid­ual do­mes­tic coun­tries to com­pete against each other in a mean­ing­ful com­pe­ti­tion. Sadly, the re­cent main do­mes­tic events can­not com­pare with past stan­dards.

The events them­selves are ex­cel­lent with real cross coun­try cour­ses, tough and de­mand­ing and the huge num­ber of par­tic­i­pants are ably man­aged by, un­doubt­edly, the best of­fi­cials in the world. Why then do we have rea­son to be pes­simistic?

In the past the In­ter-Coun­ties was some­times re­ferred to as the Na­tion­als with­out the strag­glers. Ath­letes fought to rep­re­sent their county and it en­abled teams like York­shire to re­vive the War of the Roses with Lan­cashire and any other county that picked up the gaunt­let. Yet lately some of th­ese coun­ties have strug­gled to field a full­strength team.

The English Na­tional was, in the past, re­garded as a big event in terms of im­por­tance and pres­tige is now only re­garded as big in terms of the num­ber of par­tic­i­pants. The re­cent cham­pi­onships fea­ture a spec­tac­u­lar cav­alry charge at the gun and, as the races progress, there is a stream of never-end­ing run­ners and even­tu­ally the lapped run­ners al­most ob­scure the lead­ers. There are a num­ber of good ath­letes at the sharp end but, sadly, not great depth.

It is now a case of ‘never mind the qual­ity, feel the width!’

Per­haps an in­sight into the prob­lem was il­lus­trated by an ar­ti­cle in AW last year about an ath­lete who had com­pleted 47 con­sec­u­tive Na­tional cross coun­try cham­pi­onships. I re­spect age­ing ath­letes who are still ac­tive but about 20% of the first 600 fin­ish­ers are now veter­ans and heaven knows the over­all per­cent­age.

Any na­tional cham­pi­onships, whether on track or coun­try, should surely be a con­test of the best? Num­bers need to be re­stricted to ath­letes com­pe­tent of a cer­tain stan­dard and there is no rea­son why any com­pe­tent vet­eran should not be in­cluded. But our prime event should not be open to all and sundry.

Man’s aim should al­ways ex­ceed his grasp. To com­pete in a na­tional cham­pi­onship should be a chal­lenge and not the re­sult of le­niency. Any low­er­ing of en­try stan­dards will never achieve im­prove­ment.

Ba­si­cally the prob­lem we face in cross coun­try is a de­te­ri­o­ra­tion in stan­dard of our main events and a lack of depth at the sharp end. The cause, I be­lieve, is a lack of in­cen­tive which has brought a change of at­ti­tude.

Some years ago top ath­letes com­peted in the Na­tion­als in the hope of gain­ing se­lec­tion for the World Cross Coun­try Cham­pi­onships or its equiv­a­lent. As there is no longer se­lec­tion at stake there is lit­tle in­cen­tive for bet­ter class ath­letes to take part and they turn their at­ten­tion to other at­trac­tions, pos­si­bly more lu­cra­tive road races. Even in the In­ter-Coun­ties some of the main ath­letes may not have taken part in it if it had not been in­volved in the fi­nan­cially re­ward­ing Cross Chal­lenge se­ries.

In com­par­ing the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion with the past, it is nec­es­sary to re­mem­ber that the world has changed and we need to adapt to such changes. At the same time we must ac­cept that not all changes have been ben­e­fi­cial and there is a need to re­tain some of the old meth­ods.

A ma­jor prob­lem is that many of my gen­er­a­tion and I sus­pect that many of the older ath­letes who, over the years, have run in the Na­tion­als are tra­di­tion­al­ists and most re­luc­tant to change. Tra­di­tion dies hard.

In seek­ing a so­lu­tion, I re­call as a young­ster hav­ing a prob­lem with boils and car­bun­cles. In those days there were no magic pills or an­tibi­otics, home treat­ment was un­sci­en­tific and painful but it worked. It worked on the prin­ci­pal that some­times it was nec­es­sary to be cruel in or­der to be kind.

That may be the at­ti­tude we need to adopt in or­der to re­store our ma­jor events to their for­mer glory. It may mean ruf­fling some feath­ers, hurt­ing some feel­ings but much more im­por­tant it may re­quire a break from tra­di­tion.

Fund­ing is de­pen­dent on what we achieve on the global stage so we need to plan and use com­mon sense in our prepa­ra­tions for such a chal­lenge. Rad­i­cal change may be re­quired.

The World Cross Coun­try

Cham­pi­onships is now a bi­en­nial event and we should be per­sua­sive in get­ting sim­i­lar sta­tus for the Euro Cross Coun­try Cham­pi­onships and staged in al­ter­na­tive years with the World Cross. This would en­sure a ma­jor cham­pi­onships each March.

Us­ing Na­tional or In­ter-Coun­ties Cham­pi­onships as se­lec­tion races would pro­vide in­cen­tive for top ath­letes to par­tic­i­pate but they would need to be held at a date con­ducive to ath­letes peak­ing at the right time.

At present the Euro Cross is usu­ally held at about the same date as the county cham­pi­onships, but what ath­lete re­ally wants to be at peak fit­ness at that stage in the sea­son? It is akin to a track ath­lete hit­ting peak form in May.

The dif­fi­culty will be to per­suade the tra­di­tion­al­ists that if we are to suc­ceed at ma­jor level, our cross coun­try com­pe­ti­tion cal­en­dar would re­quire some re­fig­ur­ing. Fu­ture suc­cess may be de­pen­dent on what we are pre­pared to give up, or change, in pur­suit of such suc­cess.

One of the draw­backs of cross coun­try is that it does not put bums on seats, spec­tat­ing is free and events do not at­tract TV. So it is de­pen­dent on fund­ing from what­ever source. Suc­cess at­tracts fund­ing.

Veter­ans may be up­set at such sug­ges­tions but they should ac­cept that cur­rent meth­ods are not greatly suc­cess­ful. They should also re­mem­ber that they do ac­tu­ally have their own na­tional cham­pi­onships so they are not re­ally be­ing de­prived.

In wel­com­ing fu­ture gen­er­a­tions into se­nior ranks, we must en­sure that we pro­vide the op­por­tu­ni­ties and in­cen­tives to help them suc­ceed at the high­est level. We have the best of­fi­cials in the world in cross coun­try. Let us do what­ever is nec­es­sary to be able to say the same about our ath­letes.

Changes will not oc­cur overnight. It will take time and in­volve lengthy dis­cus­sions and ne­go­ti­a­tions. It will be dif­fi­cult to amend the fix­tures cal­en­dar but not im­pos­si­ble.

Mo Farah has shown what is pos­si­ble. The Kenyans can be beaten. Not ev­ery time but they are beat­able. What Farah needs is a depth of sup­port and we must pro­vide the means to pro­duce that strength in depth. Things will only hap­pen if we make them hap­pen.


When it comes to road rac­ing and the marathon and half-marathon, ath­letes and coaches need to ap­pre­ci­ate that se­lec­tion is not just about get­ting a track­suit or im­prov­ing a CV but ac­tu­ally pro­duc­ing a per­for­mance on the day what­ever cli­matic con­di­tions ex­ist. When rep­re­sent­ing Great Bri­tain and North­ern Ire­land at ma­jor level, se­lected ath­letes have a duty to at­tain rac­ing fit­ness and this is only pos­si­ble by a bal­anced prepa­ra­tion of train­ing and rac­ing.

As a for­mer King Scout, I have never for­got­ten our motto “Be Pre­pared”. Some years later, hav­ing been made re­dun­dant, I ob­tained a job teach­ing painting and decorating which re­minded me of that scout motto. The great ma­jor­ity of time and ef­fort in­volved in decorating is in prepa­ra­tion. No mat­ter how ex­pen­sive the ma­te­rial, or how skilled the dec­o­ra­tor, per­fec­tion will never be achieved if the prepa­ra­tion is not of the high­est stan­dard. Any blem­ish will show through and spoil the fin­ished ar­ti­cle.

Ath­let­ics is ex­actly the same and ne­glect or short cuts will lead to poor re­sults. If you take out a mere hand­ful of ath­letes, we are left with a sit­u­a­tion where a num­ber of ath­letes do not ap­pear to know where they are go­ing or how to get there. More wor­ry­ing, is that the peo­ple run­ning our sport do not seem in­ter­ested in giv­ing sup­port or di­rec­tion to the ath­letes who are not listed as ‘podium po­ten­tial’.

How­ever, the main prob­lem lies with ath­letes and their coaches. Few of those who would like to run in ma­jor cham­pi­onships have given much in­di­ca­tion that their prepa­ra­tions are de­serv­ing of such an hon­our. How many, for ex­am­ple, test them­selves in marathons or half-marathons that are run in typ­i­cally warm cham­pi­onship con­di­tions or in small fields with no pace­mak­ers? If not, why not? We need to send trades­men to ma­jor events and not ap­pren­tices.

There are of course dif­fer­ent ways to pre­pare for a marathon, just as there are dif­fer­ent ways to climb a moun­tain. Climbers do not make their de­but on Ever­est, nor do they pre­pare on Ben

Ne­vis. They gain ex­pe­ri­ence by grad­u­ally in­creas­ing both the sever­ity and height of their climbs and even­tu­ally ar­rive at base camp in peak con­di­tion, ready for their fi­nal as­sault.

They need to show their met­tle. They have not got there with­out plan­ning their route and tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion the con­di­tions they will face. Nor will they have ar­rived at the base camp with­out planned as­sis­tance and fi­nan­cial sup­port.

If we want our ath­letes to join those who stand at the top of the world, there needs to be a change of at­ti­tude by ath­letes, coaches and the gov­ern­ing body. All con­cerned can learn from climbers, the right prepa­ra­tion and sup­port.

Mo Farah is world class at any dis­tance or on any sur­face but we need to pre­pare for a fu­ture with­out him. It needs the gov­ern­ing body to get in­volved, to take the lead and also take a greater in­ter­est in both cross coun­try and road run­ning, es­pe­cially in the se­nior men’s sec­tion. Ath­letes and coaches must also recog­nise that suc­cess is the re­sult of not only cor­rect but long term prepa­ra­tion to be rac­ing fit on the day that mat­ters.

The fu­ture is both an op­por­tu­nity and a chal­lenge. We have the ta­lent to take the op­por­tu­nity and meet the chal­lenge but all con­cerned must work to­wards that com­mon goal.

We have the best of­fi­cials in the world, let us be able to say we have the best ath­letes as well.

Tony Mor­rell: the 1:44 800m man and 3:51 miler was one of many top run­ners coached by Gor­don Sur­tees

Quan­tity over qual­ity: Gor­don Sur­tees felt it has be­come too easy to en­ter the Na­tional Cross Coun­try Cham­pi­onships

Ikem Billy: another sub1:45 800m man coached

by Sur­tees

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