FORMER 800m STAR IKEM BILLY GIVES MELANIE ANNING SOME STRONG VIEWS ON THE BRITISH ATHLETICS LEADERSHIP CRISIS AND CURRENT 800m STANDARDS
Ex-middle-distance runner delivers strong views on UKA’s leadership crisis
ONE of the country’s best 800m runners in history, Ikem
Billy is not short of some strong views. “British Athletics is in a mess,” he says, “and needs people running it who know the sport and have the commercial acumen to take it forwards.”
Not surprisingly, for anyone who knows this straight-talking former athlete, he also has some ideas about who could fix it.
Billy is an unforgettable name for many athletics fans from the 1980s. He was a prodigious middle-distance talent, winning the European junior 800m title in Vienna in 1983.
The following year, aged 20, he ran a PB of 1:44.65 but missed out on an Olympic spot in the era of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Peter Elliott.
Billy did gain a global 800m medal at the 1985 World Indoor Championships. His best time outdoors is still No.13 on the UK 800m rankings and his UK indoor 600m record of 1:17.6 stood for 29 years.
However, his senior career was marred by injury and he retired from athletics at the tender age of 28.
Now 54, he lives in Batley near Leeds and works as the UK sales manager for a Healthcare company.
AW: What do you remember about your early days in athletics?
IB: I was 13 when I first represented England in a cross country schools’ international. I finished sixth and Peter Elliott won that race. It’s where we met and we’ve been mates ever since.
I won about 70 races on the trot, but around the age of 15 I got bored of cross-country. It was hard and I couldn’t be bothered, so I just did it for fun. When I was 17 I started training for the 800m. Everything clicked into place and I went from 1:55 down to 1:50 at the English Schools.
I was the fastest junior in the UK. Suddenly I was running for Great Britain juniors and everything took off.
My coach at Wirral AC encouraged me to switch to Gordon Surtees, who he believed could, ‘take me to another level’.
AW: How important was Gordon in your development?
IB: I was trained to race. Gordon’s philosophy was:
“You win the race, you get the times.” All my personal bests were set coming first.
In my first year with him I couldn’t break 1:50, then
Andy Norman (former promotions director of the
British Athletics Federation) invited me to compete in the Loughborough vs AAA match. I didn’t have a clue and then Seb Coe turns up. Gordon and I decided that I’d stay at the back and sprint with 200m to go and see what happened.
Seb won it in 1:44.99 and I finished fifth in 1:47 dead, which was the fastest time in the world for a junior. I had lots of offers to go to American colleges but decided to go to Loughborough.
AW: Talk us through the 1983 European Juniors
IB: We knew there would be four races in four days and the plan was to front run everything apart from the final. First round I ran 1:50 dead. Second and third rounds were both 1:48 and I won easily. For the final Gordon said: “Don’t front run and see what happens.” I remember coming off the bend and putting the brakes on and everyone panicked and slowed down so I just went.
There were no screens or clocks back then but Gordon was standing at 600m and we trained to get there in 80 seconds and then kick off it. I hit it in 80.1. My brain was just like a metronome, I could just run it. I was doing that every day so I kicked and I ran 1:47.1. I knew from that point on that I could front run 1:47.
My reward from the European Juniors was a couple of sponsorships and Andy Norman decided to take me to Australia and New Zealand for warmweather training with the senior squad. I travelled with a group including Peter Elliott, Dave Moorcroft, Steve Cram, Allan Wells, John Walker, Shireen Bailey and Lorraine Baker. It was like a who’s who of British Athletics.
AW: The 1984 Olympic 800m trial was loaded. What were your expectations?
IB: You will never get a trial like that again anywhere in Britain. It was a Wednesday night. The heats were at 7pm and the final was at 9.20pm. There were eight heats and 64 athletes. I ran a PB of 1:46.8 in the first heat.
In the final I came second and was beaten by one tenth of a second by Peter Elliott. Steve Cram and everyone else was behind me. I ran 1:46.1 and thought I could go to the Los Angeles Olympics, until Andy Norman told me that wasn’t going to happen as the spot was for the defending champion Ovett. My response to Andy is unprintable.
AW: When you look back on that decision how do you feel?
IB: Shortly after I had a race-off with Ovett. I tripped on the bend and he beat me fair and square, but just before the Olympics I beat him in a meet at Larvik (the first British athlete to do so for some years) and later I ran the second fastest time in the world prior to the Olympics.
I think we should have the same system as the Americans – first three in the trials with a qualifying time are selected.
AW: Could you have won a medal in Los Angeles?
IB: Looking back, Joaquim Cruz and Seb Coe were phenomenal but if I had been in that final, who knows?
AW: Did you over-race in 1984?
IB: I ran 800m 46 times that year with an average time of 1:46.2. It was too much as I normally did 10 and my only regret is that it probably contributed to my future injuries.
AW: You never ran as fast again. What happened?
IB: In 1985 I was 20 and won a bronze at the World Indoors in Paris, which was quite good as I wasn’t that fit. However, I also realised that my ankles were knackered when my left one
“LOOKING BACK, JOAQUIM CRUZ AND
SEB COE WERE PHENOMENAL BUT IF I HAD BEEN IN THAT FINAL, WHO
IKEM BILLY, on the Los Angeles Olympic
Games 800m final
caved in. It took three years including nine months in plaster before I could run again. I came back in 1989 and I reckon I was a better athlete than I was in 1984. Although I wasn’t running as fast, I won more races and was running 1:45 consistently and winning. I knew what to do and was more experienced.
AW: At the end of 1990 you stopped being a full-time athlete
IB: In 1990 I won the AAA’s and went to Auckland for the Commonwealth Games, but that year I made a decision about my future, which was to take a graduate job.
In 1992 I came back as a full-time athlete and was in the shape of my life. I was doing 600s faster than in 1984. In a training session I went through 400m in 47.6 and pulled a hamstring and I was out for a year. I didn’t want to retire at 28 but had no choice. I was like a Rolls-Royce with very little mileage on the clock!
AW: What was your relationship like with Andy Norman?
IB: Everyone hated him but he represented me and he gave me breaks. People talk about how corrupt he was but they forget that he also did a lot of good for athletics. He helped develop young talent. He would go to a grand prix event and say ‘you can have Steve Cram, Steve Ovett or Seb Coe, but you have to take six youngsters as well’. He would give you two or three chances and if you didn’t make it he would kick you out for a year. I think we need someone like Andy now, without the bad bits.
AW: In 2012 there were newspaper headlines that Norman had given you $10,000 to ensure Seb Coe won his farewell race in 1989. Was this true?
IB: This was lifted from a conversation in an online runner’s forum, taken out of context and reproduced without my permission. Andy had offered me double my appearance fee, but Seb had no knowledge of this. I was happy to take the money and it didn’t have any impact on my position in the race. Seb had beaten me just before that in Italy.
AW: What do you think about men’s middle distance running today in Britain?
IB: British athletes are running 800m times now that we were running 35 years ago. I don’t understand how we cannot produce 800m runners faster than I was. I think there’s too much money around. If you get lottery funding, you take your foot off the pedal unless you’re a leading athlete.
Also some athletes are leaving good middle-distance coaches to go and join British Athleticsbacked coaches where some of them get worse. My message – just stay where you are, you don’t need to go anywhere else.
We’re also getting overly excited about young kids. No one cares when you win the English Schools. No one cares about the European or World Juniors. It’s about what you do as a senior athlete that’s important. You’ve got to make it through.
AW: Who are the next generation of middle-distance stars?
IB: Andrew Osagie was one of the best athletes I’ve seen in this era with eighth place in the 2012 Olympics behind the greatest 800m runner ever, David Rudisha, but what’s happened since then? I know there are five athletes who ran 1:45 this season but so what, where did they finish? 1:45 is not going to get you in a final at any World Champs or Olympics.
I rate Jake Wightman – someone who can run 1:44 over 800m and 3:33 over 1500m. Elliot Giles could be very good and Kyle Langford is a talent who reminds me of Tom McKean.
Generally I think athletes need to learn to race again. In my era we ran the county’s, the regionals and the nationals. They don’t seem to do that anymore. They just do the BMC. They’re chasing a rabbit.
AW: Are you hopeful for the future of British Athletics?
IB: I think British Athletics needs to bring in people who know and love the sport and have the commercial experience. I watched the Athletics World Cup and there was no one in the stands. I go to watch Diamond Leagues every year. We can go to Monaco – one of the most expensive places in the world and tickets are seven euros. In Stockholm and Oslo the tickets are 20 euros. Some of the tickets in London were £155 and they wondered why the stadium was empty.
AW: With the departure of Niels de Vos from UKA who would you like to see in charge?
IB: Former athlete Jack Buckner. He was marketing director of adidas, chief executive of British Triathlon and in market development for Sport England and he’s now head of English Swimming. He’s been a CEO and he knows what it takes.
The other one would be Nigel Walker, an international in both athletics and rugby, a former head of sport at BBC Wales, who’s now director of the National Institute of Sport. Why aren’t people like that being used to run our sport?
AW: How do you keep fit now?
IB: I cycle. I’ve also learned to swim over the last seven months and go every morning. I’m trying to build up my aerobic capacity so I can run again. I’m not ruling out competing. All my mates are doing masters but if I do it will be over 400m maximum.
AW: What advice would you give to your younger self?
IB: Don’t run as many races. I was 19 years old and ran around the world. It was easy. I loved it and it was brilliant but it was just way too much.
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Loughborough student: Ikem Billy
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