IKEM BILLY

FOR­MER 800m STAR IKEM BILLY GIVES MELANIE ANNING SOME STRONG VIEWS ON THE BRI­TISH ATH­LET­ICS LEAD­ER­SHIP CRI­SIS AND CUR­RENT 800m STAN­DARDS

Athletics Weekly - - Contents - PIC­TURES: MARK SHEARMAN

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

KNOWS?”

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.

Ikem Billy: 1983 Eu­ro­pean ju­nior 800m cham­pion wenton to run 1:44.65 de­spite an in­jury-hit se­nior ca­reer

Ath­let­ics icon Ikem Billy now keeps fit cy­cling but is threat­en­ing to make a come­back asa mas­ters run­ner

Lough­bor­ough stu­dent: Ikem Billy

Strong views: Ikem Billy be­lievesBri­tish Ath­let­ics is in dis­ar­ray

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