When Greg Rutherford, Jessica Ennis‑Hill and Mo Farah jumped, soared and sprinted to three Olympic gold medals over 47 stunning minutes in 2012, many hailed it as the start of a new golden age for British athletics. But this week Super Saturday gave way to Troublesome Tuesday, as UK Sport announced an unprecedented review into UK Athletics, saying it had “major concerns” about the organisation.

The only surprise was that it took so long. The past two years have been marked by a series of missteps, scandals, subpar performances and a growing sense of drift from many within the sport.

It was not just that UK Athletics lost its chief executive Zara Hyde Peters before she even was in post over a safeguarding scandal. Or that its performance director Neil Black resigned after he failed to hit the world championship medal target. Or that the organisation faced intense criticism over its relationship with Alberto Salazar, who was banned for four years for doping offences. Or that it made basic mistakes, such as naming a reserve shot-putter for the men’s 4x400m team at the European Athletics Team Championships. It was so much more – and much of it due to gaping lack leadership at the very top.

Toni Minichiello, Ennis-Hill’s coach and a long-time critic of UK Athletics and its problems, remembers asking Richard Bowker, who took over as chair from the well-regarded Ed Warner in 2017, what his strategy for the sport was. “He didn’t have one,” he says. “It was all about structure – he kept saying we’ll sort out strategies for things like coaching later.”

Bowker never got the chance. Having picked unnecessary fights with the home countries and UK Athletics’ members council, he resigned in January 2019.

His replacement, Chris Clark, is better liked – although it was noted with disapproval by some in the performance team that while he came to Doha for meetings before the world championships, he left before the athletics began.

Not having a permanent chief executive since the departure of Niels de Vos in 2018 has not helped either. It meant that important deals, such as the £3m year contract with the BBC, have been left on the backburner for far too long – with potential severe financial costs.

De Vos, however, was not blameless: UKA’s widely pilloried decision to stage the Athletics World Cup in London on the same weekend as the Wimbledon finals and football World Cup – which cost it close to £2m – was largely his decision.

Zara Hyde Peters lost her job as UK Athletics’ chief executive after failing to tell her local athletics club about her husband’s ‘inappropriate relationship’ with a 15-year-old schoolgirl.

Zara Hyde Peters lost her job as UK Athletics’ chief executive after failing to tell her local athletics club about her husband’s ‘inappropriate relationship’ with a 15-year-old schoolgirl. Photograph: Sport In Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo

For many in the sport, though, the recent problems are part of a wider issue of UK Athletics failing to build on the legacy of London 2012. Last month Malcolm Arnold, UKA’s first performance director, told the Guardian that De Vos had put more stall in “showbiz athletics” and paying massive appearance fees to athletes such as Usain Bolt and Mo Farah, than developing the next generation – with terrible consequences.

“Coach and athlete development structures barely exist now and have suffered serial and serious decline since London 2012, which was supposed to be a point in time when British sport took off from this incredible launchpad,” he said. “Our homegrown coaches have been ignored and decimated through lack of care by the governing bodies.”

Meanwhile another top coach Frank Dick, British Athletics’ director of coaching during the golden age of the sport in the 80s and early 90s, believes UK Athletics’ decision to centralise its coaching in Loughborough has also had serious consequences.

“When you centralise things in the short term you get some benefit,” he said. “But long term you have a catastrophe – because you disenfranchise coaches around the country and stop creativity.”

Another insider was more blunt: “Given the huge talent pool of athletes in London, why did De Vos pull out of Lee Valley indoor centre and move everything to Loughborough? It’s like rugby league putting its performance base in Cambridge rather than Yorkshire or Lancashire.”

It is telling that so many top British athletes – including the world heptathlon champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson, the Olympic hammer bronze medallist Sophie Hitchon and sprinters Adam Gemili and Matthew Hudson-Smith – no longer train in the UK.

So what next? Andy Baddeley, a 1500m finalist at the 2008 Olympics and the parkrun world record holder, says that UK Athletics must be more open about its failings to help the next generation of stars.

He says: “If a management consultant was conducting a proper strategic review into a big organisation, which UK Athletics is, they would speak to former employees, including those who haven’t necessarily succeeded, to try to understand why and how the system can help future athletes.”

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Baddeley, who also holds a double first in aerospace engineering from Cambridge and is one of the sport’s sharpest thinkers, says that he would happily consult with UK Athletics about how to improve. However, he warns: “There’s a lot of distrust in the athletics community when it comes to UKA. There is no transparency. They don’t do what they are supposed to – which is support all athletes and coaches.”

Part of UK Athletics’ problem is that track and field is a brutally competitive global sport. At the recent world championships in Doha 43 countries won medals. It is not like some sports, such as cycling and bob skeleton, where spending money can provide a significant tech and medal edge.

As Minichiello puts it when asked how to turn things around at UKA. “Where do you want to begin? It is a five-year project. The problems have been evident since Rio [2016] – if not before.”

source: theguardian.com


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