Neil Black, who led British athletics as performance director for seven years until his departure in October and was a longstanding mentor to Mo Farah, has died suddenly at his home near Loughborough. He was 60.
The death, which is believed to be of natural causes, was confirmed in a statement from UK Athletics, which said it was “shocked and saddened to confirm the loss of our friend and former colleague Neil Black who passed away suddenly at the weekend.
“Neil loved the sport of athletics and dedicated his life to supporting athletes – as a world class physiotherapist, as head of sport science, and then in recent years as performance director for British Athletics. Neil will be hugely missed by those that knew and worked with him. Our thoughts are with his family and friends at this difficult time.”
As an athlete Black was good enough to beat Seb Coe in a cross country race and Steve Cram several times, and was also widely regarded as a brilliant physiotherapist. After moving up the ranks he assumed the role of performance director after the London 2012 Olympics, but faced criticism in some quarters for his singular focus on medals – and Farah – at the expense of building a stronger coaching infrastructure for elite athletes.
Black had hoped to continue as performance director until after the Tokyo Olympics but last year he paid the price for his unwavering support of the controversial US coach Alberto Salazar, who was banned for four years for doping offences in October – as well as Britain’s low tally of five medals at the World Championships in Doha, their worst result since 2005.
Since leaving UKA Black had been continuing to support a number of athletes and coaches as an advisor.
Black was regarded by those who knew him as friendly and intensely loyal – sometimes to his detriment. Before Salazar’s ban Black had hailed the American as a genius, adding that there was “total trust, total belief, total respect” between the American and British Athletics.
And he also gave his full backing to the Salazar even after a BBC Panorama documentary in June 2015 suggested that he had violated anti-doping laws, including using testosterone on his sons to see how much would flag a positive test.
Several athletes expressed their shock when Black’s death was confirmed. Hannah England, the world 1500m silver medallist, was among those to express her gratitude, saying that without Black’s skills she never would have competed in an Olympics.
“In 2012 I became an Olympian, a monumental moment and part of my life. This was genuinely only possible because of the dedication from my physio at the time, Neil Black. Neil put so much time in athletics and athletes and it’s heartbreaking to know he won’t be doing this again.”
Black’s family said they wanted to thank people for the wonderful and heartfelt messages they have received. “So many people have been in touch, it is clear to us how loved Neil was and this is bringing us some comfort at this time,” they added in a statement.