athletics

   Britain has had a long and proud record in athletics, notably in running, but the 1980s and 1990s saw a decline in performance and public interest, sparking a debate about how best to train top athletes. Most observers accept that athletics requires serious work to remain one of Britain’s top sports, and to make Britain a strong contender in international competition once more. A temporary boost to the sport was given by the British athletics team’s topping (for the first time since 1950) of the European Championships medals table in 1998. While British running’s history in the 1980s and 1990s is impressive (Linford Christie, Colin Jackson, Steve Cram, Sebastian Coe, Steve Ovett, Sally Gunnell and Roger Black were the main stars of that period), the 1996 Atlanta Olympics performance was poor, with few track medals (and only a handful in field events), and Britain was outperformed by smaller and less wealthy countries which had invested considerably more over the years. This led to a fundamental debate about the nature and standard of British coaching and athletes, and the level of support given to the sport by the State. The most widely accepted argument post- Atlanta was that not enough money has been invested in facilities and full-time coaches over the years, compared to countries such as France and Australia. Both of these spent heavily on training facilities and full-time coaches, and both did well in Atlanta. Britain has traditionally employed very few full-time coaches, so the time spent with athletes is shorter than is the case abroad. The training facilities are also not as good, as British-born long jumper Fiona May pointed out after winning a silver medal at Atlanta for her adopted Italy. Two solutions have been suggested, both involving National Lottery funds. At the beginning, Lottery money could be used to build new sports centres, but not to pay coaches (a rule relaxed in 1996) or for competitors’ preparation costs. Money is also expected to become available for a British Academy of Sports, to build excellence in young elite performers. Whether that can repair the damage of the 1980s, when schools sold off thousands of acres of sports fields to raise money, is another matter; changes to school curricula in the 1980s and early 1990s also mean that fewer teachers have the time and energy to take sports classes after hours, and the British Athletic Federation (BAF) has declared itself unlikely to use the Academy as a training base in any case. The Federation, which runs the sport, itself suffered in the 1990s. The most disturbing event was the sacking of Andy Norman (largely responsible for the aggressive marketing of athletics) in 1994 after allegations were made about his role in the suicide of a respected journalist, and it soon became clear that Norman ran the BAF as a private fiefdom. Other problems include public rows with Linford Christie, Colin Jackson and Tony Jarrett over appearance money, which dragged on through 1995, while the biggest issue remains drugs. Since drug testing became routine in the postwar period, Britain has suffered very few confirmed cases amongst its athletes, but even the suspicion of drug taking is enough to damage the sport; the most serious case, involving runner Diane Modahl in 1994 and 1995, alienated existing sponsors and put potential backers off altogether. Modahl was eventually cleared, but athletics has struggled for years to keep its sponsors, creating long-term uncertainty and making planning difficult. The precarious financial position of athletics is clearly tied to the level of television coverage, which has long been crucial to sponsors. Meetings are no longer televised in Britain (some, including even big international meetings, were cancelled as a result), and the sport’s media profile in the 1990s is generally low, a far cry from the heady days of the 1980s when Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett dominated the headlines and generated huge public and media interest. The Olympics and Commonwealth Games obviously attract attention, but regular meetings around the country get little coverage, and are probably not the first choice of those stations that do screen them. With declining television and commercial interest, the BAF has struggled for years to finance its operations, even those limited contributions made to athletes and coaches. Over two financial years up to 1996, the BAF lost some £750,000 and made cuts in promotions and coaching as a result.
   These payments to competitors are more vital than the public might think; athletes at the top end of the sport, like Christie and Gunnell, can make fortunes on and off the track but the average runner, jumper and thrower has never had any such security and struggles to make ends meet. Most have relied on help from family, the BAF and any sponsors who could be persuaded to fund their training. Two competitors at Atlanta even admitted to selling their official British team sweatshirts after the Games to raise money, such was their plight. Athletics has become increasingly heavily divided over the last two decades, with a few performers becoming very highly paid thanks to television and sponsorship, and a large mass of competitors below them earning far less. It is open to debate how this has affected the use of drugs, and whether the athletes’ union formed by Roger Black in 1995 will help redress the balance.
   Athletics in the 1990s occupies a similar position to tennis, in that it struggles to build on the success of its regular major tournament in Britain. There are thousands of committed athletes and coaches, attending hundreds of meetings annually, but the sport remains short of money and facilities and is increasingly shorn of its established stars. Television and sponsors are only interested in telegenic, wellknown stars to focus on, and the decline of existing household names leaves athletics struggling to attract and maintain television and sponsor interest. Money has long been the main problem (by the mid-1990s, this was even causing promising athletes and coaches to leave athletics for professional rugby union), but at least the BAF recognizes the importance of the questions hanging over the sport. The biggest issue might turn out to be ‘who actually runs athletics in the 1990s: television, the promoters or the BAF?’
   REX NASH

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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