Relay medals paper over the cracks

Former Olympic bronze-medal javelin thrower Goldie Sayers says the World Athletics Championships were a success on a cosmetic level, but below the surface the sport in this country needs significant investment in world-class coaches to reclaim past glories

The World Athletics Championships were an undoubted success. There was a world record for the number of tickets sold; the London Olympic Stadium was packed noon and night, and nearly ten million viewers tuned in to watch the British men strike gold in the 4×100 metres relay. The general public seemed to fall back in love with the sport during ten days of pulsating competition.

Despite a slow start, there was a lot to be positive about domestically. The medal target was hit. There were some really promising performances from young British athletes with a record 25 top-eight finishers, most of whom are under 24 and almost certainly have two more world championships in them. And the sprint relay teams have turned from baton-droppers to world-beaters.

It would be easy to think that we can be optimistic (and we can on some fronts – namely the relays), but dig a little deeper, and there are some major concerns.

This was a home championships, which usually acts as a catalyst for athletes to get on the medal rostrum. But our six medals equalled the lowest number won from the past ten years of world championships. Most worrying was the fact there was only one medallist in an individual event (Mo Farah), and he won a third of our medals. He also retires this year.

In Daegu, in 2011, when we won eight medals, we had six individual medallists. In addition to the usual pressures of competition, the team who went to South Korea had to cope with the additional challenges presented by overseas travel, time and climate differences. London 2017 offered no such disadvantages.

Especially worrying was the lack of representation in field events. Out of a possible 48 places available in the jumps and throws, we could only fill 14. For a population as large as ours, and the level of investment we have, we should be turning out more field athletes. This was a huge opportunity missed.

As an athlete, it is imperative to be brutally honest with yourself and look at every area in which you are not performing. It is also important to look at patterns. In the last ten years the medal pattern has been 6, 7, 8, 6, 7, 6. That, to me, is a worrying trend and on a graph would present a line going downwards. As an athlete you are accountable and medal targets are the way that British Athletics is made accountable. This has to happen because British Athletics is given significant investment from the public purse. It would be very easy for British Athletics to look at all the positives and say, ‘We have the talent and that will convert to medals next time and everything will be OK’. But will it? The current trend doesn’t suggest that, and British Athletics must be as brutally honest with itself, just as the athletes will be, in order to see improved medal performance in two years’ time.

It’s very easy to point fingers and be critical, but how do we improve? I could write a thesis on this. But the biggest issue for me is investment in coaching and the systems in place to make the sport sustainable. We need to invest heavily in the coaching system – identification, education and opportunity for coaches. We have the talent, but what we don’t have in abundance is the coaching expertise to get the talent on to the podium. Track and field is a global sport and it is incredibly tough to win medals at an Olympics or World Championships. Our athletes are competing for medals against rivals from more than 200 countries, most of whom don’t have the benefit of Lottery funding. We need world-class coaches to produce world-class athletes. Talent only gets you so far. This is all about education.

Why do we let those who have stepped on to the podium as athletes, step away from the sport entirely when they retire? Why are next to none of them coaching? The main reason is there are no jobs in coaching athletics and sport coaching is not seen as a profession. This needs to change. Christian Malcolm, specialist coach of the London medal-winning relay teams, was a world-class athlete himself who has turned around the relay programme in recent years. UK women didn’t qualify a relay team in 2012, but then won Olympic bronze in Rio four years later. The men have just become world champions. This is not a coincidence.

Athletes who have won medals at global championships have almost always been coached by coaches who have coached other athletes to the rostrum. The athlete has not only benefited from 20-odd years of their own experience, but the experience of more than one world-class coach. In Christian’s case, Jock Anderson, Linford Christie, Dan Pfaff and Stuart McMillan. All brilliant coaches in their own right, so it’s no coincidence that Christian has turned the sprint relay teams into world-beaters considering the level of knowledge that he will have taken on board over the years.

Not all athletes would make exceptional coaches, and not all would want to coach. But for those who do, surely the sport should be prepared to invest in keeping great athletes within the system so that their knowledge is passed on to the next generation.

The sport also has to be sustainable; the athletics club system is not at present. Some clubs are already over-subscribed and more are likely to have waiting lists as kids are inspired to be the next Mo Farah or Laura Muir. What I would love to see is a paid coach in every club and a competent coach in every event – track and field. This would also enhance the experience at clubs so that athletics doesn’t lose talent to other sports. Gymnastics run profitable clubs that sustain themselves. We should be learning from them; we might also learn a thing or two from gymnastics at the performance end as well!

The governance of athletics in this country is also confusing to an outsider. The home countries are responsible for coaching, but the performance arm, British Athletics, is responsible for producing medals. But one can’t exist without the other. Each stakeholder needs to work together positively. We not only need more coaches to enhance the club system, but the calibre of coaches at every level needs to be improved in order to produce medals. The sport has invested in coaching for limited periods, bringing in world-class coaches to mentor the next generation. But such investment needs to be prolonged as investing in a world-class coach can produce numerous world-class athletes.

Athletics is based on the laws of physics, but these laws aren’t widely taught or known. This should start at grassroots level. If we can get kids in good mechanical positions, they’ll not only perform better and improve, but will be less likely to pick up injuries later on. It has always baffled me how as a funded athlete you can access a paid physio, massage therapist, nutritionist, biomechanist and physiologist, yet work with an unpaid coach. We would have to invest a lot less in medical support if we just invested a bit more in coach education.

British Athletics (and, in particular, Cherry Alexander, head of the organising committee for London 2017) should be praised for putting on the best World Championships, and getting a record number of people through the turnstiles. What the sport needs to do now is get a record number of athletes on to the medal rostrum. We only have ten to beat. A good first step would be to ask those that have done it before (coaches and athletes) how they did it. The knowledge is there, it just might not be working in the organisation right now.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Goldie Sayers, is a three-time Olympian, World and European Championship finalist and UK Javelin Champion for the past ten years. Goldie’s latest articles

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4 thoughts on “Relay medals paper over the cracks

  • 22nd August 2017 at 7:15 am
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    Not only good coaches are needed… facilities for coaching field events are also a major issue at club level.. throwing fields that are not alliwed to he used because footballers have priority, jump pits that are not maintained, jumping beds that never see the light of day because of ‘health and safety’.

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  • 22nd August 2017 at 8:33 am
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    I agree with the overall analysis in the article but let’s not blame relay teams for papering over cracks in the machine behind the sport. Relay team medals seem to be being portrayed as less worthy when in actual fact they should be counting as more than a single medal as not only is it a medal but also demonstrates a depth in the event. They are funded to win medals and they did that as part of the overall medal target. It wasnt 6 medals plus relay medals. Seems an easy way to point the finger when a lot of good and genuinely progressive individual performances were evident. The issue holding the sport back is lack of coaches across events able to work with athletes often enough to bring them up to the standard where they can compete internationally. Hopefully the sport looks at how they can work at fixing that rather than employing full time performance coaches who only coach one athlete.

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  • 22nd August 2017 at 1:01 pm
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    Perhaps athletics needs to take a closer look at what has led to the upsurge in interest in and results from cycling and swimming

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  • 27th August 2017 at 1:13 am
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    Spot on. Until we move beyond a reliance on volunteers the sport will eventually die. I did volunteer within a club for 6 years and initially didn’t think it was fair that general admin roles aren’t paid and coaches are, but I changed my mind. It’s easier to admin than to coach and not everyone can become a good or successful coach. It takes a will, and a dedication beyond the level of training provided by UKA. Coaches in the new world, as educated by UKA, have become leaders. How different could it be if coaching was a professional qualification, something to aspire to and be paid accordingly. Other sports have moved here, and they will take all the talent. Athletics will be left high and dry. Volunteering is great but club leaders need to guard against having only volunteers in key roles. There are too many personal fall outs that leave clubs in a precarious position, often held to ransom by a volunteer. It cannot continue this way. Facilities are not the issue, the elite athletes will seek out the facilities they need.

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