John Bicourt: Peering through the golden glow of British athletics only to find dark shadows
Thursday, 16 August 2012
Some 79 athletes were selected to fly our flag in athletics at these Games, including those in the relay squads and the marathon runners. In the men's events nine of the 21 individual events saw only one British athlete entered while in the women's seven of the 17 individual events had only one.
Podium (Lottery) Funding was set up by UK Sport to help those athletes regarded as having the potential to succeed all the way to the podium. Those at least capable of making the top eight (ie final) of an event were identified by UK Athletics (UKA) head coach Charles van Commenee after the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and his list was adjusted accordingly at the end of each season leading up to 2012.
Here are some facts and figures about the performances of our Podium-funded athletes during London 2012 for you to digest:
· Of the 47 athletes on funding this year only 28 actually made it to the Games; nine were injured either prior to, or subsequent to, selection for the Games;
· Only nine made the top eight (the minimum expectation for podium funding);
· Only one – heptathlete gold medallist Jessica Ennis – set a personal-best and only three – Mo Farah, Christine Ohuruogu in the 400 metres and 400m hurdler Rhys Williams – set a season's best; Farah's performances, of course, were unique in that he won both 5,000m and 10,000m gold in initially tactically slow-run races.
A number of British athletes who had not previously satisfied the UK Sport criteria for Podium funding nevertheless performed better and achieved more at London 2012 than many who were receiving it. Podium funding clearly does not guarantee a great performance or even selection for a Games; indeed, many athletes not in receipt of the finding often perform better – are they more driven, perhaps? – than those who are.
So let's look at the performances and results of those members of the British athletics team who are not Podium-funded? Here are some examples:
· Robert Grabarz finished equal third for the high jump bronze medal;
· Andrew Osagie ran a fourth-fastest British time of 1min 43.77sec in finishing eighth in the 800m final;
· Jo Pavey and Julia Bleasdale came seventh and eighth, respectively, in both the women's 5,000m and 10,000 with both setting PBs in the latter;
· Lawrence Clarke finished fourth in the 110m hurdles final;
· Alex Smith made the final of the hammer – the first British athlete in over 30 years to achieve that feat;
· Sophie Hitchon reached the final of the women's hammer and broke the British record in the process.
Britain finished fourth in the athletics medal table, behind the United States, Russia and Jamaica, but this kind of reckoning is somewhat skewed because of the value given to gold medals – ie a solitary gold ranks a country higher than another with no golds even if they have more medals in terms of silvers and bronzes. A more accurate reflection and assessment of a country's athletics team's achievement would be to tally the points for finishing positions one to eight.
On this points table GB was ranked seventh in London – a drop from fourth in Sydney 2000, fifth in Athens 2004 and sixth in Beijing 2008.
Of the 129 medals available across 43 individual events plus four in the relays, Britain took six individual medals – two fewer than the target set by Van Commenee and four below UKA's chief executive Niels de Vos' prediction of 10.
Van Commenee – on a contract said to be paying him £1 million ($1.5 million/€1.3 million) this last four years – is a head coach whose "famously uncompromising approach" was to get the Olympic team to their peak for the Games.
Unfortunately, it hasn't been achieved as we'd all hoped; indeed, what credit can UKA take for the two gold medals of Farah, who only improved to his world-beating level once he moved himself to Oregon under Nike's sponsorship and their coach, Alberto Salazar?
So after 12 years of funding and sponsorship to UKA amounting to around £300 million ($470 million/€381 million), there has been no improvement on the six medals claimed at Atlanta 1996 (without funding) and the same number won at Sydney 2000, not to mention a three-place drop from fourth in the points table. All this begs the question: just how effective has UKA's funding and its 140-odd staff been in an attempt to provide the improvement expected?
By comparison, cycling has just 10 track events, across both men and women, in which only one competitor from each country could be entered – a rule brought in by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) after Beijing where British cyclists won 14 medals. In London Team GB's cyclists secured nine medals – seven gold, one silver and one bronze.
If British athletes are to improve their showing at the Rio Olympics in 2016 and the two World Championships in between then a thorough independent analysis and assessment of the effectiveness of UKA' spending, coaching and management must be carried out as soon as possible.
John Bicourt was an English record holder and represented Britain in the 3,000m steeplechase at the 1972 and 1976 Olympics. He has coached, advised and managed a number of Olympic and World Championship athletes from Britain, Australia, South African, Kenya and the United States, including medallists and world record holders. He is an elected officer of the Association of British Athletics Clubs.