COLUMN: Mike Rowbottom interviews UK Athletics new Paralympics head coach Peter Eriksson

Monday, 31 August 2009

 

altPETER ERIKSSON (pictured), the Swede poached from Canada and appointed last month as UK Athletics new Paralympic head coach, believes Britain's competitors are failing to fulfil their potential and, as he exclusively tells MIKE ROWBOTTOM, he plans to do something about it

 

WHEN Peter Eriksson arrives in Britain later this month to take up his role as head coach and performance director for the Paralympic track and field team, one of the first people he will seek out is his Olympic counterpart, Charles van Commenee.

 

Between them, these men will be responsible for Britain's showing at the 2012 London Games in the flagship sport of the Olympic movement.

 

That is pressure - but both men have offered ample evidence that pressure is what they thrive on.

 

Van Commenee made his name as a coach in Britain by guiding heptathletes Denis Lewis and Kelly Sotherton to Olympic gold and bronze medals respectively before inspiring his native Dutch athletes to an excellent showing at last year's Beijing Games.

 

The 56-year-old Swede, head-hunted by UK Athletics in December, has a similarly impressive resume in the field of coaching having guided Canada's wheelchair athletes to 119 medals in the last seven Paralympics, most notably Canadian Chantal Petitclerc, who took five golds at both the Athens and Beijing Games.

 

While both coaches will work together to produce a double flourish in the capital three years from now, there will clearly be a few local differences.

 

Eriksson chuckles over the incident which did much to define van Commenee's "four-real' status as a coach, when the Dutchman reduced Sotherton to tears and called her "a wimp" after she had narrowly failed to win silver rather than bronze at the Athens Olympics.

 

"I don't think that's my style," he says with a laugh.

 

But as he explains his approach to what will become an increasingly high-profile task in the course of the next three years, it becomes clear that the  Swede is hardly likely to be a less exacting taskmaster than the Dutchman.

 

Speaking to insidethgames from his adopted home in Ottawa, Eriksson made it clear that two of the major factors which have persuaded him to take up his British task are the leadership within UK Athletics, and - frankly - the fact that Britain's performance at the next Paralympics can only get better.

 

"Britain is under-performing"

 

"When I looked at Britain's medal count at the last two Paralympics I was surprised they were not higher up the rankings," Eriksson says.

 

"The medal history for the UK has gone backwards a little bit.

 

"In 2000 the count was 47 medals.

 

"In 2004 the total was 17, and it was the same in Beijing.

 

"Britain shouldn't be in that position, and that is something I have wondered about for a while.

 

"Why did it drop down so much?

 

"In the past there have been more medal events to contest, which may be a factor.

 

"But it doesn't mean Britain should go from 47 medals to 17.

 

"I got a call and was asked if I was interested in looking at the position of performance director.

 

"This is a challenge.

 

"This is something that fits my personality because I like working hard and I keep going all the time.

 

"I'm competitive in everything I do.

 

"I want to make sure the team performs better in 2012 and beyond.

 

"I think there's a lot of things we can do that are going to make a difference.

 

 "We have to look at ourselves and say: 'What do we need to do to win more medals?'

 

We have to ask if athletes have medal potential or whether they need to be replaced by up-and-coming talents.

 

"UK Sport is investing in 2012 athletes, not subsidising them"

 

"We need to make sure they have the right support, the right coach.

 

"Whatever we can do to help them we will do.

 

 "But UK Sport is investing in medals, not subsidising athletes.

 

"Everybody has to be sure of what is expected of them.

 

"If athletes can't live up to the expectations that have been set then this is not the place to be."

 

Although the Swede may not be willing to accuse athletes of being wimps, you sense he will make his feelings known to perceived underperformers in similarly direct fashion.

 

Britain's recent Paralympic record is in stark contrast to that of China, which has taken its medal haul from 15 at the 1992 to a total of 77 which saw it head the table in Beijing last summer.

 

China, as Eriksson points out, has the advantage of being able to select their Paralympians from 83 million disabled people.

 

Even in terms of amputees, there are 27 million from which to choose.

 

The talent pool from which he will draw in Britain will never remotely reach such proportions.

 

But the Swede has repeatedly demonstrated his ability to make the most of what he has got. 

 

The total budget for the Canadian athletes at the last Paralympics, for instance, was £350,000 – almost 20 times less than the £6.6 million of UK Sport funding earmarked for athletics in the next Paralympic cycle.

 

"Britain should be in top three of medals table"

 

"Funding is important," Erikkson commented, "I am not saying: 'I am going to change the world - give me more money and we  are going to be No.1.'

 

"I do think this is a great challenge, though, because Britain can only get better.

 

"We will be optimising our performance by 2012, but what we doing 2016 could be the biggest definition.

 

"In the long term, Britain should be up in the top three medal positions.

 

"There is no doubt about that.

 

"To do that, if Bejing was anything to go by, we will need to be winning more than 25 medals."

 

Erikkson's sporting career began on ice, as he represented Sweden in speed skating for 17 years, with a career highlight of 10th place in the 500 metres long track sprint event at the 1977 World Championships.

 

He then moved into coaching where he worked in speed skating and ice hockey in Sweden in the early 1980s, completing a Masters degree in Physical Education in which he specialised in exercise physiology among athletes who had suffered spinal injuries.

 

After continuing his studies at the University of Alberta, he began a 25-year coaching career in Canada which saw him guide numerous wheelchair athletes to world class level, including Petitclerc, voted Canada's 2008 Athlete of the Year .

 

In 2004, Eriksson became the first Paralympic coach to win Canada's Coach of the Year award.

 

Until now, however, he has never coached full-time, as he has previously had to combine his sporting commitments with his job as a software programmer.

 

"I never see myself as being a coach of Paralympians," he says.

 

"To me, they are athletes, only athletes.

 

"The only difference is the means by which they compete.

 

"When one of my athletes is successful, that's my payday."

 

And when the Games finally return to London in 2012, Eriksson is looking forward to a bonanza…

 

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the last five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now freelancing and will be writing regularly for insidethegames  

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