Vague ramblings

Sporting chances? Not without the grass roots

Posted in Musing by Ian Cundell on 20 August, 2013

Set!Once upon a time I was a halfway decent sprinter. I probably would have been a better 800m runner, but the thought of the sheer slogging cross-country graft needed to build the endurance filled me with dread. There is nothing as exhilarating as running as fast as you possibly can. Once upon a time I was fit and fast.

Once I travelled with the Kingston Polytechnic Athletics Club (all five of us) to a meet in Barnsley where Kathy Smallwood (now Kathy Cook) pretty much won the event single-handed for the rather larger University of Birmingham team. That didn’t stop her team mates shouting “Come on you lazy moo,” but then being the absolute class of the field could not go unpunished.

It has taken until now for Christine Ohuruogu to break Cook’s 400m UK record. Her 200m record, set in 1984, still stands. Only the East German Cheat Machine robbed her of a proper place in sporting history.

Back then, of course, athletics was nominally amateur, yet we seemed able to produce more than the occasional diamond. We were never much in the field, but on the track we could go toe-to-toe with most people and not be embarrassed.

But today, take the majestic Mo Farah and Christine Ohuruogu out, with the peerless Jessica Ennis-Hill, and what’s left in terms of strength-in-depth? There are a ridiculous number of British records that have stood since the 1980s and 1990s.

Mo FarahIt is striking that all of the athletes who achieved anything at last week’s World Championships and London 2012 – as well as many who didn’t quite make the cut – were quick to thank the National Lottery and I wouldn’t want to minimise the importance of the Lottery in delivering success.

But I’m bothered: athletes who have a bad time risk losing their Lottery funding, meaning that the chances of turning things around are markedly diminished. Maybe, in an elite programme, that is as it should be.

But look again at those long-standing records, especially in the middle distances. Farah has only just robbed Steve Cram of his 1500m record and Coe’s records don’t seem under any sort of threat. Zola Budd’s mile record still stands, along with those of Kelly Holmes. Even Paula Radcliffe’s records look old now.

Where, I wonder, are the grass-roots?

There is an assumption in British sport that success happens by osmosis and wishful thinking

UK Athletics does a great job of promotion at the top end, but take a look it the UKA website here,  under the “Grassroots” menu. To me it looks amateurish – someone could do with learning to use a paragraph, for one thing. It says to me “Go find the infrastructure.” What it should say is “So you can run a bit, eh? Right. Here’s what you do. We’ll help you find out of you’ve got it.”

And it is not just athletics. Andy Murray’s relentless pursuit of improvement bore fruit despite the British tennis establishment, rather than because of it, and don’t get me started on England football.

There is an assumption in British sport that success happens by osmosis and wishful thinking. It doesn’t: success happens through investment, and only investment. Of money, yes. Of time, certainly. But also of creativity – and leadership from the front.

I love it when British sportsmen and women win. I want to see much more of it. And that needs a new approach.

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