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Helsinki horrors - Beeb

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Helsinki horrors

By Tom Fordyce


Despite a last day gold and bronze medal, Britain has its worst World Championships in history.


This is no one-off. In Paris two years ago, the British team had a similarly poor haul of one silver and two bronzes; in 2001, a single gold and bronze. It is not even a case of near-misses. Only one British male athlete reached a track final in Helsinki, just as only one British male made a track final at last summer's Olympics.


National performance director Dave Collins is blunt in his assessment of the squad.

"Our performances, our preparations and a lot of the things we do are generically unacceptable," he admits.


BBC commentator and 1983 World 1500m champion Steve Cram goes even further.

"The prospect of race after race in the 2012 Olympics without British participation is a real possibility," he says.


So where has it all gone wrong for British athletics?




Is it just a case that world athletics has got more competitive? Numerically, yes. At the first Worlds in 1983, 153 nations took part. That number has now sailed past 200.

Yet other European athletics powers are not struggling to cope with the numbers to the same extent as GB.


France won two golds, a silver and three bronzes in Helsinki. Belarus took two golds, two silvers and three bronzes. Even the Netherlands, always a minnow in the pond, won a gold and silver.


The most uncomfortable comparison for the British team is with Sweden. From a team of just 16, compared to GB's 51, Sweden won two golds and a bronze. Even the Germans, who were in a slump of their own a few years ago, have begun to turn things around, as former world 200m and 400m champion Michael Johnson explains.


"They recognised a few years ago that they had potential at junior level that was not being fulfilled in the seniors," says Johnson. "But they've addressed it , and now they have finalists in the men's 200m and women's 100m hurdles as well as their gold and two bronzes."




There are unquestionably talented athletes in the current British squad. But something is getting in the way of them fulfilling that potential. Mark Lewis-Francis won the World Junior 100m title in 2000, yet he still awaits his first individual global senior medal and has failed to improve his personal best in three years. He tested positive for cannabis earlier this year and dismayed team management in Helsinki by having put on so much weight in the last six weeks that he was unable to zip up his hand-measured British kit.


That sort of behaviour finds little favour with Collins, a former Royal Marine. We've had a range of people through the team whose commitment and attitude could be questioned," he says. "People are saying `I've been to the World Championships, I'm British number one' but being British number one is not good enough."




Forget the efforts of the athletes themselves for a second. Is it the people advising them who have got it wrong? "I'm not sure there are enough coaches in the system that can take young talent and consistently get them into the top five in the world," says Sebastian Coe, double Olympic 1500m gold medallist.




Points based on: gold=8, silver=7, down to 1 for 8th

1993: 95

1995: 78

1997: 76

1999: 66

2001: 54

2003: 46

2005: 29


Double world champion Colin Jackson goes further. "There was a time when Britain led the world in coaching," he says. "That's all finished." Their comments are echoed by Charles van Commenee, the Dutchman who coached Denise Lewis to heptathlon gold at the Sydney Olympics and Kelly Sotherton to bronze in Athens.

Van Commenee, now performance director of the Dutch Olympic team, says: "Coaching education has been neglected, and maybe now athletics is paying the price."


One of the problems is that the cream of British coaches are often to be found abroad, advising athletes from other countries. Frank Attoh has just coached Jamaica's Trecia Smith to world triple jump gold medallist. Stewart Togher coaches Koji Murofushi, Japan's Olympic hammer gold medallist. Bob Weir is head athletics coach at Stanford University Attoh says: "The trouble with Britain is that it does not value coaching as a profession. It does not want to pay them as much. Those who are good, it promotes to a nice office, calls them a manager and cuts them off from the athletes."


Several of the under-fire coaches argue that lack of cash is holding them back. Steve Platt took early retirement last year so he could coach Lewis-Francis' full-time, but was told that he would have to fund his own trip if he wanted to be with Lewis-Francis in Helsinki. "I feel that I am funding UK Athletics with my pension," Platt has complained.




On the surface at least, there appears to be plenty of talent in the British junior ranks. Last month GB athletes landed an unprecedented 100m gold-silver-bronze at the European Junior Championships, less than a week after 16-year-old Harry Aikines-Aryeetey became the first sprinter to claim the 100m and 200m double at the World Youth Championships.


But the real scenario may be far less rosy. Go to the English School Championships, traditionally the first sighting of new talent, and you will find a record low number of entries, with some events gong straight to finals. The pool of fit, athletically-gifted children in Britain from which future Olympic champions might come is shrinking at an alarming rate. 70% of all children stop all physical exercise when they leave school.


Among girls, the problem is even worse - according to recent government figures, they are one-third more likely than boys to give up physical activity and twice as likely to become obese. When Paula Radcliffe ran in the English schools cross country championships, there were about 600 competitors in each race. Now the number is down to 150. "Sport is no longer a major priority in the country," says Dave Bedford, the former world 10,000m record-holder and now race director of the London Marathon. "You only have to check on the number of young people doing sport in schools, or notice the emptiness of the schools playing fields as you drive past."


Cram sees further problems. "The European junior championships are no longer a valid benchmark," he says. "Only the world junior championships can give us a true picture of potential success in future global competitions." Guess what? At last summer's World Juniors, Britain failed to win a single medal for the first time since 1972.





UK Athletics has a technical director for each group of disciplines in the sport, as well as seven performance centres around the UK where athletes have access to top-class facilities and a full medical and coaching support system. Yet the majority of Britain's best performers of the last 10 years - Paula Radcliffe, Kelly Holmes, Jonathan Edwards and Steve Backley - operated outside the official coaching set-up, preferring to use their own methods and personal coaches. The current system appears in theory to be a vast improvement on the old, ad-hoc days.


But whichever way you look at it, you cannot escape the fact that it has so far failed to produce anywhere near the same number of winners as the old model. Cram says: "The squad-of-one principle is the simplest model. Hand-picked coaches working with superior athletes have been successful time and again. "This is an individual sport and therefore the individual athlete must dictate his or her own destiny. Let's identify those who display the desire and commitment and then get out of their way."




Here's a favourite theory of the old guard in British athletics: Lottery funding has made life too comfortable for the current crop. No longer do promising athletes have to work hard enough, goes the theory - they can make enough money without actually winning anything on the world stage. That's all well and good - but those who remember the dark pre-Lottery days of the 1996 Olympics see a little more subtlety in the argument.


Lottery funding has been key to the success of several British sports, particularly cycling, rowing and sailing, which between them won five of GB's nine golds in Athens. Cram says: "Money itself is quite patently not the problem, but its use is. A much more targeted approach is imperative. Collins agrees. From now on, he intends to make sure the cash only goes to those who deserve it.


"I will stop funding if necessary," he says. "It would be unfair to share limited resources around a number of people who are not pulling their weight."

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The most uncomfortable comparison for the British team is with Sweden.  From a team of just 16, compared to GB's 51, Sweden won two golds and a bronze. 



You could never have guessed they're swedish:









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