10 Nov No funding surprises as British Athletics continue short-term obsession
The annual game of ‘let’s guess which athlete has been omitted from British Athletics funding’ happened once again last week with the announcement of those athletes set to be supported by the World Class Performance Programme (WCPP) for 2014-15. As usual, trying to apply logic to some of these decisions is a risky business, but we will, nonetheless, attempt to make sense of the ludicrous imposition of a policy so vague in its wording that no doubt even its authors struggle to understand it.
British Athletics performance director Neil Black was on hand with the usual bluff about “competition for places on the programme [being] extremely competitive” and the “tough performance decisions” the selection panel faced.
Once again, the funding appears disproportionally skewed towards instant sprint success. Twenty-seven of the thirty-eight on Podium WCPP Olympic funding compete over one lap of the track or less. Only Hannah England, Laura Weightman, Mo Farah (and whether a man expected to earn as much as £10million over the next few years and with the far reaching support of the Nike Oregon project is really worthy of a government grant is debateable), Andrew Osagie and Lynsey Sharp (presumably in desperate need of constant medical back up) are among those that British Athletics believe have potential to medal next year in Beijing or, beyond that, in Rio in 2016. The middle-distance fraternity is better represented among the Podium Potential funding list – but distance running has once more been neglected.
This isn’t the first kick in the teeth for endurance running that smacks of short-sightedness. Is there really a development plan for distance running in Great Britain? One that extends beyond the hiring of an American ‘consultant’ to drag a select few out to his Oregon base to gawp at the extensive facilities? Or is the National Governing Body going to continue to rely on the grassroots of the sport to drag the sport forwards and take the credit for the success? You need only to visit a track on a Tuesday night to see evidence of a whole host of volunteers enthusing the next generation without the most basic remuneration. Is it really wise to heap so much expectation on good will?
Whilst it is fair to say Britain’s long-distance Olympic and World prospects are few and far between – a situation of their own making some would argue – where is the sport going to be when Mo Farah isn’t around anymore to mask the National Governing Body’s neglect of developing a stronger sport below the elite level? The major successes of the year (the likes of Jo Pavey and Andy Vernon) have most likely achieved in spite of the system rather than because of it. Even Mo Farah had to head Stateside in order to make his real breakthrough.
Vernon is the fastest person in the UK this year; ran 13:11.50 in May to go joint-sixth on the UK all-time 5,000m list; won the UK 10,000m trials before finishing 6th at the Commonwealth Games and winning two medals at the European Championships in August – and yet whilst the rules can be skewed for sprinters in hope of a spot on the relay squad, no such luck for Vernon who must continue to support himself.
Whilst the rewards for his efforts aren’t financially motivated and nor should funding be seen as a reward for good performances – medals are quite sufficient – it remains galling that British Athletics are able to hold Vernon up as a ‘success story’ when justifying their own vast Governmental funding but aren’t prepared to share the love with the athlete himself.
You’d have thought the only way for Vernon to go is up with the actual backing of British Athletics, if that’s what the funding is intended to do at any rate. & if there’s one thing learnt from listening to 1984 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Charlie Spedding talk at last week’s Like the Wind pop-up event – and taking the very real and recent examples of Pavey’s performances in the summer into account – it’s that individuals have the strength and mental fortitude to summon performances from seemingly nowhere, making subjective limitations on athletic performance inherently flawed and questionable.
Of other athletes that have missed out, what about the likes of Beth Potter and James Wilkinson? Potter went from almost turning her back on the sport to enjoying a huge fourth-place breakthrough at the British 10,000m Championships at Parliament Hill in May. The twenty-two year old tussled it out in one of the more memorable races of the Commonwealth Games over 10,000m with Kate Avery (herself another one not on the list) and yet Emelia Gorecka remains the sole female distance track runner on WCPP Potential Podium funding.
Twenty-four year old James Wilkinson should also feel hard done by having twice run inside the ‘E’ criteria qualification standard for the 3,000m steeplechase – going UK all-time top-10 in the process – and yet not considered to be medal potential at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. What confidence British Athletics inspire!
It isn’t the first time British Athletics and their short-sighted approach to the development of endurance sport has been called into question and nor will it be the last. From the deselection of athletes that had already qualified for the European Team Championships marathon to last month’s announcement that only those seniors with top-30 potential will make the plane to the World XC Championships next March, the drive towards the limited number of medals for a coveted few at the detriment of the rest of the sport continues.
And whilst the arguments over funding and the allocation of them are age-old, every year the same stories are trotted out. What is continually neglected, however, is the slow death of distance running at the grassroots level. All the time, British Athletics seem obsessed with the latest big name to please their sponsors whilst their responsibility to nurture the future of the sport as a whole entity becomes more and more of a joke.