UK running: in long-term decline?

Standard

An interesting letter in today’s Evening Standard by John Bicourt of the Association of British Athletics Clubs, predicts that Britain will have a poor Olympics Games on the athletics track. Funds are made available for a large bureaucracy of coaches, Bicourt writes, and top athletes have access to warm-weather training and other comforts, but their performance is indifferent compared to the athletes of 30 years ago.

For all the vast sums of public money being spent on the Olympics (£11 billion, at the last count, according to the House of Commons’ Public Accounts Committee), and for all the talk of this being a bumper Olympics in terms of British golds, it is very clear that the strategy for British success is to spread into sports in which relatively few athletes compete, and golds are “easier” to come by. Increased spending on coaches etc doesn’t seem to correlate to success in mass participation sports.

A few events spring to mind: no male or female Briton has run the fastest 800-metre time in a season since Peter Elliott ran 1.42 (just half a second outside Joaquim Cruz’s then world record) back in 1990.

Between 1945 and January 1984 there were 25 successive world record holders at the men’s marathon, and 8 of them were British. Since then there have been 10 world record holders, none British. There were indeed more 2 hour 15 runners in Britain in 1985 than there were in 2011.

Britain won two golds and seven medals at the 2011 World Championships, but only a dozen athletes even made it to the final of their event.

As a schoolboy athlete in the 1980s, I was presented with the AAA Track and Field Standards, which are a measure of comparative performance. To be a top (grade 1) 800 metre, you had to run 1 minute 57 at age 16. This seemed an incredibly fast time: no-one I knew at that age had run that fast, neither had anyone at any neighbouring school. It was faster than the county record. To be a grade 1 performer in the shot put by contrast you had to throw 13.35 metres, or to be a top javelin thrower you had to be able to throw 50.55 metres. These were daunting but not impossible performances: a number of athletes at my (admittedly sporty) school clustered around these levels. Complaining that life seemed to be stacked against runners, it was explained to me that the standards mark comparative performance: tens of thousands of British schoolboys ran, therefore the general standard was high, and exceptional performance was more unusual. The pool of shot putters or javelin throwers was considerably smaller, hence it was easier to excel.

That explanation worked for a different period – one bookended by Ovett and Elliott’s success – in which British middle-distance runners excelled at the top levels, drawing young runners (including myself) into the sport.

It was also a period where the majority of top runners seemed to come from definite working-class backgrounds (Cram, Ovett, but especially Elliott, above, who became an international athlete while working as a joiner); Coe was very dramatically the exception. Athletics seemed to be a way in which people drawn from the majority could make a career for themselves on television. That doesn’t seem to be true any more in 2012.

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