After Mo Farah’s welcome victory (really if any UK Olympian is going to win gold – I’d rather it was one who came here as a refugee right in the middle of the nastiest anti-foreigner moment the last three decades has seen), attention turns to the middle distances. Short of a miracle, no UK athlete is likely to acheive a medal in either the men’s or women’s 800 or 1500 metres (in neither distance has a UK man or woman run one of the fastest eight times this year). The fault is not in the athletes but with the way the sport is organised.
Aged 16, I could run the 800 metres in under 2 minutes. If I had been on the same track with the new young British sensation Sean Molloy (above), I would have finished about 80 metres behind him: close enough to hurt, too far behind to be able to watch his shoes disappearing into the distance.
At the start of June, Molloy broke the British under-800 metres record with a time of 1:48.24, outpacing times runs by previous promising juniors of the calibre of Steve Ovett, Peter Elliott and many others. His triumph marks a counterpoint to the story I’ve noted before, the decline of British middle- and long-distance running (a reduction in the number of athletes running sub 2:15 for the marathon, a reduction in the number of young athletes capable of doing winter training of over 100 miles per week, a reduction in the number of athletes capable of seriously challenging for 800 metres or 1500 metres golds at the major competitions). He later ran in the World Junior Championships, failing to qualify from his heat running against athletes a year older than him.
Looking at the database of times recorded by UK athletes, two matters strike me: Molloy’s 800 metre times (which are world class) are definitely, if not dramatically better than his times for the 1500 metres (4.02.92; by way of comparison Mo Farah won the 1500 metres at England schools running 7 seconds faster at the same age). This may be a small sign that Molloy is going to be a middle-distance runner for life: like David Rudisha, say, but unlike Lee Merrien. This is a good thing: middle-distance running is a specialist activity, and it is not surprising if the best in any age cohort find their times are closer to those of sprinters than to those of long-distance runners.
Second Molloy has been running competitively since he was 12, when his pbs were 28 seconds for 200 metres and 2:14 for 800 metres. These times strike me as seriously fast for that age. Last year, Molloy ran in no fewer than fifty separate races. While I don’t want to make the point too strongly: I’ve never seen Molloy run in person still less met him, nor do I even know who his coach is, and in common with anyone following British athletics I have nothing but admiration for him. But that doesn’t strike me as the pattern you would associate with a coach confident of his runner, shielding him to maximise his performance in the 5-6 races best chosen to further Molloy’s development.
In tennis, we are all familiar with the story of Laura Robson, Wimbledon junior champion, and struggling since then to break into the world top 100. Robson’s appearance in the mixed doubles final at the Olympics, but her inability there to overcome the pressure, suggests the possibility (but not yet the actuality) of a sportswoman belatedly rising to her potential.
In football, we are familiar with the story of countless English talents undone by the harum-scarum of unneccessary games in their late teens, lots of running about in matches that don’t count for much, setting footballers up for a series of injuries rather than a productive career.
In 2010 and combined 2011, both Mo Farah and David Rudisha took part in exactly 34 races altogether, or 17 per year – just a third as many, in other words, as Molloy. They are at the most productive stages of their career; they run less precisely because their times matter more.
What middle-distance runners like Sean Molloy need is intelligent coaching, a bit of cotton wool where appropriate, and a plan to get them from where they are to where they are capable of being. Is UK athletics, as presently organised, capable of that combination? I doubt it.