The IAAF president, Sebastian Coe, has accused some British athletes of hiding away from major competitions following the team’s disappointing performance at the World Indoor Championships.
Coe was speaking after the 23-strong British squad left Portland with only one silver and two bronze medals – a tally that left them 16th in the medal table below Bahrain, Venezuela and Burundi. He also raised serious questions about the standard of coaching in the UK, especially in the middle-distance events.
“I want to see more athletes competing,” he said. “I think some of them are hiding away from competitions. And there is no substitute for competition, there really isn’t. You are not going to get it on the training track. You are not going to get it at a Diamond League, where you are just following a pacemaker. You do need to learn the craft.”
The British team was weakened by niggles to Jessica Ennis-Hill, Greg Rutherford and Katarina Johnson-Thompson while Mo Farah has opted to run the world half-marathon championships in Cardiff next weekend. However, a number of young medal contenders were left at home, including Laura Muir, who was fifth in the world championships’ 1500m in Beijing, and the European 400m indoor medallist Seren Bundy-Davies.
“These are events you have to use to give your athletes the experience,” Coe said, “because following pacemakers is a very different game from a championship where you have to think on your feet. I worry that the formative learning years, particularly in middle distance, are being lost on occasions like this.
“Mo Farah is an outstanding athlete but, if you go beyond him, you have performances that are slower than 40 years ago. I had a catch-up with Brendan Foster the other day. We were looking at the results of the 1976 Olympic trials at Crystal Palace, which I ran in. And actually the Tony Simmons, the Ian Stewarts, the Brendan Fosters were running quicker than they [current athletes] are now.”
Some might see Coe’s comments as part of a wider struggle between the International Association of Athletics Federations and UK Athletics over the preparation for the 2017 World Championships in London. However, Coe, who won Olympic gold in 1980 and 1984, said he was speaking as a fan of British athletics rather than in his role as IAAF president. He admitted he was concerned British men’s middle-distance running, in particular, appeared to be losing ground.
“I’m afraid you can’t look much beyond coaching,” he said. “Look at the two Americans in the 800m, who won gold and bronze. They’re not outstanding athletes but they are prepared well and in the middle-distance structure I don’t think I’m witnessing that.
“It starts and ends with coaching. You either have world-class coaching or you haven’t. We’ve clearly got world-class coaches – Toni Minichiello doing what he’s doing with Jess Ennis-Hill and Fuzz Ahmed with Robbie Grabarz – but I worry in this area we’re falling behind and it’s going to be hard to pull that back.”
Coe also appeared to question the strategy of the British Athletics performance director, Neil Black, who suggested that the Rio Olympics was the overwhelming focus of his athletes. Citing the example of Lynsey Sharp, the Scottish 800m runner who admitted that she had learned from her disappointing performance in Portland, Coe said there was no substitute for major-championship experience.
“Lynsey has been here and learned,” said Coe. “And actually you shouldn’t go that long without smelling the changing room. Competition is a learned experience. At the end of a career your performance at championship level defines you. And it tends to be what defines your national athletics performances.”
But Black, who led the team in Portland, insisted he had made the right decision by leaving so many athletes at home. “The people who needed to come for the competition and learn from it came. It’s as simple as that,” he said. “Seren didn’t need to come. Lynsey needed to because she’s not very good tactically, so she’s got to be able to deal with varying circumstances that come along. She was reluctant to come, we encouraged her strongly and she learned from it.”
Black also claimed his athletes could be left tired for the Rio Olympics in August if they trained too hard for the world indoors in March. “We don’t want to be in a position where we have tired athletes, who have striven that little bit more. It is such a fine line. If you do a little bit more intensity of work now, you have to spend a period of time recovering. It can take you longer to recover so that you cannot go on and do the blocks of work that you need for the Olympics. That is a pretty dramatic thing. You can lose everything now if you do the wrong things.”
He also dismissed Coe’s fears that the standing of British coaching was not good enough. “Our philosophy is that we have to grow our own coaches,” he said. “You’ve seen in the past that part of our strategy was to bring in coaches from the outside and, to be honest, that didn’t work particularly well. People felt a bit challenged and threatened by different systems and backgrounds.”
When Black was challenged over Britain’s lowly place in the medal table he said performances at the Olympics were all that mattered. “Of course I’m content with three medals,” he said. “We’re focusing on Rio. Hundred percent judge me alone on Rio.”
Before the world championships Black had joked that his team were ready to kill their rivals. But when asked whether they did so, he shook his head. “There is a group of athletes who applied themselves really well,” he said. “But I don’t think we did kill, no. No, we didn’t.”
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