RunBlogRun opines: This is Paul Halfords colum for the week. Paul Halford writes about the future of British athletics, from now to 2020, the 2018 GBR versus USA and the fantastic rivalries from London 2017, and world records are few and far between right now (and that is good)!
The future of British Athletics, 2018 GBR vs USA and great battles from London WC, by Paul Halford
This time last week I wrote how ridiculous it was that death of British athletics was being declared after just half a week in which their team had achieved only one medal. My belief has always been that medals don’t tell the whole story of success in a championships and that, in any case, 10 days of action – albeit at the biggest event for the next two years – cannot define the health of a whole sport within a nation. I feel a fair deal of vindication now.
I’m not massively partisan, but being in a position in which it was difficult to avoid the negative British press coverage, I took great delight in seeing Britain day by day in the second half of the week climb the medal and placing tables.
Here’s how it ended up:
Only four countries picked up more medals than Britain’s six. On the placings table, which assigns eight points for gold, seven for silver and so on down to one point for eighth, Britain was third with 105 – its highest ever tally. Placings are a far better indicator of success and, on this token, GB was behind only USA and Kenya. Only USA had more top-eights than Britain’s 25.
This all looks impressive for a country which is 17th most populous in the world. However, with Russia not being a factor at the moment and when taking into account Britain’s history as one of the powerhouses of athletics, I’d say we did about as well as one might expect – not much better or not much worse.
Plenty was made of the fact that Britain’s medals came only via Mo Farah (two) and relays. Some place a lower value on relays medals and, the critics ask, what will happen now Farah is moving to the road and presumably big-city rather than championship marathons? Where will the medals come from in the 2019 Worlds and 2020 Olympics? The answer might be: how about from one of the five fourth places or the rest of 25 top-eights? For example, Dina Asher-Smith, Callum Hawkins, Kyle Langford, Laura Muir, Lorraine Ugen or Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake.
I would ask the critics what they are comparing Britain’s performances to? If it’s to other countries then I’d have to point out that third (on the placings table) or sixth (on the medals table) in the world isn’t bad for a country its size – even when you consider we’re a relatively rich and developed nation, therefore with good facilities, and that former powerhouse Russia is missing. The performance surely can’t be poor compared to British competitors in other sports either. If it’s compared to the past, I would offer that six medals is only marginally below the 6.13 average for the other 15 editions of the championships.
One British newspaper used as a negative the lack of depth in throws and jumps. Yet all nations, except USA, have weak areas. I doubt Kenyan media is asking why their country’s athletics team – second best in the world if you look at placings and medals – doesn’t have one single statistically recognised performance this year in any of the shot, discus or hammer.
If you want to look deeper down at standards, let’s look at the British Championships as a whole. According to the complex stats at website all-athletics.com, only USA and Germany had stronger national championships.
I can understand the frustration of UKA performance director Neil Black in his post-championship interviews when he said: “I’m aware that people will be chatting s— everywhere and saying all sorts of things. That’s cool. Say what you want. We will carry on performing, and that’s where the motivation comes from.”
He added: “We’ve three years to the Tokyo Olympics, so we are really very confident. All logic would say to carry on with a similar approach. You apply a consistent progression to these athletes, and every one of those guys who has finished in the top eight is capable over the next two or three years of stepping up.”
A new US versus GB meeting for July 21 at the London Stadium has been announced, with organisers British Athletics looking to cash in on the huge public appetite for top-class athletics. The record ticket sales for the recent World Championships, following on from the sell-out at the Olympics at the same stadium, demonstrates the market for it.
I doubt either side will be sending their best teams, but that won’t bother the crowds as long a few stars and some British vests are on show.
Now if only British Athletics could figure out a way of getting people to watch grassroots track and field. We saw 50,000-plus for each evening session at London 2017, yet almost literally no one turns up as a “spectator” to the British Athletics League and UK Women’s League, the two main senior domestic leagues. The people in the stands at the latter are athletes, their families, clubmates, officials and coaches.
Huge ticket sales are great for the sport, but getting people more involved with grassroots athletics would make me even more confident for the future in the long term.
The recent World Championships lacked out-of-this-world performances and the only world record was in a very new event, but we were enthralled by dramatic, close contests and plenty of surprises. Due to the current suspicion surrounding track and field, it was probably better for the sport that we had the latter.
We don’t need to see world records when we have great drama instead. We may have trouble believing some performances, but just seeing people racing each other – whatever the level – can be great entertainment. What happened to Shaunae Miller-Uibo in the 400m, Beatrice Chepkoech in the women’s 3000m steeplechase or Usain Bolt you couldn’t possibly have made up. Emma Coburn upset the Africans and a compatriot knocking 15 seconds off her best to take a similarly surprising silver, and that scintillating women’s 1500m were just two more examples of many moments of high drama.
How great it would be if we had seen the start of a new era for athletics – cleaner competition meaning few outliers, fewer dominant athletes and eye-raising performances; better facilities in developing countries raising overall the standards. I think we are already seeing much better standards in depth in many events than ever before. All this could mean closer competition at future world championships.