One of the big stories in athletics in this century has been the rise of UK Athletics and the fine athletes of Team GBR. But, since 2017-2018, there whispers has been in the news lately. We asked Stuart Weir to help put the entire maelstrom in perspective. We believe that UK Athletics needs to focus on excellent leadership, development of coaching talent at all levels, finding a proven marketing and sales team, and not forgetting the fact that there are other sports that sponsors can move to support.
Fine athletes like Laura Muir, KJT, Heather Bradshaw, Mo Farah, Jake Wightman, Chris O’Hare are the exception, rather than the rule. Half ass leadership, or leadership that is concerned with building their own CVs could destroy UK Athletics. Leadership is key.
Turbulent times at UK Athletics
Ed Warner was Chairman of UK Athletics for ten years from 2007 to 2017. During this period Niels de Vos was chief executive (2007-2018). Such a period of stability seems very enviable from the current perspective of the state of the organization. The following article may read like a soap opera!
Ed Warner was highly regarded. He was chair when the Olympics took place in London and when London successfully bid for the 2017 World Championships – IAAF and IPC. Warner came to the end of his term of office and left in 2017. De Vos decided to leave and set up his own business a year later. He was then appointed as executive director of the IAAF World Championships Oregon21 local organising committee. An internal candidate, UKA’s strategy and partnerships director Nigel Holl took charge on an interim basis, while De Vos’ successor was sought.
Richard Bowker, an independent director of the Football [Soccer] League was appointed as chairman to replace Warner. Bowker lost the confidence of the Board and others in the sport and was gone by January 2019. Sarah Rowell, a current member of the Board, and Olympic Marathon runner was appointed Interim Chair of UK Athletics.
Following the World Championships in Doha in October 2019, UKA Performance Director, Neil Black, left his post. The official statement was: “The Board of UK Athletics and Neil Black are pleased to confirm that they have agreed a parting of ways on mutually acceptable terms and that Neil has completed his role as Performance Director this month, successfully facilitating a full handover of his work. Chair, Chris Clark, speaking on behalf of the Board, said: ‘We would like to record our thanks for Neil’s work most recently as Performance Director, but also in his previous roles employed by UK Athletics for the past 15 years, and prior to that as a lead Physical Therapist. We wish him well with future projects.’ All sounds very amicable but my understanding is that Black was effectively fired.
Black has previously made comments defending Alberto Salazar’s involvement in British Athletics and while no reason for his departure was given, the assumption of most people was that it related to Salazar, but I have also been told that it was because the GB team on his watch had failed to meet its medal target on Doha. I have written elsewhere that I believe the firing of Black was an error of judgment See https://www.runblogrun.com/2019/10/2019-doha-diary-some-thoughts-on-neil-black.html
In November 2019, Zara Hyde Peters, former head of British Triathlon was appointed CEO of UKA. Then a newspaper ran a story that her husband had been allowed to continue as a coach at Coventry Godiva Harriers despite being banned from teaching for an “inappropriate relationship” with a 15-year-old schoolgirl, when Zara Hyde Peters had been vice-chair of Coventry Godiva Harriers. Hyde Peters and UKA Chairman, Chris Clark, attended a lunch of the British Athletics Writers Association on a Thursday in November, with the chairman briefing that her appointment would go ahead despite the newspaper allegations. By the following Monday, UKA had issued a statement: “Following recent press reports and significant media attention focused on Zara Hyde Peters, the UKA Board convened a meeting this past Sunday 24th November and discussed the situation fully. Following the meeting I had time with Zara to review the situation and we have agreed together, that she will now not be taking up her position as CEO on 1st December”.
UK Athletics then announced the commissioning of an Independent Review following Alberto Salazar’s 4-year ban from the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) for violations of safe practices through his managing and running coaching programmes at the Nike Oregon Project.
In January 2020, UKA announced the appointment of Nic Coward as Interim CEO. He was a former General Secretary of the Premier League (Soccer) and CEO of the British Horseracing Authority, as well as twice acting CEO of the Football [Soccer] Association. Chairman, Chris Clark, said: “Appointing an interim CEO is the first important step to ensure we have strong leadership for the sport working alongside our management team and the board, and ultimately supporting our world class programme so they all give their very best in Tokyo. Nic is a highly experienced sport executive and will provide an important leadership role until such time our next CEO, currently being recruited, can start.”
In February UK Sport announced that it has commissioned an independent first stage review into UK Athletics to define the key components of a ‘fit for the future’ NGB for Athletics in the UK and recommend areas of change, saying: “Issues raised in recent months regarding the sport are of major concern to both UK Sport and to the leadership team at UK Athletics. Both organisations are committed to delivering long-term improvement and ensuring the sustainability of the sport while acting in the best interests of its athletes, staff and the wider athletics family. Our aim in commissioning this first stage review is to ensure we have a full understanding of the priority issues and any next steps required to help the sport move forward”. UK Athletics welcomed the announcement of the review announced by to recommend areas of change and organisational development to ensure that UK Athletics is fit for the future.
Also this month (February), Joanna Adams was appointed UKA Chief Executive Officer. She has previously been CEO of England Netball. And it was announced that chairman, Chris Clark, was to to step down as Chair. Nic Coward, formerly acting CEO, would become acting Chair. Clark gave as his reasons: “The role of Chair for UKA clearly now requires a huge time commitment during this crucial period. My other commitments to regulated businesses and public sector organisations have significantly increased since commencing the role and I have to concede that I cannot give it the time commitment it deserves right now”.
Hopefully a period of some stability will now follow.