This is the 4th of the 4 part interview by Stuart Weir on Jo Coates, the new CEO of UK Athletics.
Jo Coates, CEO of UK Athletics – Part 4
Jo Coates was appointed CEO of UK Athletics earlier this year. In an exclusive interview with Stuart Weir in May 2020, she shared her vision for the future.
UKA has 114 elite athletes on funding. Is that the best use of money?
The money that UK Sport has ploughed into the system is phenomenal. We wouldn’t have the athletes we have now without that sort of money. And that money is ring-fenced for those we think will medal. I can’t criticize that system, which was ultimately set up to deliver medals.
But what I would like to see is where you have the World Class Programme, that is only a part of our performance programme. What we need to do is invest in our entire talent and performance structure, which, for me, would be a fairer way of doing it, rather than saying to UK Sport: “give us this amount of money for this number of talented athletes”. Is that fair or not fair? I’m not going to say it’s not fair because they might take some of the money from us and I want that investment to stay in that area of the business. What I would like to see is a better distribution of cash into those who are not on the programme but who are still part of performance and talent. This is where we’re talking about behaviour and the system being fairer.
You can never be totally fair when you’re asking an athlete to do something extraordinary. To make it to an Olympic Games is an extraordinary achievement, whether you medal or not, an incredible thing to do. For me, it’s about investing in performance and talent and maybe using some of the money in the business elsewhere to better deliver in those areas.
How do you see 2020 developing?
I would love to be optimistic that there’s going to be a season with some events. At the moment all we can do is follow government guidance. As restrictions are lifted hopefully some of our elite athletes will go back into some kind of training this month [May] – but elite is a tiny number. Recreationally it’s not clear how much they will be able to do, we are reviewing it on a weekly basis with the home countries. We all want everyone competing again but we don’t want to see a spike in the virus. With regard to the competition season, we will keep optimistic until the point where we are told we have to cancel.
That’s what we did with the MÅ±ller Anniversary Games. We were later than most in cancelling because we wanted to hold on to the thought that potentially we might have something this year. Commercially we need to put on those events.
Is it viable to run the Gateshead Diamond League with no spectators?
No, it is not. Economically it makes no sense. We are not football. We don’t have those massive broadcast rights.
It is a huge legacy that you must continue, with the success of UK athletics: can you give us three key goals?
I’m going to go medals first – because I think I’d be criticized if I don’t! I need to put elite success first. In 2024 I would like to see us deliver more finalists in the Olympics and Paralympics. I think making a final at the Olympics or Paralympics is unbelievable. So, I am stressing our goal of finals rather than medal tally. My performance director and UK Sport will probably be very cross with me for saying that.
My second one would be that we have change the perception of the sport, that people believe what they see is real. That’s really important to me – that we have left all of that behind.
Thirdly that there’s a real and joined up system between grassroots and elite success and that the grassroots is thriving
What lessons has UK learned from the Salazar incident?
That’s a really interesting question which has never been posed to me like that before. I think that UK Athletics has learned to have exceptionally good processes for decision making – I think that’s one of the biggest lessons that you have to have very sturdy processes in place.
I think it may also be a lesson learned that when something like this happens your sport can really suffer because it can take hours and hours of executive time and resource away from growing the sport.
Remember I wasn’t there when it happened and so I’m only seeing the results of it.
Over the years UK has developed some amazing young athletes, how do you plan to continue that?
I think having we need an integrated structure between club, talent and performance and to ensure that we have incredible coaches. How you do it is to have a talent system and great coaches in place. That is why the coach development piece is really important to me as is making sure that that pathway is in place.
Another important point is that to attract those great young athletes, you need to have a sport that they want to be part of. So, you need to have that entry point as low as humanly possible so that you encourage anyone with even a slight amount of talent or a yearning to do the sport to come into the sport. We need to have an open-door policy and a welcoming policy to ensure that that talent comes to us in the first instance.
In summary you need that perception of the sport that is something for them, and clubs that open their doors to every kind of person so that they feel welcome, combined with a superb talent structure and superb coaches
The media in UK is unforgiving, give us one point that they are right about.
I think the one area where they are right is that we have perhaps been a little bit defensive around some access to the press. I think the press are amazed how much I am willing to do and be more open. We have been defensive, but I understand exactly why. It all comes back to your point about press conferences where we’re mostly asked about the negative. When that happens, you tend to shut down a little bit.
Give us one point that the media do not give UK athletics credit for?
I don’t think the media give credit to us for the role models we have in the sport, how they reflect today’s society, something which is very rare in a lot of sports. I also think that they don’t necessarily give credit to those athletes for the successes they have.