The rumors and questions have been there for some time. British Athletics, which had all but perished at the turn of the 2000s, which had come back and with brilliant competitions and new and enduring stars, had risen from the ashes.
The first ill advised move, in my mind, was British Athletes (under Neils De Vos) cutting FastTrack, their marketing agency, to save the commissions. They lost millions on that move. Then, the World Cup, which competed with the Anniversary Games, in 2018, cost $1.5 million more in expenses than it should have. The revenue problems have been more than whispers since 2019.
The grumblings about the changes in coaching, and lack of experience in athletics have only continued the concern.
Coates and Symington have resigned. At this level of corporate and athletic management, one does wonder what happened. Special thanks to Stuart Weir for writing this up!
British athletics is again in turmoil after the shock resignation of CEO Jo Coates and performance director, Sara Symington. The following brief statement was issued to media at 7:15 PM on Thursday evening:
“UK Athletics can confirm that Joanna Coates and Sara Symington have given notice from their respective roles, Chief Executive Officer and Performance Director.
Mark Munro, current Development Director, will take over as Interim CEO for a period of six months to provide strategic continuity and leadership to the staff, athletes and coaches and will prioritise working with the Board to start the recruitment process for both roles.
Chair of UK Athletics, Ian Beattie, said: “I’d like to thank Jo and Sara for their work during their time at UK Athletics and I wish them both all the best for the future.
Further information on the Chief Executive and Performance Director roles will follow in due course”.
It has been suggested that British Athletics made a hurried announcement because newspapers were going to break the story the following morning. Coates was appointed in March 2020, Symington in November 2020.
Symington then revealed on social media that she was returning to British Cycling as head of their Olympic and Paralympic Program. She tweeted: “I couldn’t be happier – going back to where it all started #cycling”. She has competed in two Olympics in cycling before becoming performance director in Archery and Netball, when she worked with Jo Coates.
Initial reaction suggests that there will be little sadness in the sport to see them go. Coates was criticized for getting rid of so many highly-regarded expert athletics (track and field) staff in the organization she took over.
A major criticism of them both was that they never really understood how athletics worked. We have a saying in football (soccer) that a coach has “lost the dressing room (locker-room)” meaning the coach has lost the confidence of the players. Jo Coates had lost the confidence of most people in the elite end of the sport.
I remember in one of my first encounters with Jo Coates she said that the Performance director did not need to be from athletics. I was unconvinced then and I think I have been proved right.
On Monday there was a press-briefing on the announcement of list of funded athletes for 2022 by Head Coach, Christian Malcolm, and Sara Symington. Not in answer to a question, very early in the press conference, Symington said: “we have got the credibility and expertise to be in these roles. You know our history in different sports and of course Christian’s history. We’ve been here 11 months. Can we do things better? Absolutely, and that is what we are in the throes of doing post Tokyo. Getting the right people in place to move this forward. It’s very much about looking towards Paris now”. I thought at the time that this was a very strange comment to make. Why did she feel that she had to try to convince the media of her competence? I concluded that the general view that I pick up – that Christian Malcolm is too inexperienced and out of his depth and that Sara does not understand the sport – was getting to her. The comments seem more extraordinary now given that she must have known that it was to be her last appearance in the job.
A question was asked about why Andy Butchert who made the Olympic final but had lost his place in the world class program (central funding). The questioner asked explicitly “Has he been punished for what happened this summer off the track?” (referring to a strange incident when Butchert appeared to say that he changed the date on a Covid test certificate only to deny it afterwards). Symington’s response was: “Absolutely not. The decision for purely based on performance. What happened in the summer is totally irrelevant. We’d got 68 places; it was incredibly competitive – a nice headache to have. This time around he just didn’t fit where we were. He’s been on funding six, seven years. He’s an incredibly talented athlete but when we started looking at the 124 people that we were considering, unfortunately he missed out on this occasion”.
My thought at the time was, to quote Shakespeare, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”.
Athletes’ reaction – on social media and in my own conversations – tonight has been fascinating. One reaction was real sadness, that the sport had again become a laughingstock. Several athletes expressed irritation that they had become aware of such an important development only through social media.
Jamie Webb commented: “All I’ll say is, I’m bitterly disappointed with the way we’ve been treated this week. I hope we get a lot more consideration moving forward… it would be nice to not read about crucial information which influences our lives significantly on twitter”.
Tom Bosworth tweeted: “these two who clearly couldn’t grasp our sport decided I wasn’t worthy of support despite half a decade of over achieving my funding level and quit a week later. @UKSport are you watching these people mess with athletes lives”.
To sum up, it’s hard to come up with a simple explanation for the unexpected events of this evening. The context is that Jo Coates and Sara Symington had lost the confidence of athletes and coaches to a significant degree. The view was regularly expressed that they never really grasped the nature of the sport. When a group of significant athletes and coaches met Seb Coe at the Zurich Diamond League and reportedly begged him to intervene in British athletics to avoid a disaster, it was a public confirmation of athlete lack of confidence in management.
It was then leaked that two medal winning coaches in Tokyo were having their hours cut. When asked about that at this week’s presser, Symington said that one of the coaches was continuing to be employed fulltime and that no decision had been taken on the other. It was hard not to conclude that the consultation, leaking of information and denial was anything but a shambles.
There was a board meeting this week – Ian Beattie’s first as chair – which may have been another significant step in the process. The Times commented: “The episode will be seen by many in the sport as an impressive start for Beattie, who was formerly the chair of Scottish Athletics”. Mark Munro — Beattie’s former chief executive in Scotland and currently development director — will take hold of the reins as interim chief executive for a period of six months “to provide strategic continuity and leadership to the staff, athletes and coaches”. He will more easily gain the confidence the athletics community.
Athletics Weekly commented: “It is unclear whether they jumped or were pushed but it seems more likely to be the latter and it is perhaps no coincidence that Beattie began his role in the past few days. Coates and Symington both worked together to good effect in netball prior to joining UKA, but adapting to athletics has proved challenging”.
Another big question is where does this leave Christian Malcom who has often looked out of his depth and who has lost the two people who appointed him.
Few in the sport will be sorry to see Coates and Symington go, but the task of the new CEO, whenever one disappointed will not be an easy one.