This is the first of two articles on the Vision for the future as described by Ian Beattie and Mark Munro in their first media briefing. We were fortunate enough to have Stuart Weir covering the event. As always the man from Oxford is our eyes and ears across the pond.
If one has never been on a call featuring British sports media, or been to a press briefing in the UK, well, that is a special kind of treat. Somewhere in the briefing, one or more journalists will sum up all of the screw ups in maybe one to two short, clear sentences. The person responding usually takes a deep breath and rattles on. That is not what has happened here. Beattie and Munro seem to be on the same page about how much of a hot mess that British Athletics has been dealt. Time to roll up the sleeves and get to work.
The new chair’s vision
New Chair of UK Athletics, Ian Beattie, and Interim Chief Executive, Mark Munro gave their first press briefing, sharing their vision for athletics in Britain. The appointment of Beattie as chair has been widely welcomed because, unlike any of those who have held the position since the departure of Ed Warner in 2017, Ian Beattie is “one of our own”. A runner, a race organizer and the former chair of Scottish Athletics, he’s a man steeped in the sport. Munro was CEO of Scottish Athletics before joining British Athletics as development director, meaning that he and Ian Beattie know each other well and work well together. In the press briefing, answers moved seamlessly from one to the other with each one, more than once, emphasizing their agreement with what the other had said.
A narrative is in danger of developing that everything the previous CEO, Jo Coates, did was bad and that everything that the new management will do will be brilliant. I feel very positive about the vision Beattie and Munro outlined and I like the direction and the emphasis that they are stressing. At the same time, I would happily knowledge the achievements of Jo Coates in safeguarding and other important initiatives. She was also very accessible.
Shortly after her appointment, Coates told me that she saw not being from the sport as an advantage and that it was not important that her first appointment, the performance director, was not from athletics. I believe that the last 18 months have shown us the flaws in that view, particularly if you dispense with the services of – rather than leaning heavily on – those experienced and well-respected professionals who were pillars of British Athletics, several of whom left shortly after the appointment of Jo Coates.
We must also not forget the state of the organization that Beattie and Munro find themselves in charge of, beautifully summed up by one athletics writer on the briefing “no TV deal, Diamond League given away, CJ Ujah doping scandal, coaches and athlete mutiny, UK Sport reviews, four chairmen, three CEOs”. The journalist added: “Is UKA at rock bottom or is there still further to fall?”
The new chair identified four priorities on which he wished to focus:
1 The appointment of the new Technical Director (performance). The way the job description has been rewritten to require experience in and knowledge of track and field athletics is a recognition that the previous appointment of someone from without was a mistake. The words used by Beattie and Munro of that appointment “fundamental”, “absolutely crucial”, “the absolute priority” stressed the importance they attached to having “the right person” in place in the next few weeks ready to “come in and hit the ground running”.
2 Seeing Britain hosting significant events. See separate article on this.
3 Continuing and developing the cooperation between UKA and the athletics governing bodies in the four UK home nations.
4 Being a really good organization “which has to underpin everything else we do. That means being strong in areas like safeguarding, it means a clean sport, it means in all the support functions being as good an organization as we can be”. While this may seem a little nebulous, it was clearly a fundamental part of Beattie’s vision. His statement: “We want athletics in the UK to be a sport that people are proud to be part of, at whatever level they are” will resonate with many people who have become disenchanted over the past few years.
One of the key words in the briefing was “support”. In the course of a 30 minute briefing, Beattie and Munro made 27 references to the role of the Governing body in offering support to those in the sport. I looked back at my transcripts of my first conversation with Jo Coates. Beattie and Munro referred to “supporting” 27 times more than Coates.
First Beattie spoke of his desire “to build a culture where the athletes feel that we are there to support them” adding “I want us to be clear about our role which is to provide the best possible support we can to athletes and coaches”. Munro added: “Our sport is about athletes, it’s about competition, it’s about participation…We are here to support the sport, we’re here to support the athletes and to make sure that the coaches are delivering against that and to support them”. There were references to supporting the Home Nations, to supporting athletes and those behind them, to supporting coaches, officials and parents of athletes. While the previous management used the catchy phrase “athletes first”, when Beattie and Munro speak of supporting the sport, you feel that they mean it and that they have thought out what it means.
When asked straight out if he had wanted the (now previous) CEO and Performance Director to leave, Ian Beattie could easily have said a simple “No”, but he didn’t. His answer was: “I think I came into the job initially and wanted to have a look and see where we were headed. I prefer to look forward in the role. I hadn’t been in it long enough. I don’t think you can come straight into a role and know the direction you want to take it. I think we now have to get on with the situation we find ourselves in. Two senior people have left the organization and that clearly leaves a number of holes”.
The importance of communication was mentioned. The importance of listening to stakeholders at all levels was underlined. The new leaders have already had a video call with a number of elite athletes. There were several references to transparency. Of course, they have to deliver in practice but first impressions were that athletics in the UK was in good hands.