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UK Athletics

Participation v Performance

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10 December 2007


Column by UKA Chairman, Ed Warner, as seen in Athletics Weekly Magazine.



One of my greatest frustrations at UKA has been the apparent conflict between the desires of athletics clubs in the grassroots and the objectives (one could say restrictions) attaching to some of our sport’s funding. It appears, though, that a welcome realignment might be about to take place.


I think we’d all agree that more people participating in athletics is a good thing. But what is participation? Is it athletes of all ages running, jumping and throwing under the aegis of their local club; or is it recreational runners on Britain’s roads and trails, perhaps entering the occasional fun run or mass race?


Sport England’s remit has, to date, been primarily focused on mass activity, mindful of the positive effects on health of regular exercise. While this may assist the road running branch of athletics, it does not necessarily help raise performance standards at the front of the pack. And it certainly doesn’t meet squarely the needs of our track and field clubs.


UKA and England Athletics have, together, lobbied hard for Sport England to be refocused on sport. Not that the health agenda isn’t important, but that local sport cannot afford scarce resources to be diverted from its own particular needs: clubs, coaches, volunteers, facilities and athlete development – both for track and field and road running.


Clearly, athletics hasn’t been alone in this regard. Last month I appeared alongside the heads of British cycling and swimming at a DCMS Select Committee hearing. Quizzed on the requirement of a sporting legacy from the 2012 games, we all identified Sport England – and its objectives as set by government – as the critical factor.   


In that regard, a speech by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport last week appears to constitute a welcome new beginning. The headline grabber was James Purnell’s observation: “I am categorically sure that the purpose of Sport England is to encourage sport in England. Call me simple-minded but surely there’s a clue in the name.” The next day SE’s chairman departed.


I’m not so naïve to believe that all has changed at the stroke of a speech-writer’s pen, or that alignment of ambitions will now be simple and funding will flow easily. It is incumbent on athletics to ensure that it is fit to be funded, that it can clearly articulate its purpose and can make a compelling case for support.


Also last week, Niels de Vos announced a proposed restructuring of UK Athletics. One of its objectives is to devolve more responsibility to the Home Countries and to the regions of England. Local needs can best be understood, and resolved, from a local perspective. This will mean a smaller national governing body but, I believe, healthier local athletics.