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Lionesses' pay dispute, plus the state of athletics ahead of the Worlds
Within 24 hours of winning the Davis Cup for the first time in almost eight decades, Andy Murray and his GB team captain made their disdain for the LTA clear. There was no way they wanted any credit for their triumph going where they believed it wasn’t due. Once the England Lionesses’ World Cup adventure is done, stand by for similar broadsides aimed at the FA.
“I feel like you waste time because nothing ever gets done. and I don’t like wasting my time. I don’t speak to any of the people who are in a high up position about that. I haven’t really spoken to them about anything.” Andy Murray on the LTA in 2015
England’s women footballers parked their long-running financial dispute with the governing body on the eve of the tournament. Their immediate issue was the FA’s intransigence over bonuses, the governing body being unwilling to agree anything beyond the formulaic payments put in place by FIFA for all 32 teams. Other leading nations have agreed deals on top of the FIFA mechanism. But not England, who the PFA - the players’ union - have argued are consequently on a par with the likes of Haiti.
This is only part of a broader unhappiness about terms and conditions, in particular the players’ ability to benefit commercially from their part in the collective success of the team. The stakes are higher for England’s women than men, their income from international football constituting a far greater proportion of their overall rewards from the sport.
As well as noise in the media, expect threats to boycott promotional activity on behalf of FA corporate partners and demands for a more direct say in the governance of the fast-developing women’s professional game. Any suggestions that the team might down tools for this autumn’s UEFA Nation’s League matches are likely to be wide of the mark though.
The question the FA might ask itself is who needs the other more? Them or the Lionesses? I know where my money is. Time for Sue Campbell, FA director of women’s football, to slot this one home.
The Hungary Games
“Eugene wasn’t ideal.”
With these three words, World Athletics president Seb Coe consigned last year’s World Champs to history. And so onwards to Budapest 2023. The action starts this weekend, preceded by WA’s Congress at which Coe will be re-elected for the final time, unopposed. Let the jockeying to be his successor begin. On this rests the very future of the sport.
The decision to go to Eugene was taken before Coe became president, but it very much had his imprimatur. Oregon, home of Nike, was effectively the only option WA had to take its flagship competition to the US. With LA 2028 looming, it is critical track & field breaks out of a narrow American consciousness.
In the event, the organisers indisputably delivered, as did the world’s athletes. But Coe now moans that “we haemorrhaged quite a few millions of broadcasting hours.” Scary if his maths is correct. The negative impact of the West Coast location laid bare - too many time zones from the sport’s heartland European audience.
Budapest is not quite the first Eastern European host of the Worlds – Moscow notched that up in 2013 – but it does represent a return to normality for an event in need of rediscovering its identity ever since Berlin 2009. A series of boundary-testing cities have deprived it of familiarity. And even London 2017, which I chaired, created a problem. Its packed stadium and budgetary success have discouraged other hosts nervous of failing to measure up by comparison.
Right time zone, a sensible size stadium (capacity 35,000), good climate (fingers crossed) and a solid national athletics heritage (if no home medal prospects) all bode well for Budapest. Its website shows few evening seats available and the globe’s athletes have been breaking records for fun this summer. I’m always wary of claims about ticket sales, so let’s see how full the stands are when the sport begins. There’s little doubt though that, as in Eugene, the action will excite.
And yet I’ve a nagging fear that the world – not just the wider American public – is simply unaware. Come Paris 2024, athletics will once again be the centrepiece of the Games. Between Olympics, though, its popularity continues to drain away. Much of the blame should be aimed at the ruling council of World Athletics which is simply too hidebound, dominated by retired athletes and long-time administrators over-keen to stick with tradition and who recoil at innovation.
“Track and field has not changed in 30-plus years and the world has simply moved by it.” Michael Johnson, May 2023
Seb Coe’s first two terms of office have seen him complete the much-needed modernisation of athletics’ governance, clear the stench of corruption left by his predecessor’s regime, take up cudgels against doping and stand firm on Russia’s exile from the sport. This last may count against him when the election for IOC president comes round in 2025, should he want to take a tilt at succeeding Thomas Bach.
Were Coe to stand and win the IOC crown, he’d most likely be succeeded immediately by one of his four vice presidents. These positions are also up for election this week. None of the eight candidates is a household name – they’ve won one Olympic bronze between them. While this may prove a challenge in international power-broking, creativity and commercial smarts should be the primary requirements for the role. Whether the electorate of 214 member federations recognises that is another matter entirely.
Over the past few years, energised by CEO Jon Ridgeon, World Athletics has explored the possibility of bringing in private equity funding to help reshape and revitalise its event portfolio. It’s said that WA has since turned away from this path, but the underlying objective must surely remain sound. There’s not a great deal wrong with the centrepiece Championships that better promotion couldn’t fix, but much of the rest of the athletics calendar – especially the Diamond League itself – is a mess. Underwhelming, undersold, and often impenetrable to casual sports fans.
If Seb Coe’s final term of office does run a full four years, he has time yet to solve this challenge himself – indeed simply must solve it. He’s shored up the foundations. Now athletics needs its complete rebuild. That can wait until next month, though. Meantime, here’s to an exhilarating Worlds.
A version of the above section was published earlier this week by SportsProMedia
The only news in Britain about Budapest 2023 has been UK Athletics’ decision to turn down direct invitations from World Athletics to athletes who have made the cut via the world rankings. Instead UKA has only picked those making the team through set qualifying standards. The result is the smallest team in memory - only 55 vs 78 in Eugene - and a string of unhappy athletes left at home who made the rankings but not the standards.
“It just sucks.” GB hurdler Josh Zeller on his non-selection
Selection policies are usually the creatures of CEO, performance director and/or head coach. These personnel have changed at UKA in recent times. However, I spy the dead hand of UK Sport whose previous CEO, Liz Nicholl, once had me spluttering into my glass at a drinks reception in Rio by suggesting that her agency might consider only funding Britain’s relay teams and heptathletes. Such was the one-eyed focus on medal winning. With UKA now in financial difficulties, it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn of a resurgent focus on ‘return on investment’, even though UK Sport is itself under different leadership.
No serious medal prospects have missed the plane to Hungary though. The last eight editions of the Worlds, stretching back to 2007, have each seen GB win between five and seven medals. This should again be the target with, in order of likely success, these athletes pushing for the podium: Keely Hodgkinson, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Zharnel Hughes, Jemma Reekie (all four of whom are in the top three in the world this year for their event), Dina Asher-Smith, both 4x100 relays and the women’s 4x400 team, plus longer shots including Jazmin Sawyers and Josh Kerr. Best of luck to them all!
Driving the coach
If you’ve a spare half hour and are intrigued by what drives top coaches, listen to this podcast with Peter Eriksson, who led Britain’s para athletics programme through London 2012. He’s right up there as one of the best coaches I’ve worked with. The Great Coaches