Great Britain

‘Dreadful neglect’ of British athletics has squandered 2012 legacy, top coach says

British athletics is in its worst state for 60 years having largely squandered the golden legacy of London 2012, one of the sport’s most decorated coaches has warned.

Malcolm Arnold, a former head coach and the first performance director of UK Athletics (UKA) who has guided multiple athletes to Olympic and world titles, said he was reluctantly speaking out because people needed to “wake up” to the scale of the problem.

“This is undoubtedly the most worried I have been in all my years in the sport,” he told the Guardian. “I keep thinking to myself, what the hell is going to happen at the Tokyo Olympics [this year] and who is concerned about it?”

In a scathing assessment of a sport that is one of the jewels in Britain’s Olympic crown, Arnold claimed that since the “Super Saturday” of the 2012 games, in which Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis-Hill and Greg Rutherford won gold medals, UKA had:

Failed to help enough talented athletes reach their potential while paying massive appearance fees to stars such as Usain Bolt to appear at events including the Anniversary Games.

Too often ignored coach development which had “decimated” field events in which Britain once led the way.

Made a mistake in appointing UKA’s former physiotherapist Neil Black as performance director, who was in post, Arnold claims, during a decline in coaching.

The 79-year-old, who was awarded an OBE in 2012 and was presented with the International Olympic Committee Coaches lifetime achievement award earlier this month, said that while Britain had a handful of exceptional athletes who had recently won world indoor or outdoor medals, such as Dina Asher-Smith, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Laura Muir and Andrew Pozzi, the talent pool had significantly shrunk since 2012 due to the “dreadful neglect” of elite athlete and coaching development by UK Athletics.

He said he believed the sport’s infrastructure and prospects were no better now than when he was performance director in 1997 – despite it receiving more than £110m in lottery money over the past two decades.

“Coach and athlete development structures barely exist now and have suffered serial and serious decline since London 2012, which was supposed to be a point in time when British sport took off from this incredible launch pad,” said Arnold. “Our homegrown coaches have been ignored and decimated through lack of care by the governing bodies.”

Arnold said the rot had set in after 2012 when a change in strategy from the then UKA chief executive, Niels de Vos, put more stall in “showbiz athletics” and paying massive appearance fees to athletes like Bolt and Farah, than developing the next generation.

Another major mistake, Arnold claimed, was the appointment of Black to replace Charles van Commenee as performance director after 2012. Black left UKA in October 2019, after the team failed to hit its medal target at the world championships and in the wake of his support for the banned US coach Alberto Salazar.

“De Vos appointed Neil Black, who we were all utterly shocked about,” Arnold said. He said Black had been “a bloody good physio” but doubted his coaching credentials.

“My professional apprentice coach lost his job as did a fine cadre of volunteer coaches that I had built up over the years.”

Arnold added that the “serious decline” in coaching was most pronounced in technical events, such as the javelin and triple jump. Britain once led the world in the former but didn’t even have an athlete – male or female – at the world championships. “What has happened to the legacy of Steve Backley, Tessa Sanderson and Jonathan Edwards?” he asked.

Arnold, who also guided hurdlers Colin Jackson and Dai Greene to world titles, said a pattern of appointing chairs who did not have a sufficiently detailed understanding of the sport – such as Richard Bowker who left his post after a year – often meant decisions were not scrutinised deeply enough.

“I am looking to revive the sport at the highest level. It’s heartbreaking to witness this having been in the sport for 42 years. For me it is an attempt to wake people up,” Arnold said.

Black has been contacted for comment.

Insiders at UK Athletics would point out that some of Arnold’s criticisms refer to the previous regime – and non-executive director Sarah Rowell is currently conducting a wide-ranging performance strategy review into what UKA must do to improve.

In a piece in Athletics Weekly last week, Rowell accepted that when it came to performance leadership “we recognise that a change is required post-Tokyo to allow us to meet our aspirations” before adding: “It is very clear that not enough is being done to best develop British performance focused coaches.”

She added that the review will also acknowledge there is a “lack of trust in the government body as a whole amongst external stakeholders and the athletics community”.