Funding backtrack: Time for selection policy shake-up

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Funding backtrack: Time for selection policy shake-up

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Today’s decision by British Athletics to award Olympic World Class Performance Programme funding to Eilish McColgan is overdue and wholly justified – though how the panel arrived at its original conclusion in the first place remains a mystery

Getting worked up about the dubious ins and questionable outs brought about by funding announcements from British Athletics is as futile as it is repetitive.

The sprint and relay bias that has dominated in recent years defined the original announcement at the beginning of November. It’s only taken five weeks since her appeal for the selectors to see the error of their ways around McColgan.

But it isn’t time to start patting British Athletics on the back for a decision that was obviously flawed in the first place. And with fewer distance athletes, in terms of both numbers and percentage overall, being selected for the top-tier of funding anyway, the commitment to distance running remains second to under-performing sprinters.

Three distance runners out of fifteen retained their share of the World Class Performance Programme pot – Laura Muir, Lynsey Sharp and Mo Farah, though whether an athlete with an estimated worth of $5m and access to the far reaching support of the Nike Oregon project really requires government support is debatable.

The number of athletes receiving a slice of the £9m fund is down by five overall compared to the previous year across both the top tier and Podium Potential Programmes.

Laura Weightman (highly surprising) and Andrew Osagie (less-so) were dropped like stones for failing to perform – this despite one being a Commonwealth Games silver medallist and double-Olympic 1500m finalist and the other being number four on the UK 800m all-time list.

Original criticism still very much stands…

Distance running is much better represented on the Podium Potential Programme. Twelve athletes out of the 30 selected will be in be mix for support worth between £23,000 and £40,000 per year. Compare this, though, to the 26 sprinters on Podium Potential and relay support and original criticism – none more so than from Eilish’s mum, Liz – still very much stands.

‘This year [British Athletics] have excelled themselves to the point now I think endurance running should be a separate funding group with separate criteria,’ she wrote in response to Eilish being dropped from funding despite a summer that saw her tick all the boxes on the selection criteria and finish a creditable 13th in the Olympic 5,000m final.

‘We have athletes funded who could not make it through the sprint rounds of an Olympics never mind the final, yet on funding for relays. It’s not right and it’s not fair.’

Seven medals from Rio doesn’t really represent a decent return on investment, especially when four of those were down to the same three medal winners four years before. But the future certainly isn’t bleak.

You only have to look at the likes of Callum Hawkins, Andrew Butchart and Eilish to see that the talent is there. Liz’s damning verdict on how money is invested in distance running and the need for a rethink is clear.

There are many selections that show how brittle the process is…

But the athletes who have actually been selected should also come under some scrutiny. There are many selections that immediately show how brittle the process is when you start to pick a little at the decisions.

This isn’t supposed to be a criticism of the athletes that have been picked. And today’s decision at least shows humility and recognition of the initial the error. But when you have an athlete that didn’t even make the Olympics on the list at the expense of others like Steph Twell and Beth Potter who did then question marks should arise.

British Athletics Performance Director, Neil Black, didn’t add anything revealing regarding the backtrack on McColgan today.

‘The panel reviewed their original decision and concluded that the additional information provided by Eilish within her appeal warranted her inclusion.’

Fifth-place at the Manchester Road Race in the States last month and a 30-second PB at last weekend’s Percy Pud 10k obviously swung it.

But delve a little more and the consistency of selection is still in question. If long distance athletes have been dropped because of age and future potential – as outlined in their funding policy – then some of those that have been selected don’t really stack up.

Ultimately, the governing body cannot and will not please everybody. Tough calls need to be made and a healthy balance between realism and potential needs to be struck.

But too many of British Athletics’ picks are questionable, consistency in their selection is absent, return on investment is negligible and the ways, means and faith in distance running continues to come a distant second to also-rans in the sprint relay world.

If this latest debacle proves anything, it’s that government funding is in need of a shake-up in order to be more robust.

Words by Bo James
Image from Steel City Striders