The decision comes following a series of faux pas in recent years that have affected the Kent-based club more than most, including turning up to relay events to find no athletes had been entered and a continually poor results service.
The uncertainty around parking and transport – for a club looking to take more than 100 runners – was the final straw, and the club is taking a stand against what it, and others, see as a significant decline in the quality of SEAA competition.
While the club’s stance is understandable, is boycotting the event the most effective way to bring about change? What, if any, will the implications be for the future of grassroots athletics in the South?
The regions have been in existence in some form since the end of the nineteenth century. The North claims to have been the world’s first athletics governing body, even predating the Amateur Athletic Association. It formed in August 1879 with the Midlands Counties Association emerging in March 1880. They are as much a part of the history of the sport as mud is to a cross country on Parliament Hill.
The regional associations are vital to the fabric of grassroots running. The North, Midlands and South continue to provide invaluable competition and developmental opportunities for all ages.
Club runners don’t seem to be treated with the same fairness or regard as the mass participation market, where extortionate prices are paid and justified by the bells and whistles they provide. The loyalty, heritage and blind optimism of the grassroots runner is taken for granted time and again.
Organisation should come as standard – but that simple measure hasn’t been without its hiccups in recent years, particularly for the South of England Athletic Association (SEAA). See the entry debacle at the relays last autumn that saw Tonbridge AC spend thousands to enter scores of runners across numerous age categories only to arrive at Crystal Palace to be told their teams hadn’t been entered.
Or results that are rushed out and revised and re-revised (and re-re-revised) until they’re rendered pretty much meaningless with nobody quite knowing what to trust. It leads many to question just what it is exactly that the entry fees are going towards.
While regional competition is essential to the make-up of grassroots athletics, Tonbridge’s actions prove that patience is starting to run very thin among a loyal fan base.
Entry, results and basic levels of organisation are not the nice added extras that make an event worth doing. Considerations such as venue suitability, ease-of-access, a clear and straightforward entry procedure and results published on time, first time, should come as standard.
Though they haven’t quite gone the way of the counties just yet, it’s true that the regional cross country championships suffer from the same saturation of events at this time of year. Prioritisation of races and the distribution of energy across the winter, coupled with runners’ thoughts already turning towards the roads and spring marathons, have been a source of frustration for the regional events for a while now.
But it’s a frustration that has gone hand in hand with a decline in the standard of organisation. The increase in competition in January should see the flip side occur and the organisers step up to the challenge. The lack of action from the regional bodies, however, has led to the event’s further slide into potential obscurity and irrelevance.
The fundamentals of event organisation haven’t been up to scratch for the last few years. If the only way to get the message across and say ‘enough is enough’ is to boycott the event, as Tonbridge has decided to do, then it’s an understandable course of action to take.
Regional championship events ought to raise their game, maintain their hold on affections and not rely on the habit and nostalgia of the grassroots that make it happen.
It may seem drastic but it’s the sharpest way to get through to a body that has recently shown itself closed to change. Last month’s decision to vote down amendments that would introduce gender parity to competitions in the region seems to have been the latest in a long line of failures that do little for the credibility of the SEAA or the sport.
General annoyance and dissent at the running of the SEAA has been frequent and justified of late – and this week’s championships will undoubtedly suffer as a consequence of Tonbridge AC’s decision to boycott.
Imagine: it’s your very last season as junior. Training has been going well, you’re going from strength to strength. This is your last crack at the southern title before you’re swept into the masses of the senior category – and if you’re a man, that means your race distance almost doubling inexplicably overnight.
Maybe you don’t even hope to win, just finish in the top-ten, twenty or thirty, top-half even. Personal goals and heights that you might never reach as a senior. However, your club has organised a boycott.
Let’s try the shoe on elsewhere. Perhaps you’re an athlete or team manager from another southern club. The South of England Cross Country Championships is something you’ve coveted for a long time, both as an individual but also as a team. It’s looking like your top-six men or top-four women may finally be coming together. Now, imagine winning it in 2018 – ‘the year Tonbridge boycotted’.
The wrangling between club officials at Tonbridge AC and the unidentifiable figures that make up the South of England Athletics Association undoubtedly affects the athletes more than anyone else. While it’s fair to say that recent SEAA events haven’t really been up to scratch, the disquiet between the club and the SEAA is an argument between officials, not athletes. Is it really fair to drag athletes into the crossfire?
This boycott is very much a protest against the direct impact poor organisation has had on Tonbridge in particular over the last couple of years. Such is the strength and depth of Tonbridge AC, that the competition will be severely diluted this weekend as a result.
The event will survive but the fallout and ill-feeling will be difficult to brush aside. It leads to question marks over whether a boycott is ultimately the most positive or effective method of bringing about change.
Tonbridge has attended all the SEAA road relays and cross country championships over the last few years. It isn’t the only club to have experienced the significant decline in that time. But purposefully refusing to enter any athletes into their region’s main championships is an all too easy way of showing dissatisfaction.
The club hasn’t sought to influence the standing of other clubs in the region, even though their concerns are apparently widely shared. The drastic action they’ve undertaken would undoubtedly have been more effective had more clubs been on board.
The fallout will stretch beyond just Tonbridge in the aftermath of the event once the impact has been assessed. It’s a shame the club feels it has to resort to such action to create this discussion. Whether it will affect any change in the long run or simply fall on deaf ears remains to be seen.
While a more constructive approach may have been to make their concerns public and to have appealed to the athletes themselves, not just the officials who often make decisions at committee level without much athlete involvement, what’s done is now done.
Ultimately, without the public support of others, the success of this lone campaign is questionable. It’s especially true now that the SEAA has worked to resolve the parking and transport issues that proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back.
If nothing else, the whole episode underlines the importance of communication, patience and collaborative working. The SEAA is, after all, a volunteer-driven organisation in a volunteer-driven sport. It’s important not to lose sight of that fact.
Words by Bo James
Images from Andrew Peat