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Is this the way to 2012?
Posted by: JohnLevison
Posted on: Sunday 28th December 2008


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It's all been happening at BTF HQ of late, but what does Tri247 Editor John Levison make of it all?

Changes

My, oh my!; it's holiday time. Christmas is here, and I'm pretty sure that the great and the good at the British Triathlon (BT) HQ in Loughborough are going to need to recharge their batteries for the new year. Race season may be over, but we reckon that it's been frantic there of late. In case you haven't kept pace, here is a quick summary (of just some...) of what's been going on over the past month or so:

  • Sarah Springman, British Triathlon President, became an International Triathlon Union (ITU) Vice President and was re-appointed to her BT role.
  • Hyde Park, London, was announced as one of the eight venues for the inaugural Dextro Energy Triathlon - World Championship Series, on August 16th 2009. This will bring live television coverage to the sport, and also showcase Hyde Park three years prior to the London Olympic Games triathlon at the same venue.
  • UK Sport announced that triathlon had been awarded £5.39 million as its budget for the London 2012 Olympic programme, an increase on the Beijing cash, despite British triathletes not securing a single medal so far in three Games.
  • A change in the elite coaching structure, resulting in the departure of Men's Head Coach Dan Salcedo, and a global search for a new Head Coach to oversee both the men's and women's programmes over the next four years.

Leadership

In my last column, I talked about the future of British triathlon at the Olympic Games, given our lack of success in meeting the (agreed, and realistic) target of securing one medal at any of the past three Games. I also said at the time, "it was only earlier on this year that Zara Hyde-Peters became the new Chief Executive Officer of British Triathlon. Now is the time for her to take stock of the set-up for the next four-year cycle."

On that front, I think it's fair to say that she has presided over some major changes to date, and has certainly made an impact such that you would expect (and hope) a 'leader' would have. Whether everything proves successful remains to be seen, but positive, proactive action is usually better than none. So far, so good.

Performance

I wanted primarily, however, to focus on the performance element of British Triathlon. In addition to the flurry of press releases and news highlighted above, British Triathlon also announced their 2009 Squad Selections. For me, this was one of the most interesting pieces of news.

Initially at least, the most exciting element of this type of announcement is "who is in, who is out" etc. And, I guess I'm no different on that front!

However, looking beyond the names, I'd suggest there are some changes - both explicit and implicit - within the revised performance pathway, that suggest to me that someone has been showing some clarity of thought (and probably learning an awful lot from British Cycling...).

First, a step back. It's long been a moan that BT don't care / ignore / don't understand non-drafting triathlon, long distance triathlon or duathlon. To a point, possibly true, and it's certainly the case that the vast proportion of all funding (UK Sport / external sponsorship) is focussed on draft-legal triathlon competition. There is a reason for this:

"UK Sport's mission is to support the delivery of medal success at the world's most significant sporting events – principally the Olympic and Paralympic Games"

Over the past three seasons Leanda Cave, Bella Comerford and Chrissie Wellington have won the ITU World Long Distance Championship. Chrissie Wellington is double Ironman World Champion. Julie Dibens is double World XTERRA Champion. Ultimately, those performances don't contribute directly to the delivery of Olympic medals and hence the support for them from the governing body is limited - the funding is ring-fenced for a different objective!

This is not new, and the primary funding of athletes for all of my time in the sport has been for those focussed on standard distance, draft legal racing. However, in case that wasn't entirely clear, the revised World Class Performance Programme in my opinion seeks to leave absolutely no doubt of this:

"... the focus of our World Class Programme will be targeted more than ever before to succeed in the Olympics in London and beyond"

So, you might not like the objective, but at least it's completely clear.

I'd also suggest that it's been made pretty clear to the athletes exactly what their objectives are. This appears more subtle, but I don't think it's a coincidence that the four performance pathway levels have been (re)named:

  • OLYMPIC Podium Squad
  • OLYMPIC Academy Squad
  • OLYMPIC Foundation Squad
  • OLYMPIC Talent Squad

So, if you are an athlete and you want to get on the plan... you better make sure that Olympic success is your goal, and your talents are directed in the appropriate manner. Weak swimmer? Best find somewhere else...

British Cycling

Reading between the lines, I'm pretty certain someone has been researching, listening to and learning from the British Cycling team. Rightly, David Brailsford, Performance Director of British Cycling has been hailed for his work in developing the legacy left by Peter Keen (by no coincidence, now Head of Performance at UK Sport), into the most dominant Olympic team in the world.

British Cycling have a remarkably simple, and direct approach to athletes within "the system", as outlined by Brailsford:

"... every person within the system is there because we genuinely believe that at some point in time they have the potential to win an Olympic medal for Great Britain. As soon as they reach the point that we feel that they can't, they are removed from the system. It's as simple as that really... there is no favouritism."

That hasn't been the case historically within British Triathlon, where I would argue that there were plenty of athletes subject to support and funding in years past who never showed the required ability or potential to perform to that level.

It's perhaps also no coincidence that British Cycling's system, in aggregate called the 'Olympic Development Programme' (ODP), has four levels, called:

  • OLYMPIC Podium Programme
  • OLYMPIC Acadamy Programme
  • OLYMPIC Development Programme
  • OLYMPIC Talent Team

Sound familiar?!

It will also be interesting to see whether another element of the British Cycling approach is implemented: selection policy.

Rewind to 2004, and you may remember the selection dramas, arguments and legal action around the Athens Olympics and the selection of Jodie Swallow. For Beijing, learning from mistakes made four years earlier, the selection policy for triathlon was extremely detailed, and gave opportunities for athletes to qualify at either the 2007 World Championships, the 2007 Beijing World Cup or the 2008 Madrid World Cup.

Contrast this to the British Cycling selection policy. While there are plenty of words there, it can basically be summarised as:

"... selections will be discretionary and based on the professional judgement of the Team Great Britain Selection Panel"

That must be a scary prospect if you are an athlete! But did it work?! Ten Olympic track events, seven golds, only two events we didn't medal in and only one squad member (Mark Cavendish) who didn't return from Beijing with at least one medal. We left behind the likes of Jason Queally, Craig MacLean and Rob Hayles, all former Olympic medallists, and still dominated.

If you want to see evidence of this policy in action, check out this video. It features Scottish cyclist Kate Cullen who was not selected for the World Championships earlier this year, in preference for Lizzie Armitstead, who she had beaten at the National Championships. Just six months later, and Armitstead has played a massive role in Nicole Cooke's World Championship Road Race win in Varese, and then won three events at the Track World Cup in Manchester. If future Olympic success is the goal, I'd suggest that perhaps the Midas touch of Mr Brailsford (and the flexibility to implement the 'discretionary' selection policy) was right again...

But cycling isn't perfect. Brailsford described, effectively reflecting on his own performance, British Cycling's failure to even get a rider qualified to ride in the ladies mountain bike event in Beijing as "disgraceful" - and you would imagine that won't be allowed to happen again. We had a similar issue in triathlon, of course, qualifying only two ladies for Beijing. While Michelle Dillon may have been suffering from what was ultimately a career-ending injury, that should never have happened for a nation of our resources and talent. I trust that British Triathlon are looking back at that with the same honesty, and learning from it for 2012.

The future?

But can this work in triathlon? I think it can, in fact you could make a strong case that Canada used a similar approach to great success by selecting Colin Jenkins solely for the purposes of acting as a support / domestique to silver medal winner Simon Whitfield. There were several seemingly 'better' Canadian triathletes than Jenkins (Brent McMahon for one), but the Canadians believed their best chance of winning was by selecting Jenkins (a very strong swim / biker), in a support role, a decision that so nearly ended in a second Olympic gold for Whitfield. Such an approach would be very difficult to implement under the current British selection system.

However, I think it all comes down to strong leadership from the top. British Cycling, with Dave Brailsford and his key advisers such as Shane Sutton and Chris Boardman, clearly has it. If anything, I'd say the biggest pressure is now going to reside on Heather Williams, the British Triathlon Performance Programme Director. The appointment of the next Head Coach is going to be a critical decision too, as they must become a key part of that decision-making team.

There can be few excuses - we've got funding secured, and surely we have the talent?

I think you could argue that a potential for future success could be results at junior, under-23 and elite level at the ITU World Championships. On that basis, with the likes of Helen Jenkins, Kirsty McWilliam, Alistair Brownlee, Jonathan Brownlee, Hollie Avil, Will Clarke, Tim Don and company all in the system (with some incredible talents in the tristar and youth age groups not far behind them that I'm aware of), lack of resource surely can't be an issue?

In summary

I like a lot of what I've seen from British Triathlon over recent months. I like much of the new performance pathway, and I truly believe we have the talent to compete with anyone. If 2012 isn't a significant enough carrot to finally achieve on the Olympic stage, nothing ever will be. As well as a carrot, it could be a stick too, and the last chance to prove our worth as an Olympic sport, as the funding decision makers may well not look favourably upon another perceived failure in London 2012.

So, I say a cautious "well done" to those who have set the scene for the next four years, and hope that you can show the required strength of leadership and decision making that will be needed to make it work.

Without that, as Simon Lessing recently said, "with PowerPoint presentations you can convince anybody of anything, if it's done well"!


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