BAWA chairman’s speech

Here is the text of the speech delivered by JASON HENDERSON, the BAWA Chairman, to the athletics writers’ annual dinner, staged in London on October 27
I first heard about the British Athletics Writers’ Association back in the early 1990s. At the time, I was working at a magazine that covered adrenaline sports – crazy stuff such as sky diving and snowboarding. But as I’d been obsessed with athletics since the age of 11, when I sat glued to the exploits of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett, Allan Wells and Daley Thompson in the Moscow Olympics, I was desperate to get a job in my favourite sport.

Without any athletic talent whatsoever, I realised I would never run, jump or throw my way to the Olympics. But I thought I might be able to write my way there instead. Also, I used the theory that if you find a job you love, you’ll never have to work again in your life.

So I started hunting around and stumbled across the name of an organisation called the British Athletics Writers’ Association. Full of enthusiasm, I dropped them a line to ask about membership. And a few days later one of the members called me back.
Not surprisingly, he sounded slightly bemused as he’d never heard of me. After all, apart from a few paragraphs in my local paper, I’d never written a word about athletics anywhere before. Anyway, we had a chat and the conversation concluded with the polite advice that I should try to get a job at Athletics Weekly or, perhaps, even continue writing about extreme sports. “It seems to be a growing area,” he added.

I came off the phone slightly frustrated. Extreme sports like mountain biking, canoeing and paragliding were definitely growing areas. But to me, track and field was the real deal. It’d captured my imagination as a child. It was the No1 Olympic sport. It had huge history, dating back to the ancient Greeks, and a beautiful simplicity that no other sport could match.

It was the granddaddy of all sports. Plus, I didn’t fancy losing a limb or even my life “enjoying” doing one of these crazy adrenaline sports.

With hindsight, I realise I was being given a polite knock-back. It was only later that I learned that the chap I had spoken to was Neil Wilson of the Daily Mail, one of the doyens of athletics writing, a man who has been covering the sport since before I was born and is so revered he has earned the nickname “The Great Wilsoni”.

If an unknown novice called me today with a similar question, I might even give them the same advice. But there was also probably a large element of belief in the theory that extreme sports were – and still are – booming, while athletics is a struggling sport. Some would even say a dying sport.

The thing is, though, that was around 12 years ago. And, as we can see from this great gathering tonight, athletics is far from dead. Okay, the sport has problems. What sport doesn’t? But athletics is not ready for its death bed by any stretch.
Before the World Championships in Osaka, the British team was described as the worst ever to leave these shores. Yet we returned with five medals.

The highlight was a magnificent gold and silver in the women’s 400 metres from Christine Ohuruogu and Nicola Sanders. Although it was touch and go whether Christine would actually make it tonight. We had to send her three invitations for the BAWA dinner before she eventually responded.

Also in Osaka, Kelly Sotherton won bronze in the heptathlon. And with two relay medals there were so many medallists – nine in total – AW struggled to cram them all on to its front cover that week.

Osaka aside, the sport is bubbling in many other areas too. Norwich Union, the sponsor of tonight’s event, has helped revolutionise the quantity and quality of opportunities given to young athletes.

UK Athletics, an organisation that is so often given unfair stick, is arguably the most professional and well-funded athletics governing body in the world. They’re often criticised for what they have not done, but given little credit for what they have done.

Only seven years ago, for instance, Denise Lewis was forced to go abroad to prepare for her tilt at the Olympic heptathlon title in Sydney because the indoor facilities in the UK were virtually non-existent. Yet now we have a growing network of state-of-the art centres, in Lee Valley, Loughborough, Bath and elsewhere.

In addition to bricks and mortar, there is also no doubt that the mindset of young British athletes is also changing. The magic phrase “2012” has almost certainly had an influence on this, but credit should also be given to Dave Collins and his performance team at UKA for successfully instilling a new culture of professionalism and ambition among the British team.

Rumour has it, during his early days in the job, Mr Collins sat one particularly disappointing athlete down and said to him: “Son, what is it with you? Is it ignorance or apathy?” And the athlete replied, “You know, I don’t know and I don’t care.”

More seriously, there has been a noticeable shift in the attitude of British athletes – at senior and junior level. And I’m sure this will reap dividends in 2012 and beyond.

Added to this, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind that British athletics not only has one of the most exciting crops of young athletes in the world but we also have … the best fans in the world; the best officials in the world; the best event organisers in the world – not only in track and field and road running but, as we’ll see in Edinburgh this coming March, cross country. We have the best TV coverage in the world; some of the best coaches in the world. And finally, our athletics writers aren’t too bad either, I might add.

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