British Athletics’ Olympic head coach promises to make tough decisions in his new role despite his nice guy image
Christian Malcolm begins his role at British Athletics as head coach of the Olympic programme with a friendly smile, easy-going manner and limited coaching credentials. Doubters and cynics question whether he will be tough and experienced enough to succeed. So, is he the right man for the job?
“You can’t be a sprinter without having some steel behind you,” he says, in his first big interview since taking up the post. “Don’t be fooled by the smile!”
As an athlete he won world junior 100m and 200m titles before going on to reach Olympic and world 200m finals during a long and successful career. Now, he plans to bring the same competitive drive to his new position as head coach. Yet he has no intention of ditching his nice guy personality.
“I am going to have to say no to some people and they won’t like it,” he explains, “but it’s about the way you communicate it. Some might say I’m a nice guy but they don’t realise that I’ve turned up to say ‘no’ about something but I’ve just explained it in the right way.
“I will have to make decisions that some people won’t like. It’s the nature of the job and it’s what I’ve signed up to. But I have no problem with that and it’s just about communicating it in the right way.”
The 41-year-old has relocated back to his native South Wales after a spell working for Athletics Australia. Apart from getting reacquainted with the considerably chillier temperatures in the UK, he is wrestling with a house move and, here on a dull November lunchtime, he is speaking via video conference from Loughborough.
Just over a year ago Malcolm was working at the World Championships in Doha in an Australian tracksuit. Now he is back in British Athletics colours and looking forward to the task of firstly getting the best possible results at the Tokyo Olympics during a challenging coronavirus-hit period. Just as importantly in his mind, though, is building toward Paris 2024 and, ultimately, the 2032 Games at the culmination of British Athletics’ recently announced 12-year plan.
He knows he has a unique chance to leave his mark on the domestic sport, too. “As athletes we always talk about what would we do if we were in charge?” he says. “After working in Australia and now coming back, I’ve got the opportunity to make those changes.”
As an athlete he worked under performance directors or head coaches like Charles van Commenee, Dave Collins and Max Jones. His personal coaches ranged from his early and long-time coach Jock Anderson to Linford Christie, Dan Pfaff and Rana Reider and he says he has tried to take a little bit from each of these mentors in order to form his own coaching philosophy. One of his predecessors as head coach even advised him to embrace the opportunity now because the chance might not be here in three or four years’ time.
In addition, Malcolm is keen for current British athletes to learn from the kind of mistakes he made in his career. He explains: “As an athlete you (AW) know my progression more than anybody. Up to the age of 22 I never got injured but after that until I retired I got injured almost every year and I don’t think I addressed those injury concerns as well as I could have.
“As an athlete all you want to do is get back on the track so once you feel pain free you think ‘I’m okay and I can get on with it’. And you might be okay for 80-90% of the time. But when you want to go to 100% and run PBs and make finals, you can’t do it and you wish you’d spent more time on strength and conditioning. Also, I was with Jock until the age of 26 but maybe I should have moved on a little bit earlier.”
During a half-hour grilling from the media, Malcolm was quizzed about everything from being dubbed “the Pep Guardiola of British Athletics” to I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! On the football analogy, he played it down by saying it was just “an off the cuff” comment by UKA’s new chief executive Jo Coates and was “flattering”.
On recent problems at British Athletics, such as the long-time absence of full-time leadership figures, he said: “I’ve been an athlete in the system since I was 17 or 18 years of age and have been part of the coaching set up too. We’ve had some good times in the past and bad times. I definitely recognise there is a bit of a disconnect (between the governing body and athletes). It’s for us to be focused on the athletes now.”
He added: “You’ve got to be optimistic and realise there’s a chance to move forward. We have an opportunity to drive the sport in a new direction. I feel really enthused. I think we can go forward and, yes, there are some difficulties and stumbling blocks and I’m excited by the prospect of doing a re-build.”
When it comes to filling the vacant head of endurance, sprints and relays roles, he agreed it was a priority and added: “There are still people in place who have worked with the relay teams for the last few years. I do recognise there are gaps there and that’s something we need to fill as soon as we can.”
With regards upcoming competitions, he will work on plans for the indoor season when he finds out whether the World Indoor Championships in China will go ahead – a decision expected in early December. On the Diamond League in London on July 13 and the start of the track and field programme in Tokyo 17 days later, he admits some big-name British athletes might miss the showpiece event at the London Stadium but this has often been the case for a grand prix event on the eve of a major championships. Indeed, before the Beijing Olympics in 2008 he raced at Crystal Palace on July 14 and in Switzerland on July 17 and yet was in Olympic action in the 200m heats in China on August 7.
On being the first black head coach of the Olympic team in Britain, he said it was not a big deal to him. “I don’t see myself as a ‘trailblazer’ and I think I got selected because I was the best man for the job. I hope I’ve been picked for my abilities and not for the colour of my skin. I don’t look at it as me being the first black head coach but as a young coach hoping to drive the sport forward.”
How should we judge him in a few years’ time? “By getting more athletes achieving at a higher level,” he said. “To turn finalists into medallists. To get an athlete from the top 12 into the top eight. If this leads to people on the top of the podium then great.
“We all want to see the shiny medals. But we all want to see people achieving (more) generally. Athletics is an incredibly difficult sport. Every country in the world does athletics. To be exceptional in athletics is a challenge but we have the pedigree and history of doing it.”
» AW subscribers can read about Christian Malcolm’s views on Mo Farah and Hollie Arnold in I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here! in the AW Clubhouse here