Joanna Coates gives strong views on a range of topics three weeks into her chief executive role

The figure tasked with getting UK Athletics back on track might have stepped into the role at a time of great uncertainty but Joanna Coates’ plans for the sport remain resolute.

In fact, the former England Netball chief believes that while devastating for many, the postponement of the Tokyo Games as a result of the coronavirus pandemic gives her “a fantastic opportunity to really accelerate change”.

British athletics’ crisis-hit governing body has come under repeated fire in recent years and has faced multiple reviews, including of its performance system and its handling of Mo Farah’s relationship with Alberto Salazar, while a leadership merry-go-round has seen numerous changes at the top.

Three weeks into her role as UK Athletics (UKA) chief executive, Coates has outlined her focus for the future of the sport which she says needs reconnecting “at every single level”.

A ‘culture of collaboration’

Asked about the ‘fractured’ feeling within the sport, Coates reflects on her recent dealings with athletics’ individual home country governing bodies in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and says: “Over the last three weeks I have probably had seven or eight conversations with the home countries, which I think is where most people felt that fractured feeling came from. I have had some excellent conversations with them.

“For me, this is all about reconnecting the sport at every single level and certainly the conversations I have had with CEOs of the home countries have been extremely positive to the point that we have already started work around what a strategy might look like for the sport moving forward and we have got agreements around certain elements of that.

“I think it can be put back together with some strong leadership,” she adds. “I think we need to develop this culture of collaboration. If any organisation or governing body needs it, this sport needs it. But I haven’t come across any negativity of people not having a willingness to do this.

“I’ve probably acted as a bit of therapist for some people, who have been able to tell me the good, the bad and the ugly, which is quite a privileged position, to get all sides of the sport. I truly believe that we can rebuild this sport and come out at the end with a plan that everybody has bought into.”

More than events

While success at elite level is important, Coates says she is passionate about grassroots participation and that UKA must understand its role within the system.

“We need to not just be an events company,” she explains. “We need to bring it back to what this sport is about and that is about encouraging young people to first have a go at something, build a pathway that if they are talented they can go and do that pathway, that they have coaches of the right level that can coach them. So it finishes with us having those elite athletes that we develop.

“It is about us realising that we are a national governing body so instead of us just being about events, we need to be about properly governing this sport. I think that’s really important and us understanding the part that we play in governing this sport in conjunction with the home countries.”

When it comes to events, if the coronavirus crisis causes the cancellation of the UK’s major meetings, including the Müller Anniversary Games currently set for July, UKA’s income will be hit hard but Coates insists the governing body is not at risk of bankruptcy.

Given the current climate, around a quarter of UKA’s head office staff, which is 10 to 12 members, will be furloughed, she says, adding that when it comes to the performance side it is “a little more tricky” with it relating to public funds and Lottery money, “so we’re not looking at that side of the business as of yet”.

“At the moment, senior staff and the rest of the work force aren’t taking pay cuts,” she continues. “But I think this first round of furloughing is the start of a series of measures that we will probably have to undertake.”

A new head coach

Regarding any new appointments, Coates believes the first must be for a head coach to lead the Olympic programme, with that role having been vacant since Neil Black’s departure last October.

UKA’s performance culture was criticised in an independent review, for which the findings were exclusively published in AW magazine earlier this year.

“The postponement of the Olympics was awful for everybody involved, but in a very selfish way it gives me a fantastic opportunity to really accelerate change,” says Coates. “I think we can accelerate change in the performance area. That would have had to wait until post Tokyo but we’ve got 16 months now where we can really build something.

“We need a head coach that heads up the Olympic programme. Paula Dunn was going to step down as head coach for Paralympics but she is now going to stay for post Tokyo which is amazing. The job she is doing is just phenomenal. We need to replicate Paula’s position from an Olympic point of view.”

On the need for strong leadership within UKA, she adds: “The CEO needs to have a greater understanding of what is happening within the business. Performance cannot dictate a business. Major decisions should be made at an executive level and people should understand what is happening in their business.

“It’s absolutely right that debates are had at all levels. But the board and senior leadership team, their opinions should be taken into account and decisions should be made collectively.

“I definitely want to make sure that everything we do is based upon ethical success. I don’t believe it is a win-at-all-counts philosophy and that’s not how I would like to see the organisation moving forward.

“We have an opportunity to take a good long hard look at the organisation. We have an opportunity to write a strategy and a plan based on very clear behaviours that I want to be exhibited. If there are people in the organisation that don’t feel that plan is right and don’t exhibit those behaviours, then we will remove them.”

Salazar storm

Another review had looked into UKA’s relationship with the Nike Oregon Project.

Last October the former Nike Oregon Project head coach Alberto Salazar was given a four-year ban for breaking anti-doping rules, which he is appealing, but questions were raised over why UKA allowed multiple Olympic and world champion Mo Farah to be advised by him during the 2015-2017 period.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by Farah.

Last month UKA published an executive summary of its original internal review report from 2015 and UK Anti-Doping has requested that they have access to the full report. The anti-doping body said last month that the report had been “repeatedly requested” from UKA.

“There are definitely plans to hand it over,” Coates says. “It hasn’t as yet been handed over and that’s because there are certain processes we have to go through before we are able to. I just want to state very clearly we are not trying to slow that process down or not hand anything over. It literally is because there are certain processes and certain elements of confidentiality that we have to uphold before we can release that information and it is just about ensuring we have made absolutely no mistakes before we hand it over.

“We are an organisation that has been highly criticised for not following process and on this occasion we are absolutely following process and we’re still being criticised. We will hand it over, we just need to make sure that all levels of confidentiality are adhered to.”

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