On the eve of reporting on my 13th World Athletics Championships, I’d argue the British governing body’s choice to send a stream-lined team benefits nobody apart from rival nations
In my view British Athletics were unfairly criticised when the original Budapest team was announced as they can’t select athletes without qualifying marks and the qualifying marks set by World Athletics were ridiculously hard.
They also can’t be criticised for applying the criteria. It’s the same as it was when it was published last year. It was clear. Wrong, but clear but the magnitude of the wrong has only been made transparent by the sheer number of Brits now missing out in the final selections.
Just four athletes were added to their team by their world ranking position when it could have been nearer 20.
This is not in the interest of British athletics, British athletes, British coaches, British supporters, British television viewers and the future of the sport in this country.
It is a restraint of trade denying British athletes, who are highly-ranked, the opportunity to take part in the biggest event of the year.
It’s a bit like being invited to a huge party but your school saying your behaviour isn’t good enough. Stay at home.
As nearly all other nations’ invitations were accepted by other countries, it is penalising athletes for being British.
World Athletics want the best athletes at Budapest. Yet Britain’s decision undermines them.
If all other nations had the same visions of arrogance, grandeur and elitism, half the qualifying competitions could be cancelled and we may just as well as have only the top 12 compete.
Why do British Athletics think World Athletics and other nations selecting world ranking invitees are wrong and they are right?
It seems to hope more will train harder but many athletes seem to think it is demoralising and discouraging and it will have the opposite effect.
How many athletes turned down here might be better athletes next year if they were gaining experience in Budapest?
USA are a lot more successful than Britain and don’t need extra competitors but they wouldn’t dare restrict their athletes. Even if possible litigation is their reason rather than what is should be – fairness.
British Athletics have made the point it’s not cost but a principle not to send teams that are just making up the numbers. Their press release stated: “The team has been selected to fulfil the policy’s aim for these championships; to optimise medal success and the number of top eight places.”
If it was cost, then the athletes themselves could undoubtedly fund it themselves from sponsors, crowd-funding or their clubs.
To some, the record number of empty spaces in the team underlines the governing body’s failure to ensure the sport is thriving in this country and make the most of lottery funding. Accepting ranking spaces would fill some of those gaps but I acknowledge that previous British teams would also have been much thinner based on a top eight criteria.
It’s worth noting, though, that a lot of athletes with top eight places in the past would never have even been selected as they rose to the occasion and were ranked well outside the top eight, which some of these athletes refused might have done this time. But we will never know.
These days with ridiculously high standards, there is a more than good chance that top eight or at least top 12 places could be achieved by performances that are below the necessary standards and while UKA have not left behind any likely medallists they have left behind some potential finalists, numerous British champions and a lot of athletes who might challenge for medals in future years.
Also remember, if UKA turn down places, those places earmarked to Brits will instead be simply be given to other nations strengthening their squads and giving other nations opportunities to gain experience.
The situation is not like in some early years when standards were easier and more athletes qualified. To get a world ranking place you have to be approaching world-class.
Dai Greene, the 2011 world 400m hurdles champion, has made the point that he might not have gained the experience to win European and Commonwealth titles in 2010 and then global gold in Daegu one year later had he not been selected for the 2009 World Championships where he had no real chance of winning.
He said: “The policy is going to hinder not only athletes development but also their chances to become full-time athletes.”
As Sebastian Coe noted, Steve Cram gained significantly by running as a teenager in the 1980 Moscow Olympics alongside Coe and Steve Ovett even though he was not a medal contender there. Two years later he won European and Commonwealth gold and a world title in 1983.
Cram also had the advantage of previously being selected for England for a Commonwealth Games when he was aged 17 while Scotland left behind a faster, slightly older athlete in Graham Williamson. Had Williamson been picked in 1978 would he have done even better as a senior?
British Athletics make the point that there will be opportunities for those they are not taken to Budapest in the European Championships next year but that is a long way away. Maybe they would have been better having a harsher policy for the Worlds last year when there was a European and Commonwealths as an alternative. This year there is nothing apart from a European Under-23 Championships.
World Athletics are forever making the standards harder and harder to put more focus on their ranking system but also to ensure not too many athletes qualify so they can ensure they have the correct number in each event for timetabling purposes.
However as the standards get tougher, British internationals now find many standards impossible and their only way into the Worlds or Olympics is through a world ranking place which their own governing body denies them.
Coaches are also finding it frustrating – they have helped athletes to be in the world’s top 30 or so places and have a realistic chance of making a final or semi final and now their athletes will be refused. Some have indicated they may not carry on if the pathway to championships no longer exists but to a handful of athletes.
Disappointed athletes and coaches aside, British supporters will be demoralised when they have fewer athletes to support and what of the legacy for future years?
This week huge numbers of British cyclists have been taking part in a home world championships at Glasgow but in a few weeks there will be very few Brits in the vast majority of events in Budapest. Which sport are youngsters going to think is the better sport to represent Britain at?
Many feel that while the British women’s athletics team is unusually strong compared to the men now, what will happen in the next decade? At the moment women’s football and cricket (and even netball) is getting unprecedented coverage and success and the sports are showing huge growth. Future potential athletes could be cricketers and footballers especially if it is deemed that is where the interest, money and support is.
Athletics needs all the help it can get to try and get future sports stars to take up the sport. Fewer GB competitors in the main shop window is not the answer.
Given the history of previous success and reasonable-sized teams, British fans in Budapest will provide the highest numbers of all overseas fans and yet they will not have any UK athletes to support in many events. Many supporters won’t come back. Television viewers will see events without Brits and yet see inferior athletes from other nations taking the place earmarked for UK athletes.
On the face of it, last month’s Diamond League in London was a huge boost for British athletics and showed the crowds will come and watch but it came after a moderate attended UK Championships in a modest stadium hidden away on the BBC red button instead of BBC1 of yesteryear. But if athletes, coaches, junior athletes, supporters drift away because of the backlash to small teams in Budapest then things are not going to get better.
Turning down so many World Athletics rankings invitees deserves criticism. All should have been allowed to compete (other than injured athletes such as Pozzi) but I can not see any other nation who would have turned down the opportunity for the likes of Josh Zeller, Jade O’Dowda, Holly Mills, Kenny Ikeji, Lorraine Ugen, Joel Clarke-Khan, Nick Percy, Jade Lally and Lina Nielsen and Will Battershill. All either have had past success, are very close to standards or are improving athletes or are British champions.
Athletes invited whose selections were declined
Charles Dobson (200m)
World ranked 21st – European fourth-placer (and gold medallist in 4x400m) and huge talent but injury-prone – 20.19 in his one completed 200m in 2023. Is in 4x400m squad.
Nethaneel Mitchell-Blake (200m)
World ranked 38th – 4x100m medals in last three Worlds and also European gold. Has not competed since April when he ran 20.35.
Joe Ferguson (200m)
World ranked 50th – could be added to replace injured Brits – Second in British Champs with windy 20.43 and he ran a legal 20.44 in London. Ran in Eugene for Britain after a 20.23 PB in Manchester last year.
Alex Haydock-Wilson (400m)
World ranked 16th. European 4x400m gold medallist and individual bronze medallist. Won British title this year but not quite in shape that saw him run 45.08 in Eugene with best of 45.25 in European Team Championships. Is selected for 4x400m, so wouldn’t an individual 400m been of benefit?
Josh Zeller (110m hurdles)
World ranked 33rd. Eugene fifth-placer and also made top five in European and Commonwealths. Only 22. Not quite in 2022 form with a best of a wind-assisted 13.34 in finishing second in British Champs but he has already proved he can make a final.
Andrew Pozzi (110m hurdles)
World ranked 45th. Former world indoor champion, but has been injured this year and no competitions outdoors in 2023.
David King (110m hurdles)
World ranked 50th. Could replace Pozzi though fourth-ranked Brit. World Indoor finalist. Competed in Tokyo and Eugene. Not been at best in 2023 with 13.49 best and only sixth in British Champs.
Will Battershill (3000m steeplechase)
World ranked 40th. But 28th excluding nations with more than three qualifiers. British champion and set 8:22.64 PB in Monaco and has run his four fastest times in 2023. Improving so why not test him out?
Zak Seddon (3000m steeplechase)
World ranked 42nd. World finalist in 2019 and former European junior winner. Ran 8:21.71 early season but Battershill has better record in 2023.
Joel Clarke-Khan (GBR) (High Jump)
World ranked 31st. British champion. Competed in Eugene. Made big advance at London finishing third with 2.27m leap beating many of world’s best. A repeat of his London form would see him make the final.
Nick Percy (Discus)
World ranked 25th. Former NCAA champion who was fifth in Commonwealth Games and just missed final in Eugene. Consistent and set season’s best of 64.73m in August. 64.14m made the final in Eugene.
Kenny Ikeji (Hammer)
World ranked 38th. The 20-year-old NCAA champion with a near four-metre PB of 77.92m which in listing terms ranks him 10th excluding Russians. He had the UKA standard but he has not backed up that form. A throw of 74.67m made the final in Eugene last year.
Lina Nielsen (400m hurdles)
World ranked 27th (second best of non automatic qualifiers). Competed in Eugene. Just missed qualifier by 0.06 of a second in 2023.
Laura Zialor (High Jump)
World ranked 33rd. Competed in Eugene. Jumped 1.90m in Kenya but injured competing for Britain in European Team Championships.
Lorraine Ugen (Long jump)
World ranked 21st. A finalist in Eugene and the European and Commonwealths last year and a two-time world indoor medallist. Not quite in same form in 2023 but set a wind-assisted 6.77m which is in advance of the standard and a legal 6.66m best.
Naomi Metzger (Triple Jump)
World ranked 26th. Commonwealth medallist. Competed in Eugene. Not competed outdoors in 2023.
Amelia Strickler (Shot)
World ranked 35th. Competed in Eugene. World Indoor finalist and set season’s best of 17.76m in July but needed 18.67m for selection (eighth place distance in 2022).
Jade Lally (Discus)
World ranked 21st. Competed in Eugene. Commonwealth silver medallist and former European seventh-placer. 61.37m season’s best, British champion. 61.37m this summer but needed 63.50m which only first six in Eugene final achieved.
Bethan Davies (35km Walk)
World ranked 59th.(turned down by UKA earlier) and 14th in European Team Championships in 3:00.13.
Holly Mills (Heptathlon)
World ranked 11th. Fourth in Commonwealth Games and world indoor pentathlon in 2022. Not at best in 2023 and no completed heptathlons but sixth in Euro Indoors pentathlon.
Jade O’Dowda (heptathlon)
World ranked 18th. Commonwealth bronze medallist and set PB 6255 in Gotzis this year compared to standard of 6260. Her Gotzis performance would have placed eighth in Eugene.
Events where Britain had no invitees – this was their best ranking
Men: 5000m: Jack Rowe 71st. 10,000m: Sam Atkin 33rd. 400m hurdles: Seamus Derbyshire 41st (one place from ranking position). Pole Vault: Adam Hague 107th. Long Jump: Jacob Fincham-Dukes 44th. Triple Jump: Jude Bright-Davies 66th. Javelin: Ben East 115th. Marathon: Emile Cairess not ranked had qualifier. 20kmW: Tom Bosworth 122nd (retired). 35kmW: none ranked. Decathlon: Harry Kendall 76th.
Women: Javelin: Bekah Walton 45th 20KW: Heather Warner 75th.
Britain will have no athletes in Budapest in the men’s 5000m, 10,000m, marathon, 20km walk, 35km walk, 400m hurdles, steeplechase, decathlon, high jump, pole vault, long jump, triple jump, hammer and javelin and the women’s triple jump, shot, discus and javelin.
NB with regard to the marathon, 11 British men were ranked higher than the lowest-ranked accepted athlete so any of the 11 could have participated and filled three places.
Natasha Cockram is the sole British woman but four more had the qualifying time and 14 had sufficiently high world ranking to have been accepted to add a further two places.
Of the original selections there were not too many controversies other than the empty spaces. Some noted how much easier it is to get selected (and funded) if you are a relay participant and half of the men’s team are not doing an individual event.
Alex Bell’s non-selection at 800m received much criticism but the selection of Isabelle Boffey at the time of the selection meeting was fair based on her greater set of marks within the 2023 qualifying period and her potential. Had Bell ran her 1:59.43 and 1:59.30 a few days earlier (and not after the selectors had picked the team) then she would have been selected after her third in the trials but she was unable to get a run in London or Madrid.
While the men got a superb domestic 800m at London which allowed two selections and a number of PBs it was a shame that there were not additional events for Brits in front of a huge crowd for either athletes who couldn’t get in the A races or for events where there was no event taking place. It could have helped aid selection and given an opportunity for qualifying marks which for many have been in short supply this season.
The BMC meets may have contributed to Britain’s full teams at 800m and 1500m and some of the sprint meets that have cropped up in recent years are helping the likes of Imani Lansiquot but there are fewer domestic meets covering a wide range of events than there were in the past.
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