High-jumper Tom Parsons looks at how his club, Birchfield Harriers, is trying to capitalise on the legacy of London 2012
Will there be an Olympic hangover or can athletics capture the public’s imagination once more? As summer continues to try and make an appearance, athletes from across the nation are getting stuck into their seasons. Surely London has inspired a generation of budding Mo Farahs and Jessica Ennises. I have turned my attentions to my own club, Birchfield Harriers, to establish whether the Games have left an imprint.
Birchfield Harriers are the self-proclaimed “UK’s premier athletics club” and have been represented at every Summer Olympics since 1908. With its roots stemming from long-distance running in the 1870s, the club now competes strongly on all fronts, across all age groups.
The club’s recent “12 for 12” scheme supported 12 athletes in their quest to be selected for the London Olympics or Paralympics. Ultimately 10 athletes were selected (seven for the Olympics, three for the Paralympics). This follows on from the nine selected for both Beijing and Athens, which also ranks the club highly in these terms.
What else contributes to the club’s ongoing success? Excellent indoor and outdoor training facilities, a proud history, inspirational champions like Denise Lewis and Mickey Bushell and the opportunity to compete at a strong level domestically. It was the latter of these that tempted me to join 10 years ago (along with the promise of a free tracksuit).
Saturday August 18, 2012 saw the impact of the Olympics at Birchfield when nearly 200 potential new members attended the Club’s Aga Academy. The legacy, however, will be a measure of how many of these athletes are retained by the sport. You could argue the experience these youngsters are exposed to within the first few months is vital.
Beth George, 11, was inspired to join the academy in January this year after watching the Olympics on television. “Jessica Ennis was my favourite athlete,” she recalls. “Winning gold was just amazing. It made me try really hard on sports day at school”, says Beth, catching her breath while the group rotates to another part of the track. “I came second in our race, but next year I want to win.” Her best event is sprinting, but she also enjoys the long jump.
One Saturday in April, I caught up with club chairman Andy Paul, who was on the track coaching his group of sprint hurdlers in the midday sun. “We have had inductions every six weeks since the Games with 200 kids at the first, 120 at the second, and over 60 at the third and fourth”, he reflects. “The most recent two inductions were during the depths of winter, when usually it’s absolutely dead.”
Paul, 45, takes a break to observe his hurdlers explode out of the blocks. “The club was overwhelmed by new interest and is still operating at full capacity,” he reiterates. “We have had to put a cap on kid memberships until July – not for lack of coaching, but for health and safety reasons. We have four new coaches but simply don’t have any more room on the track or infield.”
Local clubs have picked up some of these athletes as a consequence of Birchfield not taking on new junior members. “Hopefully some of these kids will get the chance to join Birchfield in the future,” Paul continues. “We can’t be one big iceberg floating on our own. We need the rest of the ice flow around us. Kids need to be taking part wherever there’s an opportunity.”
Many of the young kids using the track are from an underprivileged background. Athletics gives them the opportunity to develop their social skills, begin to gain a competitive instinct and increase their physical awareness. Traditional club nights are Tuesdays and Thursdays. “Wednesday nights have now been added as a transitional day for the older ones,” confirms Paul.
The government has recently announced that primary schools across Britain will be given a £150million boost to spend directly on sport. “We would like to send our elite athletes into schools to meet and greet the kids”, says Paul. “Inspiring the teachers is an equally important part of the legacy process and will enable them to have the confidence to deliver quality PE sessions.”
A chance to inspire Birchfield’s best young athletes came about when the American team used the track in the build-up to the Games. Paul was left frustrated by the planning side of things. “The city took control of things and didn’t really involve us enough,” he noted. “Our most promising athletes had a good time meeting some of the team and another group met their top coaches, but time was limited and they were not able to ask as many questions as they hoped. Maybe in the future we can build on this experience and ensure that our emerging talent can really engage with the world’s elite.”
Commonwealth heptathlon champion Louise Hazel is one Birchfield Olympian who has openly declared she is “not in a position to focus on training full-time” this year following the loss of her UK Sport funding. This highlights the challenges of a sport that remains a prosperous one for the minority. The club realises these restraints and are close to announcing a tiered funding system, aimed at supporting athletes at different levels as they strive towards Rio 2016.
The challenge of financing athletics is widely documented, with the recent closure of the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield and many smaller clubs struggling to cope with rising costs in a financial climate rife with cutbacks and price hikes. Belgrave Harriers were British Athletics League champions on eight consecutive occasions from 1997 but recently had to withdraw from the league as they couldn’t find a new team manager. Withdrawing was deemed a viable option as it will save the club thousands of pounds annually and athletes can still compete in the area league.
The sport still relies heavily on volunteers – coaches, officials and administrators. Smaller clubs might benefit from the advice that larger clubs can offer. Paul admits: “They need to think differently. You might have to be more than just an athletics club and offer other activities. We also undercharge in athletics. Clubs should be prepared to pay coaches for some sessions and charge more on a Saturday. Those clubs that think outside the box will be more successful.”
Birchfield have recently opened a new cafe on-site, creating revenue and revitalising the clubroom. Parents and stakeholders can now have a hot meal or coffee while the coaches are out developing the next generation of Katharine Merrys and Mark Lewis-Francises.
» This blog post was first published in the May 16 issue of AW, which is available here. The June 20 issue of AW will further look into the London 2012 legacy effect and how the Games have affected clubs and levels of participation.