Whether you love him or loathe him, British athletics needs strong characters like Ian Stewart
The departure of Ian Stewart from UK Athletics will be greeted with snide comments and secret celebrations. His bullish personality and powerful dual role as head of endurance and meet director at British televised events meant he was feared by many, respected by some, envied by a few and not exactly loved much.
“There won’t,” one journalist suspected, “be a huge turn out at the leaving party.”
I’ve seen both sides of Stewart. There is former European, Commonwealth and world cross champion who used charisma and contacts to engineer one of the most influential positions in world athletics. Certainly, nobody is more adept at making a compelling case for what it takes to reach the top in distance running.
Yet there is also the blunt, uncompromising and sometimes ugly side of Stewart. Athletes, especially, often receive short shrift from him, usually with a few f-words thrown in. Add alcohol to the equation and his language gets even louder and more colourful.
Has his behaviour been acceptable? Certainly, his foul-mouthed episode with Andy Vernon in the Olympic Park last year seems to have over-stepped the mark and led to an official complaint from the world university 5000m champion with subsequent apologies from Stewart, plus UKA’s Niels de Vos and Ed Warner.
Others, like Anthony Whiteman, also claim they suffered verbal abuse over the years – for example when he was refused a lane in the Emsley Carr Mile last year – but Whiteman, who himself is no shrinking violet, did not bark back due to fear of being blacklisted from future meetings. Given this, I wonder how many untold stories there are.
While not condoning Stewart’s treatment of Vernon, you could strike a strong argument to say that such a punchy personality is arguably necessary in order to get results. His critics will hate me for saying this, but Stewart got results too.
As meeting director of British televised events, he helped them rise from the depths of despair in the late 1990s to become the envy of the world. Then, as UKA head of endurance, he banged heads and booted backsides, introduced group training at high altitude venues such as Iten and Font Romeu and was instrumental in putting Mo Farah on the right path to Olympic glory.
The history of British athletics is dominated by hard men who take no prisoners but get results. From Harold Abrahams and Arthur Gold through to Andy Norman and Charles van Commenee, such tough figures have presided over the organisation of the sport, or the coaching of the national team, and Stewart certainly fits into this category.
In addition, his departure from UKA follows the spat with Vernon last year, but is not necessarily linked to it. Indeed, I wonder if his decision to leave has been on the cards for some time.
At the European Cross Country Championships in Budapest in December I had an hour-long discussion with both Stewart and Spencer Barden, his endurance understudy at UKA, and in a hints-and-whispers kind of conversation I was given the impression that Barden and Terrence Mahon would soon be taking over the endurance reins at UKA.
“I just want to spend more time with my wife,” sighed Stewart, who is married to Stephanie Hightower, the president of USA Track & Field. And I guessed that was code for ‘I won’t be around here for much longer but UKA has yet to announce it’.
So perhaps rumours of Stewart being escorted out of the UKA offices are nonsense and his move has been on the cards for some time. In a short statement on its website, UKA said Stewart was leaving to pursue “independent career opportunities” and that Barden would be become ‘athlete liaison director’, reporting to Cherry Alexander at the governing body.
Certainly, my initial feeling is that British athletics will miss him and in years to come we will look back fondly on ‘characters’ like Stewart. Love him or loathe him, he injected some vital tough love into the sport and, with Van Commenee and London 2012 also now a mere memory, there is a danger the sport will drift into the comfort zone.
In the film, A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson famously blasts at Tom Cruise: “My existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives.” Similarly, in the far less serious world of athletics, we may not have warmed to Ian Stewart, but we wanted him on that wall; we needed him on that wall.
» More on this story in the Feb 7 issue of Athletics Weekly