AW editor Jason Henderson discusses teenage drop-out rates in athletics following a fascinating investigation by Mel Watman who revisited 2006 English Schools results
Exactly 10 years ago, we billed the competitors at the English Schools Championships as potential Olympians ahead of the London Games. This ‘class of 2006’ seemed perfectly poised to make their mark six years later and the cover of our issue confidently proclaimed: “2012 here we come!”
With hindsight, our optimism was massively misplaced. Only seven athletes from the “Kids’ Olympics” in 2006 actually made it to the real Olympics in 2012 and only one of the winners, 100m man Gerald Phiri (pictured above), took part in London 2012, ironically for another country after switching to Zambia.
These killer stats have been unearthed by Mel Watman, one of my predecessors as editor of AW, who revisited the 2006 English Schools results out of curiosity and discovered a horrendous drop-out rate.
Watman’s eye-opening article covers six pages in the latest issue of AW and chronicles the contrasting fortunes of every winner from the 2006 English Schools.
In addition to Phiri, other athletes who made it to London 2012 were James Dasaolu (100m), Danny Talbot (4x100m), Nigel Levine (4x400m), Andy Pozzi (110m hurdles), Laura Weightman (1500m) and Katarina Johnson-Thompson (heptathlon).
“My research was alarming and confirmed the impression that far too many of our most promising athletes fall by the wayside, often before they even reach their twenties” – Mel Watman
Apart from Phiri, none of them excelled at the 2006 English Schools. Dasaolu, for example, did not make it through his heat, while Pozzi was 10th in the junior boys long jump and Johnson-Thompson third in the junior girls high jump.
Watman discovered that many of the 90 winners at the 2006 English Schools have now disappeared from the sport. “The athletes,” he writes, “would now be aged between 24 and 29 and theoretically at the peak of their careers.”
He adds: “My research was alarming and confirmed the impression that far too many of our most promising athletes fall by the wayside, often before they even reach their twenties.”
Justine Kinney was the main cover star in AW’s English Schools coverage issue of 2006. She won the senior girls’ 400m hurdles at the event in Gateshead and although she went on to win gold in the Olympic Stadium in 2012, it was at the British Universities’ Championships held a couple of months before the Games itself.
Kinney also had the quirky honour of being the first athlete to win a race in the Olympic Stadium. But her competitive athletics career soon ended and she is now training as a clinical psychologist. Injury played its part in her premature retirement, but a bigger factor was lack of financial support and sponsorship.
“I love running still and love watching athletics,” she says. “But unfortunately being just below the best was too far away and the cost of being an athlete was too great – literally.”
Kinney did however run for Ireland in the 2010 European Championships and also competed in the 2011 World University Games. Similarly, the ‘class of 2006’ featured a number of athletes who have reached international level, but did not make London 2012, such as Richard Kilty and Steph Twell (pictured below).
Generally, though, the burn-out rate is brutal and especially so for the prominent performers in the youngest age groups, where Watman found only one of the 24 winners in the junior boys and girls events in 2006 – javelin thrower Izzy Jeffs – went on to compete at international senior level.
Watman adds that this is not always the case, as junior winners at the 1986 English Schools Championships included Donna Fraser in the 200m and Denise Lewis in the long jump. So maybe promising teenage athletes are not being supported as well nowadays, or more likely there are more distractions as they reach their late teens and early 20s.
The research builds upon a feature we ran on September 24 last year by Lewis Lloyd on the 2009 English Schools inter boys 1500m finalists. Lloyd was fifth in that race, but many of the runners have since quit, including the gold and silver medallists, while the only athlete who has truly made international level is Charlie Grice, who was sixth that day.
“Every year, athletics is haemorrhaging talent”
So what can we conclude? Firstly, while the eye is often naturally drawn to the English Schools winners, it seems the minor medallists and out-right also-rans are just as likely to ‘make it’. Jessica Ennis-Hill, for example, was only 10th in her first English Schools in the high jump, while Greg Rutherford did not win an English Schools medal in several attempts, but he has since more than made up for it as a senior.
Secondly, the area is crying out for more research into teenage drop-out rates and what can be done to stem it. Watman says it is ripe for an in-depth university study, while I’d add that it’s very much in the interests of athletics governing bodies like British Athletics to get involved too.
Much focus is always given to fine-tuning the preparations of medal hopes ahead of imminent events like next month’s Rio Olympics. But by that stage dozens of potential medal winners have already long since fallen by the wayside after struggling with injury or apathy.
Every year, athletics is haemorrhaging talent. Yet more emphasis on helping athletes combat injury, or apathy, or in Kinney’s case paying the bills, during these crucial and delicate late teenage years could result in significantly bigger medal hauls in years to come.
» For Mel Watman’s full six-page ‘Ten years on’ feature, see the July 7 edition of AW magazine, which is available to order here or access digitally here