British athletics hasn’t had much success for a long time – indeed, there have been very few medal-winning athletes since the likes of Ovett, Wells, Coe and Thompson way back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. That’s not saying that there haven’t been some outstanding athletes since – Dame Kelly Holmes, Sally Gunnell etc. – but they have been few and far between. That is, until now.
Two years ago the signs were there that the situation was starting to improve – after a relatively strong performance at the 2012 European Athletics Championships (four golds, two silvers and a bronze), Britain almost matched this haul in London. Mo Farah (twice), Greg Rutherford and Jess Ennis all won Olympic gold (within 45 minutes of each other) whilst Christine Ohuruogu battled hard for 400m silver and Robbie Grabarz picked up an unexpected bronze in the high jump. Indeed, this was Britain’s most successful track and field performance at a Games since 1964. However, there were many more competitors who didn’t perform anywhere near their best. On the track, no male sprinter reached any finals whilst the men’s 4x100m relay team was disqualified in the heats. Team captain Dai Greene could only manage fourth in the 400m hurdles final despite being one of the favourites, whilst his female counterpart Perri Shakes-Drayton massively underperformed in the semis after such a promising heat. Things weren’t much better in the field, with Phillips Idowu looking completely uninterested and Holly Bleasdale crumbling under the pressure in the pole vault final. Whilst many other sports enjoyed a huge rise in fortunes in London, athletics looked to have been left behind and the team actually failed to achieve their target of 8 medals.
This then led to the departure of the highly controversial Charles van Commenee as the Performance Director of UK Athletics (UKA). He was replaced by former coach Neil Black who has over 20 years of experience working alongside athletes such as Gunnell and Linford Christie. He only had a year or so before the World Athletics Championships in 2013, meaning that it wasn’t expected that there would be any increase in success at the tournament. However, although the team only picked up three golds and three bronzes, the event was hugely encouraging.
Mo Farah again won the 5 and 10k double, Ohuruogu added her another World gold to her vast collection and both the women’s 4x100m and 4x400m relay teams won bronze, a superb achievement for the former as they couldn’t even get a squad together for London. Tiffany Porter also more than made up for her disappointing performance at London with a superb bronze in the 100m hurdles but it was outside of the medals where a lot of the best performances were seen from athletes few had heard of before. James Dasaolu ran the 100m in 9.97 seconds during his semi-final, only 0.06 seconds off his personal best set earlier in the year, whilst Adam Gemili announced himself as a serious prospect for the future in the 200m. Andrew Osagie was a very good fifth in an exceptionally strong 800m final, whilst Will Sharman burst onto the scene with fifth in the 100m hurdles. Both the men’s 4x400m team and Hannah England (1500m) were one place outside of the medals whilst Eilidh Child surprised a lot of people with a strong fifth position in the 400m hurdles. Finally, in the absence of the injured Ennis, Katarina Johnson-Thompson secured a personal best points score in the heptathlon but could only manage fifth.
However, despite the strong performances of the promising young athletes at the tournament, there was one key theme amongst them all – none of them were quite good enough for a medal. Whilst getting through to a major final is all well and good, at the end of the day if you don’t win a medal very few people will ever remember that you even took part. Black must have noticed this too and worked hard on it as, just one year on, a lot of the aforementioned athletes went from gone from being just outside a medal to being in with a chance of gold.
At the Commonwealth Games in July, Britain picked up a combined total of 6 golds, 17 silvers and 11 bronzes. Whilst some events, particularly the field ones, weren’t particularly strong, many of the track events featured a number of world class athletes. Notably impressive performances were silvers for Gemili and the 4x100m relay squad against some very strong Jamaicans, whilst the women’s 4x100m team picked up a wonderful bronze behind insanely strong Jamaican and Nigerian line-ups. Jodie and Bianca Williams were only outdone by the class of Blessing Okagbare in the 200m, whilst Scotland’s Lyndsey Sharp (800m) and Child (400m hurdles) were more than deserving of their silvers against very strong opposition. Sharman (110m hurdles) also picked up silver but will have been disappointed as gold was there for the taking.
Going into the European Championships two weeks later, confidence was pretty high. However, even the most optimistic of fans wouldn’t have predicted what was to come. The British team secured 23 medals, a record haul, with 12 of them gold, also a record. Alone this is a remarkable achievement, but given that many athletes were nowhere near their best (i.e Sophie Hitchon in the hammer, Goldie Sayers in the javelin and Steve Lewis in the pole vault) and some of the stars (i.e Jess Ennis and Johnson-Thompson, arguably the two best heptathletes in the world) weren’t in Zurich, it shows just how strong the whole squad is now.
There was also a number of further examples of Black telling his athletes not to settle for ‘minor’ medals or just being in a final as a number of athletes recorded personal bests and won medals could only have dreamed of a few years ago. Gemili added to his Commmonwealth silver by convertuing his 5th place in the 200m from the 2013 World Champs to European gold whilst Child added European gold to her Commonwealth silver. Martyn Rooney overcame a shocking 400m in Glasgow to win gold and Jo Pavey, at the age of 40, overhauled much younger opposition to win the 10,000m title, something she had only just missed out on at the same event two years earlier. Farah yet again won both the 5,000m and 10,000m titles whilst Porter, Dasaolu and Rutherford all won golds alongside the both male relay teams.
As a result Britain topped the medal table, something they hadn’t achieved since 1998. Although GB often perform strongly at the Europeans, they never really translate this into worldwide success. However, this time I think things will be different. Black has done a wonderful job so far but we won’t be sure just how good Britain is until the World Championships next summer. What is certain, though, is that athletics in this country is the strongest it’s been for a long time.