Stephen Maguire’s unfulfilled vision
As I reflect on a week in which – there is no better way to express it – UK Athletics has yet again shot itself in the foot, I can find no sensible explanation for what has happened. Barely six weeks after our best World Championship performance in years, the Technical Director who masterminded the success is gone.
France won no medals, and Germany managed one medal. Britain gained 10 medals, so the obvious thing to do was to change the Technical director! It has been widely reported in the UK press of his departure that Stephen Maguire was fired. UKA has said nothing, so the reasons are not known. Dina Asher-Smith’s public comments are always measured and balanced, so for Dina to describe UKA s decision as “disappointing… short-sighted,” adding that it had clearly not been done with any consideration of the performance needs of athletes, is a clear indication of the strength of her feelings.
Towards the end of the Budapest World Championships, Stephen chatted to the UK Athletics media. This is an extract from the conversation. What, for me, comes out of every line is his passion for the sport, the clarity of his vision, and intrinsic evidence that he is by far the best person to lead the team into the Paris Olympics.
It looks pretty decent in terms of what your expectations could have been. I don’t think I had any expectations or medal targets, but I just knew that the team that we had, from watching people in the whole camp and the word coming from St Moritz [distance runners camp] was that athletes were in a good place. So they’ve gone out and performed, and I would say to the staff that we can never go through peaks and troughs on things; just keep steady. So it’s been good, it’s been enjoyable. Happy to see the lion roar again!
I’m delighted with that and as well with the number of finalists that we’ve had, the number of top twelves that they’ve had, and the way a lot of the younger athletes are stepping up and actually converting what they’re doing in the season now into competition success. It’s been brilliant. I think there’s a really good feel factor with Kat [Katarina Johnson-Thompson] obviously starting things – that story just resonated through everyone, and what a start! Then the Mixed relay medal and things have snowballed.
Katerina Johnson Thompson, photo by Kevin Morris
I think one of the pleasing things is succeeding in a tough World Championships. The standard has been absolutely through the roof. Paris is going to be, I would say, up another level as well, but the way we’re getting the medals in very tough competition, I’d be very optimistic.
[Stephen Maguire had previously been in charge of GB relays, and with Darren Campbell, the current head, on sick leave and missing Budapest, Maguire was more hands-on on the relay teams at the worlds. One can hear his passion for relays!]
Relays – four medals and a fourth place?
I think one of the things that we’re trying to do is, from a cultural point of view is, achieve a real understanding of what it takes, and that’s an understanding of what performance is and understanding the behaviors that are necessary, understanding the values that we’ve tried to have and the culture that we’re trying to grow in order to succeed.
But you would have liked Reece Prescod in the team here? [Prescod went home before the relays]
100% But with every sort of negative bit comes Eugene Amu-Dadzie, who’d never run a relay before, and he’s now run twice. And he did admirably. Yeah. We didn’t expect to have to run Eugene, but again that will turn it into a positive. He was class. Really good. And he jumped up and took the opportunity.
I thought the men’s 4X100 ran very, very well. Very unlucky not to pick up a medal. The message for us all is that we can win in Paris because I think we will have athletes who are good enough to bring a men’s 4 by 100 team to the top of the podium – the ability to practice and run fast, the ability to be able to bring the values that we’re looking for into the squad and that ability to be able to perform. We saw what the USA did, and everybody was reading about the USA. People need to remember what we did in Doha – we finished second and were quicker than the USA here. So it’s not out of the question. But the door is open for everyone as long as everyone actually understands the values of the relay squad.
Selection for relays involves buying into the culture and working together. I would imagine if you were chatting to Gareth Southgate [England football/soccer head coach] about selecting the English football team, he would say that you need 11 players who can play together. With relays, it is something similar. Do you need to be one of the top 4 sprinters in Britain to be the best relay team? No. Richard Kilty was a very good example, one of the fastest bend runners in the world. Danny Talbot, in 2017, was one of the fastest bend runners in the world. You need to match people’s skill sets. Zharnel is probably the best leg 2 runner in the world. Take Adam Gemili, who’s not individually anywhere up the rankings but can do a really good relay job.
How do you assess Zharnel Hughes’s performance [Third in 100, Fourth in 200 and 4X100]
Class. Absolutely superb. I think Zharnel’s season shows he’s now really arrived, and you can see that even in the warm-up, the real presence that he brings to it. I think it was a big ask in the relay for him in what was it his seventh race, but he did very, very well. Zharnel is a leader within the team. Absolutely first class, and he had magnificent championships.
Can Zharnel get a medal in Paris?
Yeah, he’s got to. He’s got to. At the age and stage of his career, he is at, he would be absolutely honest as well. Now that he’s grabbed a world medal that’s a kind of the monkey off his back, the Paris 200 meters will be interesting.
Do you have any concerns for Dina Asher-Smith after a disappointing world champs?
I would have no concerns, no. She’s got her own team, and they’ll figure things out. She will come back fitter and stronger.
Do you feel the medal tally justifies the selection policy that’s been adopted, and will that continue? [Policy of taking only athletes with a realistic chance of a top 8 finish – and turning down World Athletics invitations]
It will continue. I think it’s important to say that. Does it vindicate the selection? I think the philosophy of the selection policy is our ability to be able to challenge for finals. And I think the data that we’ve got now shows that we can challenge for finals and with, is it, 16 top eights?
JULY 26: Stephen Maguire of the Head of British Athletics Sprints and Power team poses for a portrait during the British Athletics Team World Championships Preparation Camp July 26, 2017. The IAAF World Championships in Athletics start on Friday 4th August 2017 in London (Photo by Matt Lewis – British Athletics/British Athletics via Getty Images)
I think it’s also really important to underline two things. Last year we had 115 athletes at the European Championships, and somebody told me it’s 182 athletes across the championships. With the coming games, there is a really clear pathway, and I think as a sport, we’ve been very open and honest that the World Championships and the Olympic Games are the pinnacle, and we want to challenge there. I think you look at people say, Ben Pattison – a tremendous performance and Ben’s ability to be able to grab that 800m medal. The standards are growing, growing, growing. We want to be in finals. The philosophy is that every time a British athlete gets on the track, the rest of the competitors know they are gonna be absolutely competitive, and we are going for medals.
We’re not trying to keep people away from champs, but we’re trying to make sure that when we come into World Championships, we’re really, really competitive in a very tough environment. I also personally believe that a high bar is no harm at this level and I do know that we have some tremendous athletes who will raise standards. But I would love a team of 80 if they’re hitting standards.
Are you surprised at France (no medals) and Germany (1 medal)?
I don’t want to gloat – it could have been us! I’m just glad that we are in a decent position, and yes, I think a number of European nations are struggling. It’s hard for the French as they enter their home games. It would be wrong for me to be banging a chest here and saying all this. We’re in a great place. I think the foundations are coming into place; there is a really good culture with really good athletes and coaches who are getting the athletes to the right level. The personal coaches have done a tremendous job as well. Also, we have had minimal injury lists, and our medical team has been very good, long, may that continue.
What can we do to improve our performance in field events? [GB won no medals in field events and was not represented is a significant number of disciplines]
We’re a bit lacking in field events historically. We don’t have athletes who have qualified; we have to invest in coaches. We have to invest into it. There are positives Anna Puichase made the final in the hammer, and nobody would have known her beforehand. So we do have talent.
We need to ask how well are we identifying our talent? How are we stopping the rugby teams from grabbing the big guys and girls or girls choosing sports like netball and field hockey over athletics? In the UK netball with good TV coverage has become very fashionable.
The positives are athletes like Anna, Charlotte Payne, Scott Lincoln, and Lawrence Okoye .
So absolutely, we need to really have a good serious look at field events.