Inside UK Athletics' turmoil: athletes revolt, outsiders leave sport 'in a mess' - and shock exits

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Inside UK Athletics' turmoil: athletes revolt, outsiders leave sport 'in a mess' - and shock exits
Inside UK Athletics' turmoil: athletes revolt, outsiders leave sport 'in a mess' - and shock exits

Crisis-hit UK Athletics has been urged to fill its sudden leadership void with people embedded in the sport as athletes and coaches hit out at the recently departed regime, hailing “finally this mess can come to an end”.

The sport was rocked on Thursday night when UK Athletics chief executive Jo Coates and performance director Sara Symington announced their shock resignations following months of turmoil at the governing body.

Telegraph Sport last month reported how a furious group of prominent British Tokyo Olympians had pleaded with World Athletics president Seb Coe to step in, having discussed resigning from their UK Athletics contracts due to their dismay at decision-making among the hierarchy.

When asked earlier this week about the widespread anger, former Olympic cyclist Symington insisted she had the “credibility and expertise” to succeed in her role. However, behind the scenes it is understood she was weighing up a newly-created position as head of the Olympic and Paralympic Programme for the Great Britain Cycling Team.

Interviews for that position were slated to be held on Wednesday, with Symington announced in the new role within minutes of her UK Athletics departure, less than a year into her stint at the organisation.

Coates, who only took up her post in March 2020, is understood to have faced a series of probing questions at Wednesday’s UK Athletics board meeting - the first attended by incoming chairman Ian Beattie - following Britain’s worst Olympics athletics performance since 1996.

Telegraph Sport has been told the atmosphere became increasingly tense before an innocuous question at the end of the night about safeguarding governance prompted Coates to walk out. She later handed in her resignation.

Coates had faced criticism throughout her time at the helm for making mass redundancies after inheriting a governing body in major financial trouble. A number of senior coaches were also recently informed their hours would be drastically cut.

Symington’s apparent hands-off approach upset people. The emails informing coaches of their working reduction were sent when Symington had already gone on holiday before the end of the season, while a number of athletes said they had no contact with her before being informed their funding would be cut this week.

Critics have also pointed out she did not meet shortlisted UK Athletics chairperson candidates and did not go to a recent European Athletics Congress which Beattie and Mark Munro - then development director and now interim chief executive - attended.

“That was seen as a lack of commitment to the cause because with Covid there had been hardly any opportunities to meet in person at these international gatherings,” one source said. “The board looks at it and thinks: ‘Well, it’s almost as if she doesn’t want to be here’.”

Symington told Telegraph Sport: “I was never asked to meet any shortlisted chair candidates and I wasn’t asked to attend the European Athletics Conference as other members of the exec attended, and the performance director has never attended previously.”

She responded to news of her new cycling role by writing on social media: “I couldn’t be happier - going back to where it all began.”

'A lot of athletes have felt unsupported'

Many prominent athletics figures marked Coates and Symington’s departures by calling for a fresh start, with one senior coach saying “finally this mess can come to an end”.

Olympic 100m champion Linford Christie said: “Am I the only one to feel we have been sabotaged? Get rid of the most experienced people in the sport then leave. We need to stop employing people who have no track and field experience.”

World marathon champion Paula Radcliffe said: “Time to get the people in charge of our sport who put the athletes (all levels), coaches and clubs first and have a genuine passion and love for athletics.”

UK Athletics Athlete Commission chair Hannah England said: “It’s been a challenging year and a lot of athletes have felt unsupported. They haven’t felt looked after and haven’t felt attended to. There’s a huge amount of emotion wrapped up in that because they don’t feel they have been given the best chance possible.

“We’re an incredibly complex sport - it is a hard sport to understand and manage, and it’s easier for that to be done by someone as familiar with it as possible.”

Olympic 400m bronze medalist Katharine Merry said: “Athletics is a complicated sport. Sports within a sport in both able bodied and para athletics.

“There are over 40 events in the track and field competition of an Olympic Games making the sport, by far, the most contested of all Olympic sports. The sport is the hardest to win Olympic medals in.

“You have to get athletics. To work and succeed in any area of our sport, you have to understand athletics. You have to respect athletics.”

Telegraph Sport has approached Coates for comment.

UK Athletics lurches into crisis as athletes voice betrayal in wake of shock resignations

By Ben Bloom

UK Athletics sunk further into crisis on Thursday night, with Britain’s leading athletes reacting with fury after finding out only from social media that chief executive Jo Coates and performance director Sara Symington had announced their shock resignations following months of turmoil.

Coates, who only began her role in March 2020, inherited an organisation in a terrible financial state after years of mismanagement.

However, her short reign was marred by frequent criticism from athletes and coaches, with Telegraph Sport last month reporting how a furious group of Tokyo Olympians had pleaded with World Athletics president Seb Coe to step in and even discussed resigning from their UK Athletics contracts due their dismay.

It is understood that matters came to a head at Thursday’s UK Athletics board meeting - the first attended by new chairman Ian Beattie - after which Coates and Symington handed in their resignations.

Symington, a former Team GB cyclist who competed at the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, was criticised for her lack of athletics knowledge after her appointment in August 2020. News of her departure was swiftly followed by confirmation that she will return to her former sport in the newly-created role as head of the Olympic and Paralympic Programme for the Great Britain Cycling Team.

“I couldn’t be happier - going back to where it all began,” she wrote on social media.

Tom Bosworth, a Team GB Olympic race walker, responded to her tweet by saying “wow” with a snake emoji.

The UK Athletics hierarchy has been slated for its lack of communication with athletes and coaches over crucial decisions in recent months after the worst Olympics performance since 1996. A number of Olympians again voiced their anger on Thursday night.

Olympic pole vault bronze medalist Holly Bradshaw said: “Disappointed to find out such important news over social media.”

Olympic long jumper Abigail Irozuru added: “Why are athletes receiving such important news over social media once again? Really disappointing.”

Bosworth, who was this week dropped from funding, said: “What the hell. These two who clearly couldn’t grasp our sport and decided I wasn’t worthy of support despite half a decade of over achieving my funding level, quit a week later. UK Sport are you watching these people mess with athletes' lives?!”

A number of coaches, whose athletes have won multiple Olympic medals between them, were recently informed their hours would be drastically cut. That followed multiple redundancies of respected senior figures as the governing body attempted to make drastic savings.

One coach described the recent treatment of some of the sport’s most highly-regarded coaches as “catastrophic”, adding: “What a waste. What will be left of the sport once UK Athletics is done?”

Coates faced an uphill task to implement changes during her short stint at the governing body, which unhelpfully coincided with the Covid pandemic. She made it a priority to improve safeguarding issues in the sport, but faced resistance trying to implement other reforms at the organisation.

Her senior appointments have raised eyebrows among many in the sport, with Coates bringing Symington with her from England Netball. There was also surprise when Christian Malcolm was named head coach ahead of the well-respected Stephen Maguire, prompting Maguire to quit UK Athletics.

Malcolm is incredibly well liked within the sport, but many have questioned whether he has the necessary experience for the role after only retiring as a sprinter in 2014.

There is widespread dismay that UK Athletics relinquished one of its two regular Diamond League events (although it did step in at the last minute to replace the cancelled Rabat leg earlier this year), while there was mass outrage when Telegraph Sport revealed the British Olympic trials would not be shown on television for the first time this century.

UK Athletics is currently without a TV rights deal after its bumper long-term BBC contract worth more than £2 million a year expired.

With Coates and Symington gone, Mark Munro, the current UK Athletics development director, will take over as interim chief executive for six months while the organisation looks to fill the roles.

In a brief statement, Beattie said: “I’d like to thank Jo and Sara for their work during their time at UK Athletics and I wish them both all the best for the future.”

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