The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

British Suit Begs a Question

Feb 12th, 2010
6:42 am PST

IAAF World Juniors Championships

Former British Junior Athlete of the Year Richard Davenport has recently brought a lawsuit against his former coach. The reason? Well he says that his former coach, David Farrow, ignored his complaints of back pain, which in turn caused him to have surgery that in effect has put his career in jeopardy.

An interesting situation to be sure. Because with all the handlers and individuals that are involved with track and field athletes at the highest level, it begs the question, in my humble opinion: who is in charge?

Once upon a time there was the athlete and the coach – period. A very simple dynamic. But today in addition to the coach and the athlete, there are several individuals that exercise some semblance of control over the athlete’s career.

For starters there is an Agent who for all intents and purposes is his/her booking agent – scheduling meets, appearances, commercial endorsements. Then there is a Shoe Company, if the athlete is fortunate enough to have a contract with a shoe company. Having paid a considerable sum to the athlete the shoe company also exercises some rights in terms of competition schedule and appearances.

This list doesn’t stop there as there are also Meet Directors/Promoters that pay athletes healthy sums to compete in their events. Nutritionists and Nutritional Consultants that advise the athletes on the food, vitamins and supplements that they ingest. And Physical Therapists/Masseuses who advise on the physical fitness/physical preparation of the athletes.

All of which leads to the question of who is really in charge here? I’ve spoken with several coaches who say that they are at the bottom of the food chain. That they have little say in where and when an athlete will compete – nor influence over their diet.

It seems that while, on the one hand, we have this vision of a “coach” that is based on our knowledge of high school and college coaches that handle virtually everything for the athlete, the job of the professional coach is more the role of trainer – to prepare the athlete for competition. The professional track and field athlete having a “team” of other professionals that take care of the other varied needs of the .

Given that scenario, it would seem that the person most in charge of the athlete and his/her professional career would then be the agent who serves as the central clearing house of decision making for the athlete.

If this is the case, it changes many prevailing beliefs. For example, in the law suit of Richard Davenport, one could then question whether the coach “ignored” Davenport’s back pain or if perhaps improper treatments were provided during his physical therapy – or even if his “team” saw fit to send him to physical therapy. One could then question the competition schedule of the athlete, and therefore the person responsible for the schedule.

In the case of doping accusations and/or convictions perhaps the coach is NOT the immediate fall guy. Because the question should be raised as to who is actually in charge of the athletes’ diet/ medications/ supplements.

My point is that for eons it has been the coach that immediately has had the finger pointed at him/her whenever there is a problem with the athlete and/or the athlete runs afoul of the rules of the sport. Yet, at the professional level, the coach seemingly has the LEAST amount of influence over the athlete and what is going on off the training track – at least when you talk to most coaches.

As a matter of fact, those individuals that foot the bills – primarily shoe companies – often have influence over who the athlete selects as their coach. Or at the least make strong suggestions. Which actually makes the coach the employee of the shoe company and not of the athlete – and in many cases the coaches are on the payroll of the shoe companies. Leaving the shoe company in the lead position over both the coach and the athlete.

Certainly blurs the line when having a discussion on who is instructing / advising the athlete. The coach is looking at performance – but answers to someone other than the athlete in many cases. The agent is looking at earnings and how to achieve them. But he too answers to someone other than the athlete – typically a management group or a shoe company. The shoe company and meet promoters are looking at a combination of performance and appearances, with the goal being to make money off of the appearances and performances of the athlete. Physical therapists, nutritionists, masseuses are looking at how to affect physical fitness and therefore performance – and of course the better the athlete does the better they get paid.

All should be on the same page and operating with the same goals. But it is easy to see how, as in any organization, each “department” is looking at its needs and how best to achieve them, and not always at the “big picture”. Which means that at times they could be at slight odds with each other. Or at least not working in concert with each other.

So who ultimately is in charge and has the final word – the lead role so to speak? Perhaps this case will bring that into focus and give us an answer. I think it’s a pretty good question.

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