Athletics in Wales is slowly coming back to life. There are no races or competitions, but at least some elite athletes are doing more than just running in the park. The man responsible for the return – and the sport – is James Williams. Owen Morgan asked him about the track that lies ahead.
It’s probably fair to say the past six months have been interesting for new Welsh Athletics chief executive officer James Williams.
The former Welsh international probably wished he’d had a background in hurdling rather than middle distance given the number of challenging obstacles he has been forced to negotiate.
Having been appointed interim chief executive officer at the turn of the year, he was tasked with presenting and delivering the sport’s new seven-year strategy.
No sooner was that announced, the coronavirus pandemic took hold and athletics, along with every single facet of life around the globe was thrown into uncertainty.
Instead of implementing the sport’s bright new future in Wales, he was tasked with leading the fight for its survival as all sport was closed down.
Now, having just been appointed permanent CEO of the governing body in Wales, he must lead the sport out of the crisis and get it back on track.
It is an enormous challenge, but one he is typically relishing.
“It’s been a pretty frantic, frenetic period and it’s been like that since we sadly took the decision to suspend the sport,” says Williams.
“Actually, on the 16th of March I had my last day off from work. That evening I went into the office for a conference call with the other home countries where we decided – unfortunately – to make the decision to suspend the sport.
“Since that period it’s been unbelievably relentless with the scope of work and the amount of effort that everyone has put in to keep everyone engaged, to keep everyone feel supported and communicated with.
“First of all we had to unpick the entire sport and now we’re putting it back together.”
Most of this mammoth operation has been conducted from home by Williams and his staff as Welsh Athletics’ offices were closed as part of lockdown.
“Thankfully, in the weeks leading up to this, we had tested our business continuity plans and all the rest of it, so we were well prepared for remote working,” says Williams
One of the initial priorities was to secure the financial future of the sport in Wales. The coronavirus lockdown came at the worst possible time as athletics geared up for its busiest period.
“During the first couple of weeks, if I’m being brutally honest, it was the financial challenges that were the worst because very quickly your business plan crumbles before your very eyes,” says Williams.
“The way Welsh athletics generates its income relies a lot on competitions, the ones we deliver ourselves, coach education, membership and race licences.
“All of those activities ground to a halt almost overnight and the timing of when this happened – around the start of our affiliation year, around the start of the track and field season – is the time you have a large number of mass participation events. The timing couldn’t have been much worse.
“The big challenge for our sector is that there is no clear timeline for when the sport, or any sport, is going to return to whatever the normal was before. So you’re planning without knowing what you’re really planning for.
“What I would say is over the last couple of years, we have worked really hard around our fiscal responsibility, the way we manage our finances. We are very clear around our responsibility to our members, around having sound financial processes in place.
“As a result we were able to shore things up very quickly. We monitored our finances very closely and made short term decisions and short term changes just to shore up our position.”
Williams has been delighted how everyone has rallied around in a time of adversity, from Welsh Athletics staff, officials and volunteers to the nation’s network of clubs and participating athletes.
“Right at the start of this process I pulled the whole team together and said ‘when we come out of this, whenever we come out of this, I want everybody in this sport, our coaches, our clubs, our athletes, our volunteers, everyone to say that they felt engaged and supported by the governing body’,” says Williams.
“The first message was very much ‘get out there, get on the phones, speak to everybody, find out how they are doing, find out what the immediate challenges are, find out what support we can give them’ and hopefully we reacted very quickly.”
The governing body’s performance team, lead by national coach Chris Jones, has ensured Wales’ elite athletes have been well looked after during an uncertain time which has robbed them of competition and sources of income.
“Chris Jones and the performance team, their remit has very much been around the athletes who are on programme and the coaches that support them.
“So the initial scope was ensuring those athletes on programme are okay, robust from a physical and mental health perspective and trying to maintain some form of activity.
“So one member of staff, Fyn Corcoran has been doing a weekly circuit session that athletes can buy into, Adam Rattenberry has been working closely with all the athletes to make sure they are in one piece from a physical perspective.
“Working with Sport Wales we’ve been providing a lot of psychological support for all the athletes with drop in sessions on a weekly basis available for them.
“So they are very much based around ensuring that the athletes feel well supported, obviously within the confines of what they can and can’t do with regard to the restrictions placed on us all.
“But I’d like to think that the athletes, when we come out the other side, will feel as if they have been supported by the performance team.”
The nation’s clubs have also been a focus of the governing body’s support.
“Chris Moss, head of development, has worked very well speaking to all the clubs, finding out what their challenges are, putting things in place to support them.
“We had to make a decision to furlough staff and sadly those decisions were made around the ability for certain departments to operate effectively, so some of the development staff were furloughed, it puts more pressure on those staff that have remained but Chris Moss and the development team have worked hard to support the clubs.
“I think the process has been very open and honest with the clubs and if you think what the new normal could to look like, I think that’s definitely a way for us to continue our engagement with our members.”
With the worst of the crisis hopefully now under control, focus will now start to turn to the future and picking up on the objectives laid out in the seven-year strategy set out at the start of the year.
Williams said: “Over this period I’ve been reflecting on the strategy, we only launched it at the tail end of last year.
“So throughout this period I’ve made sure I’ve gone back with a fresh pair of eyes to ask ‘is our strategy still relevant and is it still achievable given the new world we’re living in?’ And, in the main, I think it is.
“What my priorities are when we get the sport back up and running – and there is a long process for us to go through – is to ensure that our focus as a governing body turns back to our strategic objectives.
“It still stands true for us. We still want to remove any barriers to participation, we still want to invest in the structure of the sport, so we still want to create the right environment for our clubs to operate, we still want to recruit and develop more coaches, more officials, more volunteers.
“We want to raise the profile of the sport up and down the country because that’s key for us, it’s one of the big challenges for us now as a sport because we run the risk of losing an entire season.
“We should have been preparing for an Olympic Games and the legacy that every four years comes around, more people wanting to engage with the sport, more juniors wanting to emulate those people who they’ve seen on TV over the summer and we should have had a European Championships.
“Again that would have led to another boost in participation and in membership – on top of all the other activity that should have gone on over the summer with school activities and sports days and all this other kind of stuff which attracts new entries into the sport from a track and field perspective.
“We don’t have that now. All of that has gone. So our big challenge now is ensuring that the profile of the sport can be raised over the next couple of months, and our clubs are ready to attract new individuals back into the sport and to almost start to build again.
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“We have got two years until the Commonwealth Games and in 2022 you are going to have a World Athletics Champs, a Commonwealth Games and a European Athletics Champs all in the space of six weeks.
“That is going to be a huge opportunity for us as a sport and we really need to focus and get the sport ready to capitalise on that and get the infrastructure of the sport right.
There have been some major positives to emerge from the crisis situation, such as the improved collaboration between the sport’s governing bodies within the UK.
“There is a new chief exec at British Athletics and they will be coming out with a new strategy. They’ve been more than open around working with the home countries, ensuring that the home countries aren’t just told what the strategy is, but being a part of formulating that strategy.
“So I am sat here now, looking at what the future of the sport could look like, and yes, there are challenges, but I think it is a really exciting time. What we could put in place with all the home countries working together. A modern competition offering, an investment in coach education, a new coaching strategy for the sport in the UK.
“All the things you could say should have been in place across the UK over the last umpteen years has very quickly been accelerated and very quickly put in place for the next period for us all.”
With outdoor sports courts re-opening, marking the end of the suspension of athletics, Williams think a turning point has been reached.
“From an elite perspective we have been working tirelessly with Welsh Government, through Sport Wales, and we have everything in place for a small group of athletes to start back.
“We have got a site that has been identified, all the risk assessments have been approved, it’s gone through Welsh Government.
“Sport Wales have approved circa 17 athletes, between ourselves and Disability Sport Wales, who are all classed as medal winning or Commonwealth Games finalist level athletes.
“One of the things we have done as the first cohort of athletes going back, we have prioritised speed and throws because some of the endurance athletes have been able to maintain some form of activity more related to what they normally do, compared to some of the other event groups.
“So just to be fair to some of those other event groups, who haven’t been able to train at the same level as they would have hoped because of the restrictions, phase one will be for those elite power athletes.
“Then we’ll see if there is scope to have more slots at the training facility, that’s when we will bring some of the endurance athletes back and then hopefully in time some of the futures athletes. We’ll scale it up from there.”
Safety will always be the key to every decision taken at all levels, says Williams.
“I think a key message from me, all along this process is ‘yes we want to get the sport back and up and running as quickly as possible but we will only do that when we are absolutely sure we can minimise the risk to athletes, coaches and staff.
“Sometimes, even internally, it’s been a challenging message around managing expectations because everyone is, as you can imagine, champing at the bit to get things moving.
“We have to put safety first and we have to minimise the risk as much as possible. And if we can’t minimise the risk then we won’t hesitate to maintain the restrictions on the sport.”
So, will there be any domestic championships this season?
“I think it’s difficult to say at this moment in time, we have to realistic,” says Williams.
“I couldn’t say, hand on heart, yes, we will have a full championship programme. Social distancing simply won’t allow that and there are still huge restrictions on mass gatherings.
“I’d hope that we will have some kind of bespoke competition format, whether it’s fair to have a championship I’m not too sure. I’m only speaking from a Welsh perspective.
“One of the things we have done is engage the opinions of the athletes to get their take on what they would like to see.
“I think athletes would want and would need a period to prepare for any competitions so we probably wouldn’t rush to have a competition straight away.
“On the road and the winter side of things, many of our championship dates are within races that have already been postponed or cancelled so we are not looking to reschedule events.
“We may utilise the virtual offering to hold some kind of virtual championships over the summer, but that will be more around trying to continue engagement with the athletes as opposed to trying to put some rigid structure in place in relation to championship activity.
Despite all the difficulties of the past few months and all the undoubted challenges lying ahead, Williams is delighted to have gained the CEO post on a permanent basis.
“It’s a sport that I am really passionate about, not just that, I am passionate about the sport in Wales,” says Williams. “I am from the sport, I have had many volunteer roles within the sport, I have been a team manager for 10 years, I was team manager of the Commonwealth Games in 2014.
“I have been involved in club athletics, international athletics, I am a former international athlete myself.
“I have been with Welsh Athletics for five years, I can see the passion out there. Most importantly I can see what we could achieve if we all pull together and we all point in the right direction.
“I would love to see more finalists at the Commonwealth Games, I’d love to see more medallists at Commonwealth Games, I would love to see more finalists and medallists at British Champs, age group championships, I’d love to see the numbers up at our national championships in junior age groups, I’d like to see bigger participation on certain event groups on the track to catch up with the huge increase in participation in some of the off track events.
“The potential is there, we just need a bit more focus, a bit of drive and a bit of clarity about where, as a sport, we all want to go to.
“I would have found it difficult to see someone else deliver the strategy that I led the creation of.
“Success for me in six year’s time is ‘yes we have got more athletes competing at a higher level around Commonwealth Games’ but it’s built on a solid foundation, a foundation where we have got more coaches who are engaging with our programmes, more collaboration within clubs, where the club structure is maybe modernised, or professionalised.
“Why can’t we see more innovation within the sport, why can’t we see the sport have a higher profile within Wales?
“Why couldn’t we get to a point where a club is employing coaches and coaches are making money from the sport? Why couldn’t we be ambitious in that regard? Other sports have done it.
“It’s great that Dai Sport is a big advocate and supporter of the sport of athletics in Wales, but we need some of the other media outlets in Wales doing it as well. And that comes from the sport having a higher profile and showcasing the sport in a slightly better way.
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“It’s a really exciting time, I’m really privileged to have this role and I do see it as a privilege. It comes with a huge amount of responsibility.
“I need to be brave and the sport needs to be brave but despite the challenges of Covid I’m excited about what we could achieve in the sport. I really am.”
For the latest advice for athletes and clubs regarding the return to athletic activities, go to the Welsh Athletics website.