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In business terms De Vos has been a success but try telling that to grassroots athletes

SCOTLAND'S director of athletics coaching, Stephen Maguire, has made a good impression in his battle to improve the education and quality of coaching.

Despite criticism by athletes and coaches, Niels De Vos has done a sound financial job with UK Athletics. Picture: Getty
Despite criticism by athletes and coaches, Niels De Vos has done a sound financial job with UK Athletics. Picture: Getty

It has been hard to restore focus and motivation among unpaid volunteers, many of whom felt disenfranchised and marginalised by an increasingly professionalised UK system, influx of foreign coaches, and athletes leaving Scotland to join them.

Despite this, Maguire has been making progress. So it must have come as a shock when Niels de Vos, chief executive of UK Athletics, was awarded a £93,000 bonus - a 55% salary increase, raising his remuneraton package to £254,994 for 2011-12. It is a one-off, written into his contract when he took up the job in 2008, and his salary will drop next year.

The response from athletes and coaches was instant and scathing, however. It sent the wrong message at a time when volunteer coaches are leaving the sport and increasing numbers of elite athletes are losing funding. It's akin to bankers receiving increased bonuses when account holders' interest rates are at rock bottom. Indeed, outside the banking and financial sector, any bonus in excess of 20% of salary might be considered unacceptable.

Athletes were in little doubt. UK javelin record-holder Goldie Sayers questioned on Twitter how de Vos could award himself such an increase: "whilst we are losing voluntary coaches every year due to lack of funds." Former Olympic and World heptathlon bronze medallist Kelly Sotherton (now a coach) said it was a "joke"; European Indoor champion Helen Clitheroe called it "unreal"; and hammer-thrower Sarah Holt said it was: "unbelievable".

Many coaches, including veteran endurance guru George Gandy, sprint coaches Tony Lester and Michael Afilaka, and Toni Minichiello, mentor of golden girl Jess Ennis-Hill, were axed post 2012 (though Minichiello has since returned).

It is a myth that all Olympic athletes have paid coaches. Some have day jobs, and coach for nothing in basic facilites light years removed from glittering high performance centres. Such coaching, unpaid is the bedrock of every club.

When UK coaching director Charles van Comennee (four gold, one silver, one bronze in 2012) fell on his sword having failed to match his personal target, de Vos showed no such inclination.

So is he cutting it?

Quite possibly. If there is a flaw in de Vos's contract it is lack of transparency. Critics should be aware, however, that his bonus comes from UKA's commercial income, not performance money or public funding.

Were he prepared to comment, he could point to astute restructuring. One of his first moves was to cut more than half of headquarters staff. Then he relieved Fast Track, taking event-promotion in house. Joint savings could amount to millions. He rejected renewal of Aviva's sponsorship package, the top one in UK sport outside football, and dismantled sponsorship into several packages. His belief that more money would be gained long-term with a family of smaller sponsors looks likely to be correct.

The sport announced this month that Sainsbury's will become its "major events partner" (first incarnation will be the Emirates match in Glasgow this month), while opting for a new kit sponsor and agreeing an improved TV deal has franked his prescience over last year's anniversary games. The deal, done back in 2010, brought the two-day Diamond League meeting to the Olympic stadium, and sold out in 75 minutes. That itself was worth more than renewing Aviva's offer.

De Vos's salary was £80,000 more than that of Ian Drake, Britain's most successful Olympic ceo (cycling). Yet their eight gold, two silver and two bronze was exactly double the Olympic athletics' haul.

De Vos's bonus may not merely be a reward for financial results. He was appointed at the end of 2007. That year, 41 British athletes in all Olympic disciplines finished in the top 40 in the world. In 2012, these numbers increased to 62. The sport benefited from Olympic incentive and the influx of some "plastic Brits", but it's still a significant improvement.

An Oxford history graduate, he is no stranger to sporting success. He was marketing director for the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester which sold 90% of tickets - a record previously held by the Sydney Olympics and only now surpassed by Glasgow 2014. At Manchester, he raised more in commercial sponsorship than any other international sports event ever held in the UK. And in four years as ceo of Sales Sharks he guided them to the Rugby Premiership title.

This, of course, is little comfort at grass roots athletics, where years are sent developing talent which is then pounced on by paid coaches. The chairman of the Association of British Athletics Clubs, Bill Law, says the grassroots "are in shock," and that it "shows how out of touch UK Athletics is".

Resolving the differences of elite performance and grass roots clubs is familiar. Think SFA, national team, and recreational football. But it is something de Vos must resolve. It's also one Scotland must continue to work on. The salary of chief executive Nigel Holl, with benefits shown in their accounts to be just over £71,000, is by contrast not out of the ordinary - especially given that under his stewardship, membership has increased with membership income up to £168,000. It's a pity the sports image in Scotland is being undermined by UKA.

And another thing . . .

Athletics in Scotland seems hyper-sensitive to criticism. Last week's column precisely pointed out the poor domestic representation in 2013 Commonwealth rankings, which suggest just two medals (same as recent Games, we might add) but depressingly few finalists. This was speedily posted on scottishathletics' Facebook site, and just as speedily exised from it. The same list had already been sent by statisticians to Commonwealth Games Scotland. We fail to see what the sport achieves by hiding the facts.

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