The new National Athletics League saw its first staging this summer, albeit not quite in the format that was intended. So how did it fare?
It was to be the biggest shake-up in league athletics in more than 40 years but, due to the pandemic, the first season of the National Athletics League turned out to be an interim measure with a revised format. So how much can be read into the events of the first year? We asked some key figures in the league for their assessment so far of the new format.
The NAL replaced both the men’s British Athletics League and UK Women’s League, which had been set up in 1969 and 1975 respectively. However, the outbreak of Covid delayed its launch in 2020 and, as the country was gripped by the 2021 lockdown, the committee decided an improvised format was needed if it was to take place at all this summer.
Having the same four or five geographically based teams compete against each over all four rounds and using performance points to have clubs “virtually” compete against each other was obviously far from ideal. However, the emphasis was on providing athletes with much-needed competition after the pandemic-induced pause.
What did go ahead as planned was the uniting of the male and female athletes and this seems to have proved a great success. Shot putter Amelia Strickler, who competed three times for eventual champions Thames Valley Harriers, said: “This year I actually really liked it as a combined team for sure. I think it makes the team atmosphere so much better.
“Whereas, before, it was like we didn’t really care how the men did, now it’s like ‘Oh my gosh, we need them to do really well too’. It reminds me of being at uni and you have that team atmosphere, it’s really fun.”
However, putting on the new competition has posed challenges. In order to limit travel and overnight stays which might have been prevented by restrictions, each of the four rounds required nine matches rather than four.
League chairman Len Steers said: “The delivery of the Covid competition format for the NAL has proved difficult. We can’t disguise that fact. Providing 36 competitions over the whole year has been a task in itself.
“It’s only by means of the volunteers within the sport that it’s been possible so we have to say big thanks to those clubs who have taken on responsibilities to host fixtures, those individuals who have put themselves forward to be event managers, along with the officials who have turned up in quite significant numbers, particularly when as a sport this year, due to the pandemic, we condensed five months into three months so there have been major fixture clashes.”
Indeed, finding enough officials amid a crowded calendar was a major feat, particularly as some were vulnerable in the face of Covid or shielding. The pandemic also meant some tracks were being used as testing or vaccinating centres, thus limiting the available venues.
The provision of match-day results was also problematic with the temporary league structure. “We look forward to the return of the eight-team format and a return to position-based scoring,” said Steers.
However, he particularly thanked England Athletics for their support – financial and otherwise. “Without the support of EA we wouldn’t be able to provide the 36 fixtures in three months,” he said.
Tim Hughes, committee member and Bournemouth AC team manager, noted a tailing off in the athlete appearance level throughout the season, perhaps a sport-wide issue this year. “I would say my biggest negative and not just for this league – it’s all over the leagues in 2021 and not just our team – was the reduced participation this year,” he said. The introduction of promotion and relegation in 2022 will clearly have an effect in this regard.
However, champions TVH had no problem filling all their team slots, successfully calling on top athletes such as Strickler, Nicole Kendall, Zoey Clark and the league’s male track athlete of the year, Chris McAlister.
He said: “Hopefully people saw that they didn’t necessarily have to go chasing competitions abroad if they can get a good level of competition here.”
Shaftesbury Barnet Olympian Scott Lincoln was another such elite athlete who competed for his club, his 20m throw making him the league’s male field athlete of the year. Meanwhile, Windsor, Slough, Eton & Hounslow’s hurdler Jessie Knight returned from Tokyo 2020 to claim the female track athlete award with her 54.81 at Eton.
The provision of competition after the ravaged 2020 season was appreciated at all levels. Graham Howell, team manager of National One winners Yate, said: “Most people were just glad there was something to do. Structurally it was organised quite well.”
However, next year should see the long-awaited arrival of the originally planned format. Three divisions – in the case of the premiership and championship each having 16 teams – will be contested. Eight clubs will meet each match on a round-robin basis in each of three rounds before two grand finales for both the premiership and championship at Bedford. As is traditional, scoring will also be based on positions rather than performance.
Guests will be allowed, too, meaning appearances of athletes such as Keely Hodgkinson, who guested at Nottingham (pictured above) after winning Olympic 800m silver, could become more commonplace. This will also offer a good opportunity for athletes to gain standards ahead of championships.
The league this year may have been a shadow of its eventual self but the signs are promising.
» This article first appeared in the October issue of AW magazine, which you can buy here