By Andy Tong

TONBRIDGE Athletic Club decided to boycott the South of England Cross Country Championships at Stanmer Park last weekend.

The decision comes because the members feel they have been let down by the organisers, the South of England Athletics Association (SEAA).

The club, which prides itself on its cross-country achievements, consistently takes up to 180 runners to such events.

But coaches claim their athletes are not being properly valued despite all the hard work, time and commitment they put into their training.

“Over the last two or three years it has been difficult,” admitted Mark Hookway, Team Manager and cross-country coach at Tonbridge.

He cites the road relay event held at Crystal Palace last September, when his team turned up to find that none of the runners had been entered into the races.

“The road relays were run extremely well by the Aldershot club at Rushmore Arena, but then the SEAA took them over,” says Mr Hookway.

“At Crystal Palace they lost all our entries, the results were inaccurate, and the Under-17s runners were sent off course by a marshall.”

The final straw came with the choice of venue near the University of Sussex at Falmer on the south coast last weekend.

‘Our athletes just want a bit of recognition – a pat on the back makes a difference for their motivation. All they want is a good experience’

“Then they announced that there would be no parking at all at Stanmer Park. There are major works being done on the railways so there are replacement bus services.

“We were probably going to send 130 athletes to the event – we took 180 to the National Cross County Championships.

“It costs £7 a head, which doesn’t seem like much but it all adds up. We just said we wouldn’t go. I have not even had an acknowledgement from the SEAA.”

Bo James of Leftspike fanzine says: “Club runners don’t seem to be treated with the same fairness or regard as the mass participation market, where extortionate prices are paid and justified by the bells and whistles they provide.

“The loyalty, heritage and blind optimism of the grassroots runner is taken for granted time and again. While regional competition is essential to the make-up of grassroots athletics, Tonbridge’s actions prove patience is starting to run very thin among a loyal fan base.”

Mr Hookway agrees. “We are in a competitive market, and I spend a lot of time getting people enthused, getting parents to back us,” he said.

“You are up against triathlons, half marathons. There are so many choices for people, with parkruns and indoor events too.”

He suggests that it might be worth increasing the cost of registering for races in order to improve the organisation behind the events.

“You expect slick organisation,” he says. “I would be happy to pay a little more to have that. You have got to be guaranteed that there isn’t going to be a lot of hassle.

“Our athletes just want a bit of recognition – a pat on the back makes a difference for their motivation. All they want is a good experience.

“It’s nothing like when our athletes go to the States to compete, they are all over social media, they are meeting the public and signing autographs. It’s a different world.”

Last month the SEAA was also criticised for voting against amendments that would introduce gender parity to competitions in the region.