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07 Feb 2014 00:00
Grassroots guru: Norman Brook at the Vygiekraal stadium, home to Western Province Athletics in Athlone, Cape Town.(David Harrison, M&G)
Growing up in Scotland, Norman Brook wasn't exactly fond of sport. In fact, he did his best to avoid it.
It was to get out of rugby practice that he took up cross-country running.
Brook (59), who is now based in Cape Town, was recently awarded an Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to social development through sport, specifically in Southern Africa.
He manages the Southern African region's Coaching for Hope programme, which is an initiative of Skillshare International, a volunteer-driven development organisation.
"Our work focuses on young people, using sport to reach them and then delivering education via non-formal means," he said.
"We work with local partner organisations: nine in Cape Town, five in Johannesburg, five in Durban, two in Lesotho and two in Botswana. We help community-based organisations build capacity, facilitate work experience, vocational and sports coaching training for young adults, and help resource community sport for development programmes targeted at youth 18 years and younger."
Brook believes that sport has an important role to play in social development. "Sport is a means of attracting young people. We can use it to engage young people, and bring them to a safe place with good adult role models."
At Skillshare International, the sport of choice is soccer or "football", as he calls it, pointing out that the organisation has a very strong link with England in this regard.
"We have people coming in from the English football league. There's a big volunteer-driven programme for young people from the United Kingdom."
But it's athletics, not football, that is closest to Brook's heart, ever since he tried his hand at cross-country back in St Andrews, Scotland.
"There weren't enough people involved in coaching in my hometown, so when I was in my teens I was asked to do a coaching course," he recalls. Brook was mentored by Frank Dick, who served as the British Athletics Federation's director of coaching from 1979 to 1994, leading the British athletics team into its golden era, often associated with names such as Daley Thompson, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe.
After training as a secondary school teacher and teaching for two years, he studied sports coaching in Scotland and in Canada.
He was just 28 when he was appointed British national athletics coach, under Dick's directorship, based in Northern Ireland.
They were daunting times.
"I applied for the job. I had the coaching qualifications and teaching qualifications, so I was academically qualified to do it. I ended up in Northern Ireland at a time when the troubles were under way, so for me as a young man, going there was challenging and exciting. It was an opportunity, and I went forward from there."
Go forward he did. He held the position for 10 years, developing expertise in high-performance sport and community sport development, coaching British teams at most major athletics championships including the Olympic Games, before deciding it was time for a change, and embarking on his own consultancy business.
His projects included the UK-South Africa Sports Initiative, which aimed at assisting transformation in sport in South Africa and empowering previously disadvantaged individuals to become involved in coaching, officiating and administering sport.
Brook was later appointed chief executive of British Triathlon, and is widely credited with driving the development of triathlon during his seven-year tenure (from 2000 to 2007).
He relocated to South Africa with his wife Lisa in 2008 so that they could spend more time with their children, who are all either working or studying in the Western Cape.
Based on his experience in working with grassroots communities, he believes that South Africa has a huge pool of athletics potential that hasn't been tapped into because of administrative issues.
"There is a huge pool of talent, and I know athletics and other sports are not reaching it because, in order for a sport to do so, it needs to sort governance out first, it needs a strong strategy and a plan."
He admits that, back in his days as an athletics coach, he thought South African athletes were a match for their British counterparts. But things have changed.
"The standards here have dropped. How do we get athletics back on track? We need a mandate from the members of the sport for people to put aside their other agendas and say, ‘This is about athletics, how do we get it back to where we want it to be?' For the past two years, things seem to have been going around in circles. It needs to move forward now. People in the sport need to get together and elect a new group of people to take responsibility."
Brook will fly to the UK in April, where his MBE will be formalised at a ceremony presided over by one of the members of the royal family.
He admits he was caught off guard by the news.
"I spent most of my career in sport in the UK, and I would have expected to get this as a result of my work in triathlon.
"I'm surprised it's being given for my work in Southern Africa. I thought the opportunity had passed me by."
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