Bicester Athletic Club is a friendly community club based in Oxfordshire, focusing primarily on junior athletics from under-9s upwards. We spoke to club chairman Paul Groves all about the club and how it’s coped with the covid-19 pandemic that has made life so difficult for everybody, not least grassroots sports clubs.

KUDOS: It goes without saying that sport comes a distant second to the health and safety of our loved ones – that is obviously of paramount importance. But, nevertheless, for all of us connected to sport, at whatever level, this has been a very strange time. The rug was pulled out from under our sporting summer in 2020 and it’s left us all in a position none of us have been in before. Firstly, how has it affected your club?

It has been a massive blow for our athletes, although the first lockdown possibly came at the best time (if there was a good time!) because we had pretty much finished our winter season and not started summer training. During lockdown we provided our athletes with regular home training sessions via our YouTube channel, plus other ideas for training and home competition. We also encouraged all our members and their families to take part in the Virgin London Marathon’s 2.6 challenge, we had a number of members take part in this and on the back of that we made a donation to one of our committee member’s marathon fund who was due to run the London marathon.

Where Covid has / is going to hit us hard is our facilities, we are based at a local school using their grass track and field in the summer, where over 10 years ago we installed an all weather jumps facility, this facility has now become almost unusable due to wear and tear and damage caused by roots from nearby trees. We were about to embark on a massive fundraising campaign to try and raise £100,000 to replace and upgrade these facilities – of course this task will now be even harder and potentially a lot longer as most grants and donations are for Covid related projects.

Bicester AC’s KUDOS vest

How did the summer return to training go, after all of the planning that it entailed?

On the 1st of June, England Athletics issued guidance allowing small groups to resume training. We set up a core team to provide a Covid safe return to training, and had to formulate a return plan and carry out Covid specific risk assessments. Once complete we held an induction session for all coaches on the 23rd June and held our first session on 30th June, we started off with a few groups and built it up over the weeks in line with the updated guidance. Normally all sessions are mass participation open to all members, so we don’t normally know who will be attending one session to the next, but due to restricted group sizes and the need for track and tracing we needed to know who was coming to each session. This meant that groups had to be planned before and athletes invited to sessions. We trained for 12 weeks providing 38 sessions with 128 athletes taking part at some point, which culminated in a mini competition which took place over the last two weeks sessions.

The biggest difference was not being able to have parents stay and watch training. We did start to allow spectators during September but then restrictions were tightened again and we had to stop them.

Now we have to carry out the Covid plans for the third lockdown!

So, Bicester Athletic Club – can you tell us a bit about the club, the set up etc…

We currently have around 180 members including coaches and committee members. We are predominantly a junior club although we do have some adult competing members. The club is totally run by volunteers giving up their time for free on top of their work and family lives.

We have three sections to the club; track & field in the summer, cross country and sportshall athletics in the winter. We take part in three T & F leagues; Youth development league, Heart of England league and the Oxfordshire Junior league, Two cross country leagues; Chiltern and Oxfordshire leagues and the Oxfordshire Sportshall league.

It’s not always easy at grassroots level, with funds often tight and numbers sometimes thin on the ground. How has your club been doing in terms of numbers, and also in competition?

Our numbers tend to remain fairly constant, though we lose a number of members each year for various reasons, especially the under 17 / 20 age groups due to going to university or work and athletes transfer to other clubs that have an all weather track. This loss is generally counteracted by new members coming in throughout the year. This summer has been no different, despite the current circumstances, with around 20 new starters coming along.

League competition has been totally wiped out, though there were some open competitions at the end of August and through September with limited numbers and restrictions. We’ve had a handful of athletes take part in some open competitions, they have done very well all producing personal best and a couple of club records have also been broken, which is amazing given the limited exposure to track time.

In the 80s and 90s, athletics was huge – with the big meets shown regularly on terrestrial TV, and the big stars were household names. It’s not quite the same these days, with much less exposure. Has that had an effect on the popularity of the sport at junior level? 

I don’t think this has had a massive impact on junior athletics because kids love to run, although we do struggle to compete with football. This may well have something to do with TV coverage. I think terrestrial athletics coverage has improved since 2012 but it could be better.

And lastly, how would you sell the club to anyone thinking of joining Bicester Athletic Club?

We believe in giving athletes of all abilities the opportunity to train and where possible to compete. Non-athletes who would like to get involved in administration, coaching or officiating are also very welcome!

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Thank you to Paul for taking the time to talk to us. 2020 was a hugely challenging year and let’s hope 2021 brings some light at the end of the tunnel for us all, and this cracking little club can get back to doing what they love. If you’re interested in joining Bicester Athletic Club, in any capacity, you can find them on Facebook.

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