Calls have been made for Athletics New Zealand (ANZ) to offer better standards for coaches and to stop pandering to athletes supported by sponsorship and taxpayer-funded agencies like Sparc.
Chris Pilone was Hamish Carter's coach when he won Olympic gold at Athens. He is currently employed by Triathlon New Zealand, guiding Olympic hopefuls Kris Gemmell and Ryan Sissons. Last year he was contracted to ANZ as their middle- to long-distance coach at the Delhi Commonwealth Games.
His decision to speak out was driven by the Herald on Sunday story last month that his former charge Nikki Hamblin had cut ties with her most recent coach Paul Hamblyn after less than a year together. Two other high profile Kiwi athletes - Val Adams and Brent Newdick - have also ditched their coaches since the Commonwealth Games.
The Hamblin-Hamblyn breakdown ended a season which promised much but delivered little. The 23-year-old broke her New Zealand 1500m record, running 4m 04.82s at Barcelona on July 22 which eased her inside the Olympic A qualifying mark of 4m 06s.
Hamblin has suffered a slump since. She fell 50m from the finish in her heat at the world championships in South Korea in August. The 800m fared little better. Her time of 2m 02.87s was more than three seconds outside her personal best set in Split last year.
Pilone wants what he calls a "money for medals" approach to be changed by ANZ because he says it promotes a culture of pampering. He says coaches and other support services suffer. Pilone cites his own experience with Hamblin as a warning to the sport's governing body that the coach is not always wrong and athletes have a duty to be accountable with taxpayer money.
He cites examples of Hamblin not using funding from ANZ for massage and physiotherapy services once she was overseas; throwing her heart monitor away when challenged on its use; having a poor agent who couldn't get her decent European races; and narrowly avoiding being timed out on a drugs test.
"I emailed [then-high performance manager] Kevin Ankrom about that but didn't get a reply for days. He should have said, 'Nikki, you'll get a funding cut if this sort of behaviour continues', but he didn't. I gave her agent a vigorous workout on the phone, too. He took no responsibility."
Pilone started working with Hamblin in 2007. In Delhi, Hamblin netted silver medals in the 800m and 1500m - just the second New Zealand woman to win two medals on the track at a Commonwealth Games after Lorraine Moller in 1982. However, she and Pilone argued frequently from May 2010 until the October event.
Post-Games Pilone said he would only continue as Hamblin's coach if she underwent regular work with a sports psychologist and came to a December running camp in Rotorua. Hamblin did not attend. The partnership ceased.
That was also the point Pilone lost faith in the ANZ system because he says Ankrom denied any such agreement was in place and was prepared to do anything to appease Hamblin.
"Kevin was thorough in his performance plans, one of the best I've seen, but he was too busy trying to please everyone. For example, Nikki launched into an expletive-laden tirade at one meeting between the three of us towards the end; she told me I was fired and walked out.
"Kevin agreed to pay out my contract in full despite it having October until March to run. Then he folded under pressure in the media and did not address the issues from that meeting. He said it was a routine catch-up that went reasonably well although a 'couple of concerns' were raised.
"I was prepared to negotiate but the final straw was when Kevin denied there was a conditional agreement in place to keep coaching Nikki."
Pilone felt expendable: "There was no restraint. Win a medal at the Commonwealth Games and you could do what you liked. I was appalled with how coaches were treated as a commodity."
While Pilone has fallen out with Hamblin, he says she was physically the most talented athlete he has coached but the victim of a slack system.
"She was prepared to train hard. That meant working full-time to get to Europe for the first time. She was prepared to invest thousands of dollars of her own money to pay for the trip before being reimbursed. Now you've got a situation where she acts as she wants; a prima donna out of control who has sacked another coach."
Hamblin and Ankrom (now Athletics Ireland's high performance manager) were contacted to discuss this story but neither responded. Hamblin is understood to have a confidentiality agreement in place regarding the break up with Hamblyn.
ELENA VINOGRADOVA coached decathlete Brent Newdick for three years from April 2008 in which time he took silver at the Delhi Commonwealth Games and improved his points tally from 7551 to 8114 (achieved the month after Vinogradova and Newdick parted this year). The 1991 Russian 4x100m world championships relay silver medallist says Newdick wanted her support for the European tour ahead of August's world championships but ANZ would not budge.
"Brent's amazingly talented. We talked about applying for funding to Europe but I couldn't make myself available for the full four months. We negotiated for me to go for three weeks in June and four weeks in August because he didn't want to be there the whole time by himself. That plan was taken to Ankrom but he said my level of commitment was not enough. I warned them that if Brent was alone in Europe, he wouldn't be able to handle it.
"Brent decided four months of freedom and funding where he didn't have to be forced into hard training and could try his own way was best. He thanked me but said he needed a coach who could commit more.
"But there is a high risk of not being able to sustain a previous level if you change a coach so close to a world championships or a year before an Olympics.
"He didn't find a coach, spent four months in Europe and failed at the world championships [Newdick came 19th, 353 points below his best]. I was devastated.
"If I was high performance manager, I'd try to find a compromise without dumping a coach because they are 50-60 per cent of an athlete's success. They know how to take an athlete from A to B. But in New Zealand coaches are neglected."
Vinogradova wasn't happy with Newdick's Delhi silver. She believed he could win gold.
"Brent wanted to ease off training once he did okay. I asked Ankrom to reinforce what I was trying to do but he wouldn't. Brent and I would argue about how much he should train and I'd say 'I've been there, I know how much you need to do'. I could've said 'do whatever you want and you will fail', but I'm too professional."
THE EMPHASIS on athlete over coach is not new. Kiwi icon Peter Snell, commenting earlier this year on the Ian Ferguson-Paul MacDonald stoush with canoeing, told the Herald on Sunday: "What seems to be happening these days is that there is much more of an emphasis on high performance management - but my belief is that has very little impact on what actually happens.
"Look how pathetic the US is at middle distance [track]. They have all the talent, the best sports science and all those university athletes coming through - and they still can't produce a decent middle distance performer; they are screwing it up. In the same breath, you can't tell me that high performance management can take the credit for what New Zealand athletes like Valerie Adams and Nick Willis have done."
Rowing was New Zealand's top Sparc-funded sport, with a thriving success rate, but Snell noted the presence of coaches such as Dick Tonks.
"That's the thing that really makes the difference - iconic, driven coaches like Arthur Lydiard. You can't just dial up another coach. I hope this sort of thing isn't coming from what seems to be a new element in New Zealand sport which harks back to those old days - athletes being told they have to do it this way or that way and, if they don't, it's the highway.
"I hope Sparc aren't being dictatorial... and I hope high performance managers don't think they are most important because they hold the purse strings."
ANZ chief executive Scott Newman says they are generally happy as to how they deal with top athletes.
"The athlete-coach relationship is a critical part of performance but the most important thing is the athlete being comfortable. We're aware of Nikki's latest situation [with Hamblyn]; we've identified it as a bit of a [red] flag in her programme but we're determined to find something that suits her. She's a critical athlete; a potential Olympic finalist and clearly someone in the top echelon albeit probably behind Val Adams, Nick Willis and Kim Smith.
"We keep a close eye on anything we're not happy with and can adopt a tighter funding policy if need be."