Claire Furlong is sitting in the empty stands at Lee Valley Athletics Centre on a Friday afternoon as a few dedicated runners limber up.
It is an unusually quiet moment for the 38-year-old, who, as head of comms and marketing for UK Athletics, has just completed the successful lobbying bid for the 2017 World Athletics Championships and is gearing up for London 2012.
Her 21-strong team is already hard at work on a dizzying range of tasks, including ensuring long-term UK Athletics sponsor Aviva gets ample recognition for its involvement, filling seats at televised Olympic trials and getting the website ready for an influx of interest post-Games.
During London 2012, Furlong will be chief press officer for Team GB’s athletics contingent and her office will be the Olympic Stadium’s mixed zone – the place where athletes meet the media after competing.
‘It’s the best of times and the worst of times in there,’ she says. ‘You get big sweaty hugs if they have won and it’s horrible if something’s gone wrong. But speaking to the media is part of an athlete’s job.’
This has not always been the case. There was a time when UK athletes regularly skipped media training sessions and dodged the mixed zone to avoid the media. Since joining the body in 2007, Furlong has overhauled the comms function by integrating it with marketing and improving its reputation internally, so it is now considered a key part of the performance team.
She has set clear boundaries. Athletes must stop and speak to the media at the point they go out of a competition. ‘They must also face up to their mistakes. We have a "no excuses" culture. Athletes have to identify what they did wrong and say how they will improve it in the future,’ she says.
‘When Christine Ohuruogu and Dwain Chambers false-started and were disqualified at last August’s World Championships, I knew it would take them a while to come through the mixed zone, but that they would do it. I watched Christine bawl her eyes out for 20 minutes on a step, but then she fronted up,’ she says.
In return, Furlong tries to manage media expectations of the athletes. ‘You can’t hang medals around athletes before they even get to an event, otherwise you can only be disappointed,’ she says.
It is easy to picture Furlong in the mixed zone holding her own among a frenzied media crowd. She is very likeable and energetic, but has a no-nonsense approach and a robust manner. It is hard to imagine her being intimidated. Perhaps this comes from growing up as a female in the male-dominated world of sport. At 14, she was making tea at her local BBC radio station before becoming the youngest head of news and sport in the country at Isle of Wight Radio.
‘There are loads of times I could have said something was sexual harassment, but I just got on with it. Then people see you are good at your job,’ she says.
This thick-skinned attitude also helps when the media team travels with the athletes to competitions and training camps.
‘You have to leave your feelings behind at the airport. I warn my team that it is an intense pressure-cooker environment. The coach is under a lot of pressure and can explode at you,’ she says.
Her attitude may also be the product of working for Kelvin MacKenzie for five years at TalkSport. ‘It was a bonkers time of my life,’ says Furlong. MacKenzie lived up to expectations. ‘He threw chairs. He sacked a colleague I was in a meeting with, telling him, "I don’t pay you to think". There’s a joke among my former colleagues that I was the only one to leave there without a payout because I wasn’t fired,’ she laughs.
‘When I told MacKenzie I was leaving to go into PR, he told me, "You’re a f*****g idiot. You’re far too young and talented to go into PR. Wait until you’re old and boring",’ she recalls.
Hill + Knowlton Strategies’ MD of sports marketing and sponsorship Andy Sutherden works with Furlong through his client Aviva. ‘Claire has an infectious passion for what she does. She works in some seriously prickly political situations; the only thing more political than politics itself is sport,’ he says. ‘But she has an unstinting commitment to doing the right thing and more than holds her own in a senior male regulatory environment.’
Furlong experienced one of these prickly political situations last year, when she headed comms and lobbying for the successful London 2017 World Athletics Championships bid. She cites it her proudest career moment.
It was a year-long campaign that included securing the Olympic Stadium for West Ham Football Club, fighting against her old boss, Vero Communications’ Mike Lee, who was handling comms for Tottenham Hotspur. ‘It was quite a nasty campaign and was unpleasant at times,’ she says. Indeed, at the time of writing, a fourth man had been arrested over allegations that Tottenham spied on London 2012 bid officials during the process.
‘It was an all-consuming 24/7 campaign. It took over my life. My daughter had a show and tell at school and the only thing I had to give her was a London 2017 ?bid programme,’ she smiles.
One of the best pieces of advice she has received was from Lee’s wife Heather: ‘She told me, "always have a safe place". In the Olympic village, you only have three hours of sleep a night. It’s intense. There’s always a moment on tour when you will have a few tears, whether you are male or female.’
But just like her athletes, Furlong will not allow herself to be beaten.
2007 Head of marketing and comms, UK Athletics
2006 Head of media and comms, Vero Communications
2002 Head of media and comms, English Institute of Sport
1998 Deputy programme director, TalkSport
1997 Sports reporter, Meridian TV
1996 News and sports editor, Isle of Wight Radio
TIPS FROM THE TOP
Have you had a notable mentor?
I have been lucky to have so many brilliant people influencing my career, but if I had to pick one it would be Mike Lee. He taught me so much and I have the utmost respect for him, even in opposition.
What was your biggest career break?
Writing a cheeky letter to Kelvin MacKenzie when he bought what was then Talk Radio. Instinct told me sport would be central to his plans, so I told him he needed someone like me. I soon became the second member of the team that would become TalkSport.
What qualities do you most prize in new recruits?
I describe it as an ‘energy’. It is something that you can sense in the CV. I know instinctively when I meet someone if they are going to be a fit and if they have this ‘energy’.
What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
Build a network and keep in touch with people.