Thursday, 23 August 2007

Halycon Nights

The black cinder track of the White City stadium saw, in its time, some wonderful races and world records but one in particular came to mind when I met Derek Ibbotson again at a recent British Milers Club meeting in Manchester.

It was on a fine July evening in 1957 that the stadium staged a mile race that would grip a crowd of 40,000 (normal in those days) and send them home happy. It pitted Ibbotson, Britain’s 5000 metre Olympic bronze medallist of the year before, against the Irish 1500 metre gold medallist, Ron Delany and the Czech, Stanislav Jungwirth, who exactly a week earlier had set a new world record for 1500 metres of 3:38.1 (before 421 spectators in Stara Boleslav!). The White City invitation race was part of an international match, London versus New York.

Though officially not allowed in those far off days there was a pace maker in the race. He was Mike Blagrove and he did his job admirably. Opening with a 55.3 lap ahead of Jungwirth and Ibbotson, he went on to clock 1:55.8 at the half way stage before dropping out. Jungwirth, full of confidence, took up the running and led at the bell in exactly 3 minutes. But Derek was waiting and waiting and he finally pounced and stormed home for a fine win. Delany ran second, Jungwirth third with the winner of the Emsley Carr mile that year, Ken Wood, fourth. For the first time in history four men broke 4 minutes.

The crowd waited impatiently for the result. It took an age in that era before electronic timing. Finally the announcer, Bill Lucas (very much of the old school) cleared his throat. “First,” he said slowly, “D. Ibbotson of the RAF.” The time (pause) 3 minutes 57.2 seconds, second…” But nobody really cared who was second and a huge roar echoed around the venerable old stadium. As far as the British crowd was concerned the world record was back where it belonged. Derek’s mark lasted just one year before the great Herb Elliott shattered it by 2.7 seconds racing in Dublin. It was almost twenty-two years later to the day that the record again came back to Britain when Sebastian Coe ran 3:49.0 at another famous stadium, the Bislett in Oslo.

Half a century on and here was Derek fresh from a holiday in Turkey, not looking much different and as ebullient as ever, willing to do the honours for the Emsley Carr Mile which was part of the BMC meeting.

Derek was incorrigible in his younger days and was just what the sport needed in those dour years of the fifties. He was, I suppose, the Max Miller of the track. Miller was a comedian of risqué jokes and innuendo, who was known as the ‘cheeky chappie’. It was Derek’s sobriquet as well; he was irreverent and certainly not in the Oxbridge mould that dominated British athletics at the time; more Alf Tupper than Roger Bannister. You almost thought that he was not too serious about his running until you raced against him and realised that you had made a very serious mistake.

In 1994 Derek came down to London from Yorkshire (his home county) and joined, in a quite extraordinary and fabulous week, all the living world mile record holders, except two, who had been gathered at the Grosvenor Hotel in London’s Park Lane. The occasion was the 40th anniversary of the Bannister mile. They were all there, iconic figures from athletics history – Wooderson, Andersson, Landy, Elliott, Walker, Ryun, Jazy, Snell, Bayi, Cram , Morcelli and, of course, Bannister himself. It was my job, as the organiser, to shepherd them round. They were like a bunch of schoolboys, fighting over any souvenir that they thought was viable; swapping autographs ad infinitum was de rigueur for the occasion. In the end I had to remember my decade as a schoolmaster to keep them under control. Derek, as you can imagine, was in his element

The runners lined up for the 2007 Emsley Carr mile. The weather was perfect; it was the balmiest evening of this wretched summer. Despite the sparse crowd and lack of atmosphere the winning time was very respectable, 3:54.24, the race won by an American Jon Rankin. Moumin Geele of Somalia was second in 3:57.82 and Australian Laclan Chisholm was third. Derek presented the trophy, the winner signed the famous book and it was over.

I do not know what Derek’s thoughts were as he watched but there may have been just a tinge of sadness when he realised two things: one, that this great race with its history, traditions and ceremonies that had once attracted the world’s greatest milers was now downgraded to this track on the outskirts of Manchester – just a few hundred spectators, no press coverage, no television; secondly, that his younger self would have finished second and would have easily beaten the first British runner home. It was, after all, 50 years ago for God sake.

Love it, not loathe it

Kelly Sotherton’s best javelin throw this year (30.19m) ranks her 230th in Britain. Her second best throw (28.59m) would rank her 315th. Her best ever throw (40.81m) would rank her 31st. Her best 2007 performance would earn her 480 points; her best ever would earn her 683 points. In a heptathlon you cannot afford to lose two hundred points in just one event.

Not, you must surely agree, a good augury for the Olympic bronze medallist as she awaits the Heptathlon in Osaka. Unfortunately the javelin comes sixth in the order of events and so, no matter how hard she tries and how well she goes, this great athlete (and she is a great athlete) will know that her current bête noire awaits.

On a white charger comes Mike McNeill, one time coach to Goldie Sayers and Mark Roberson, who has, thankfully, come out of retirement to help and to face an interesting challenge. If nothing else comes out of this partnership it is great to see him back. Javelin coaches of international calibre are not exactly two a penny in the UK.

Interestingly things started to go wrong after Sotherton’s great year of 2004 (Olympic bronze). A look at her javelin record in heptathlon competitions shows that five of her six worst throws since 2003 have come in the last two years.

McNeill has taken Sotherton back to basics which, once things started to go wrong, was obviously what was required. He is quoted as saying that “it’s better to think of the basics rather than be treated like a javelin thrower and expected to throw like a javelin thrower.” Having coaches, like John Trower and Mick Hill come in who are more used to the stratospheric distances achieved by Backley and Hill himself clearly didn’t work and McNeill has probably hit the nail on the head in his judgement.

That very great athlete Denise Lewis went through some tribulations in her outstanding career and what she learnt is that you have to embrace every event. Every event must be loved and none loathed. The problem often is that many coaches feel that there is a technical solution for everything when the wisest know that it ain’t necessarily so; psychological preparation, especially at this level of competition, is equally important.

Sotherton has not been the same athlete since her mentor, Charles van Commonnee, went back to Holland and maybe the general lesson is not to have a mishmash of coaches covering various events but rather have one person in charge. Whatever, we’ll all be rooting for her over the coming weekend.

Stop Press

In its preview of the championships in Osaka the American Track and Field News (The Bible of the Sport) forecasts ten finalists (top eight) and two medallists for Britain. They are: Devonish (F); Ennis (F); Sotherton (F); Sayers (F); Men’s 4x400 (F); Idowu (M); Men 4 x 100 (M); Sanders (F); Women’s 4 x 400 (F). With the latest news from Osaka Christine Ohuruogu should, perhaps be added to the list.

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