Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Hooray for Windrush

June 22 next year will see the 60th anniversary of a significant moment in the history of British athletics. On that day, in 1948, 492 passengers from Jamaica stepped on to our shores from the liner Empire Windrush looking for a better life in this country. It could be said that it was the most significant post-war moment in British athletics, a moment that meant that the sport in Britain would never be the same again. Why? Because future generations of those 492 passengers, and of those who followed them, would transform sprinting in this country beyond all recognition. The Afro-Caribbeans had arrived and unbeknown to them (and to us at the time) they brought with them a genetic legacy from their ancestry in West Africa, now acknowledged as the original home of world sprinting.

Currently the Afro-Caribbean population of Britain is less then 2% of the whole but in the past twenty-five years black athletes have accounted for 43% of medals won by British athletes at global championships. It is a staggering statistic.

It took twenty years for the impact of Windrush to make itself felt. It was not until 1968 that the 18 year old Anita Neil ran in the 1968 Olympics. A year earlier she had gained her first international. She paved the way for the first exciting black sensation when in 1971 Sonia Lannaman, at just 14 years of age, represented Great Britain in two indoor internationals. In 1972 she was at the first of her two Olympic Games in Munich when another milestone was achieved: three black athletes – Neil, Lannaman and Andrea Lynch - represented Britain in the 100 metres. In 1978 Lannaman won Commonwealth gold at 100 metres and in Moscow in 1980 she won an Olympic relay bronze. By this time other outstanding black women sprinters, like Beverly Goddard and Heather Hunte, were making their mark internationally but it is an indication of a tailing away of black influence in British women’s sprinting in subsequent decades that, almost 30 years on, four of the above are still in the UK all-time 100 metres top eight.

It was not until the mid-seventies that the pioneering males, like Mike McFarlane, Ainsley Bennett and Ernest Obeng, began to make an impression. In other events too there was increasing black influence – Aston Moore in the triple jump; Clive Longe and Daley Thompson in the Decathlon; Tessa Sanderson in the javelin; Verona Elder in the 400 metres. There was also a mix; some like Lannaman, Elder and Thompson were born in Britain; other like Sanderson, Goddard and Moore had followed their families in what was now a familiar pattern of arrival: father, then mother, then children.

As the second generation found their feet so the domination of British sprinting began and has continued ever since. Gradually AAA championship finals became all black affairs; nine of the top ten all-time performers at 100 metres have been black athletes; the last white Englishman to win an AAA 100 metre title was Brian Green in 1971; pre-1987 Britain had won only one European Cup 100 metres; post-1987 Britain’s black sprinters annexed 11 out a possible 17 titles – Linford Christie clocking seven consecutive wins. In 1992 Christie became the third British athlete to win the Olympic 100 metres.

However several black sprinters had served Britain well before the arrival of the Empire Windrush. Arthur Wharton set the first British record in 1886 at the AAA Championships by running “evens” for the 100 yards. Born in what is now Ghana he came to Britain to train as a preacher. He was a superb all round sportsman winning the AAA’s again in 1887. He also became Britain’s first black professional footballer playing in goal for Darlington and Preston North End in the FA Cup.

Thirty-three years later Britain gained its first ever Olympic sprint medals when Harry Edward (also born in Ghana) won bronze in both the 100 and 200 metres. This was bettered in 1928 by Jack London, yet another Ghanaian, who won silver in the 100 metres at the Amsterdam Olympics. His running was summed up by W.R. Loader in his celebrated book Testament of a Runner”. “The man’s will,” Loader wrote, “vibrated down the track like the twanging of a great bow-string.” Totally incidentally, Edward, London and the Olympic gold medallist of 1924, Harold Abrahams, were all coached by the Italian born, Sam Mussabini.

In 1945 Aircraftsman Emmanuel McDonald Bailey from Trinidad elected to stay in Britain after the war. A year later he won the first of seven AAA double sprint titles. In the 1948 Olympics at Wembley he finished sixth (being hampered by injury that season) but four years later he won Britain another Olympic medal in Helsinki with bronze in the 100 metres. “Mac” as he was universally known, along with Arthur Wint from Jamaica, ran at meetings all over Britain and did much to popularize the sport.

This phenomenon is worldwide. The domination by black athletes of Olympic and World championship sprinting is almost total. It is now 23 years since there was a white finalist in the Olympic 100 metres and 27 since one took the gold medal (Alan Wells in 1980 in Moscow when the Games were boycotted by the USA and Caribbean countries). There is not one white sprinter in the fifty-two athletes who have bettered 10 seconds for the 100 metres

To write in these terms only a short time ago would have been considered racist by some. To assert black superiority in any sporting event was felt to stigmatise them with the American euphemism of “dumb jock.” Sir Roger Bannister got himself into all sorts of trouble in 1995 when he opined that there were biomechanical and physiological differences between populations.

When I first met the great Lee Evans, some nine years after he had won gold at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and became the first man to run under 44 seconds for 400 metres, he was coaching in Nigeria with a few other former American athletes and รก la Alex Haley, was trying to connect with his roots. His theories as to why black athletes were so superior to white in the power events were stark. “We were brought to America as physical specimens to work the plantations,” Lee told me,” the best men were mated with the best women. Our ancestors were bred for strength and speed.”

Today there seems to be an agreed realisation that different populations have varying physical talents. West Africa produced power athletes; East Africa produces endurance runners; Slavic populations produce heavy throwers (74% of the fifty all-time best hammer throwers come from that part of the world). The physical build and stoicism of the Japanese people reflects itself in marathon running. Migration from Africa since the beginning of human existence created this diversity of populations and today, as Lee pointed out, because of the iniquitous slave trade there is a Diaspora of West African athletes throughout North America and the Caribbean. Whatever, the arrival of that pioneering group from Jamaica almost six decades ago is something that British athletics should celebrate next June.

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