Monday, 21 January 2008

Iron Man Pirie

Gordon Pirie, as well as setting five world records, was a pioneer in British distance running. He was the first British runner to understand that in order to take on the greats of his events (the 5000 and 10000 metres) you had to match their training methods. He felt that the schedules of the modern athlete “must be fantastic time and distance devouring affairs which would produce a machine – not an ordinary machine but one capable of sustained plateau performance.” It is a lesson that, with the very obvious exceptions of Mo Farah and Paula Radcliffe, the fraternal order of British endurance runners and coaches seem to have completely forgotten today.

Though his world record of 13:36.8 for 5000m, set over half a century ago, is now outside the UK top fifty it is a time that would have placed him third in the 2007 rankings (and indeed would have put him in the top five any year this century). And as we are talking of an era that pre-dated synthetic tracks by some twelve years his achievements, set on the loose cinder tracks of the day, seem even more remarkable.

His other metric records were set at 3000 metres. His fastest ever time of 7:52.7 would also have seen him posted in the top five in Britain this century (and in one or two cases in the top three) and his 29:15.2 for 10,000 metres (in his day running 6 miles was more the vogue) would have placed him in the top ten. But this is not a lament about current British distance running but a tribute to one of its greatest ever exponents, a man of determination, talent, sheer guts and bloody mindedness.

When Pirie (nicknamed “Puff-Puff” for his habit of blowing out his cheeks as he ran) came to the fore in Britain it was the East Europeans that were now setting the pace in endurance running. Prior to the Second World War it had been the Finns that had dominated but then the Czech runner, Emil Zatopek amazed the world with his competitive and training exploits. His training sessions became legendary: 20 x 200m followed by 60 x 400m followed by 20 x 200m. When it came to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics his mastery was complete. He won the 5000m, 10000m and marathon in the space of a week.

British running at the time was dominated by Oxbridge. This was the era of Bannister, Brasher and Chataway and though their training (partly under Franz Stampfl) could not be described as light it certainly came nowhere near the intensity of Zatopek or of the emerging Russian, Vladimir Kuts. Pirie (a South London Harrier all his life) knew that the only way to successfully compete against Zatopek, Kuts and a little later the Hungarian trio of Iharos, Tabori and Rozsavolgyi was to match their training. The man he turned to was the progenitor of interval training, the German coach, Woldemar Gerschler.

In a manner of speaking interval training had been in vogue for some time. Nurmi had employed a form of it in the 20’s with metronomic precision on the track and the Swedes, in the 30’s, with their Fartlek (“speed play”) in their pine forests but Gerschler, with the physiologist Professor Herbert Reindell, took it to more scientific heights. He coached the phenomenal 400/800 runner Rudolf Harbig whose 1:46.6 world record stood for sixteen years. He also coached the surprise 1500m winner of the Helsinki Olympics, the Luxembourgian Josy Barthel.

Pirie went to see Gerschler at his base at Freiberg University. He was an ideal pupil – ambitious, hard working and determined to be the best in the world. His world records were not set in paced races but in competitive ones. In his 3000 metres record at Malmö in 1956 he beat the three great Hungarians mentioned above; in his 5000 metres that same year he beat Kuts. 1956 should have been his annus mirabilis but in Melbourne, at the Olympics, he finally succumbed to Kuts in what many believe is one of the greatest 10,000 races of all-time. Many also believe it was Pirie’s greatest ever run.

Track and Field News put the race (in typical flowering fashion) in a nutshell: “…a blond Ukrainian killer in the blood-red shirt of Russia impassively murdered Gordon Pirie and twenty-two other hapless victims before 100,000 horrified witnesses. The figurative slayer was Vladimir Kuts, a twenty-nine year old sailor with an instinct for pogrom.”

Kuts did indeed set a killer pace with an opening lap of 61.2 seconds (just 0.1 secs slower than Snell in his world record mile of six years later). The only man to go with him was Pirie and there then ensued a great cat and mouse contest with Kuts putting in murderous bursts and the Englishman inexorably drawing him back. It was mesmerising stuff. On and on the contest went until in the twentieth lap Kuts swung out and slowed dramatically. Pirie was forced to lead. Kuts, with the roles reversed, eyed Pirie carefully and satisfied with what he saw he jumped his opponent and sped away. Pirie lost contact, his spirit broken, dropping back further and further in the race. He finished eighth. Later in the Games he gained silver, again behind Kuts, in the 5000 metres. Many years later Kuts confirmed that if Pirie had stayed with him after he resumed the lead the Englishman would have won.

There is no doubt that Pirie, perhaps over-confident after his two world records, gambled by running in the 10,000, a distance at which the Ukrainian was 50 seconds faster, giving him a tremendous psychological advantage. Had Pirie confined his bid for Olympic glory to the 5000 metres then the advantage would have been his to a certain extent having beaten Kuts with a 1:55.0 last 800m a few months earlier.

Gordon never won a major international track championship and perhaps it was that he lacked the divine spark necessary to become an Olympic, or latterly, World champion.

I last met Gordon, in December 1991, just a few days before he died of stomach cancer in Christchurch in Hampshire. Since his running days he had successfully taken up coaching in New Zealand training amongst others Anne Audain, a New Zealand record holder and Anne Smith, a Commonwealth medallist. Now, obviously he was physically something of a tragic figure. He asked if we could drive him to the cliff tops, a mile or two away. As we stared at a sunlit Channel we found that Gordon hadn’t changed one iota being as dogmatic as ever and still ranting about the British Board and Crump and Abrahams with whom he had had many a vociferous battle.

Although just 60 years of age he well outlived his great rival who had died from a fourth heart attack some 16 years previously, aged 48. In 1991 British distance running was in sharp decline and he was, inevitably, withering about those who had followed him. He was a great cross country runner, winning two English titles and he was the second BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 1955.

Will we ever see his like again? Probably not with the current African domination of the distance running events. Of one thing you can be sure though: if he was competing today Gordon Pirie would be up at the front of championships races battling it out with the Kenyans and Ethiopians – and giving them a hard time.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

On the Right Track?

As we enter this all important last year of the 29th Olympiad and Beijing approaches all too swiftly there seems to be change in the air presaging a new dawn for British Athletics. We’ve had these dawns before over the past few decades of course and each one has, unfortunately, proved totally false. So the question this time round is with what frame of mind should we appraise this possible renaissance? Should we look at our history as a sport and vent our cynicism on the current efforts of UK Athletics and England or can we detect a genuine desire for change? There are certain straws in the wind to indicate that we should be cautiously optimistic.

When Ed Warner and Nils de Vos entered Athletics House they were appalled by what they found: UKA had become, under David Moorcroft and most particularly Adam Walker, a grossly overblown, dysfunctional organisation that had been unfit for purpose for years. Though it is proving a tense time for the employees de Vos is carrying out a most necessary drastic pruning of the organisation.

After a decade or so UKA has finally recognised that its role in the domestic athletics firmament is purely one of setting policy. Its chequered history has shown that it has been almost totally incapable of delivering the policies that its seemingly endless deliberations have conjured up. It became an ultra tick-a-box organisation. Now, streamlined and led by two men who carry no baggage from the past it can, with due consultation with the implementers, set policies that can revive our ailing sport.

To be fair to UKA the AAA of England showed, in its seventeen years of history, the truism of Lear’s observation that nothing will come of nothing. In its desperate attempts to retain the ancient order it spent all of its time and energy spilling more metaphorical blood than Macbeth. It did nothing, so it achieved nothing. Now it and its satellite territories, still crazily in existence, hope that history will repeat itself so that they can reassume what they consider to be their rightful mantle.

Luckily for the sport new England, after a very hesitant start, is moving forward. There is fresh blood (hopefully to be unspilt this time round) and new ideas as was witnessed at a recent gathering of council members of the nine regions along with England Board representatives. Few, if any, of the old order were present, which means that fresh thinking will at last flood into the sport. As England Chairman, John Graves, recently observed it is vital to grasp the opportunities that this realignment of responsibilities has presented.

Selecting the right person for the post of England Chief Executive now becomes crucial. Again our past history has shown that the appointing of the right people for top executive jobs has not been British athletics’ strongest forte. Frankly there have been some awful choices. The new England CEO has to be able to successfully ensure that the policies arrived at are the culmination of consultation with those that have to implement them and not, as has been the tendency in recent times, to be edicts handed down from on high. He or she, whilst giving the nine regions some independence and flexibility, must also ensure that England athletics as an entity moves forward with a cohesion of purpose. The worst that could happen is that opportunity for athletes depends on their postcode.

It is also vital that faith in the voluntary sector is restored. The multiplicity of activities that comprises athletics requires a large army of volunteers; up until now the devotions of such people have been ignored and even despised. England and its regions need to urgently retain and then recruit; people need to be wooed into the sport and their efforts need to be understood and recognised.

This does not mean kowtowing to the vociferous malcontents whose only modus operandi is to abuse those who run athletics in Britain. In the main they represent no one but themselves and to have no agenda except that of “leave it to the clubs”. A look at the only structures that the clubs are actively involved in, the malfunctioning leagues, gives, if such a course were ever to be embarked upon, a glimpse of a future ten times worse than that we have been through.

Savings of well over £1 million are likely to accrue from the reduction in staff planned by de Vos and it will be interesting to see where those savings will be invested. As mentioned in a previous Track Chat there is serious professional understaffing in the English regions and this situation will worsen if more and more implementation is given to them.

As well as boosting staff in the regions money must also be found to fund a new competitive structure for the sport and UKA and the home countries must also begin the process for the professionalisation of coaching.

What’s past is prologue, writes Shakespeare and in our instance it is that we acknowledge and learn from our mistakes. We stood at a crossroads and embarked on the wrong road. Now we have the opportunity to take the right path. We cannot afford to err again.