Europe’s first Olympic 100m champion … athletics journalist, historian and statistician … radio commentator … leading administrator and official. Over a period of more than half a century Harold Abrahams made a massive and extraordinarily varied contribution to British and international athletics. He was for many years also an influential member of the IAAF, and loved the sport’s facts and figures, co-founding the worldwide Association of Track & Field Statisticians in 1950 and serving as the first president of its British offshoot, the NUTS.
As an athlete, he failed to make any impression at the 1920 Olympics but produced a stunning upset at the next Games in Paris. Abrahams trained meticulously during the winter of 1923/24, “Truthfully,” he wrote, “I did not think I had any chance of a gold medal, nor did anyone else.” However, he equalled the Olympic record in the second round, semi-final, and once more in the final. He climaxed his race with a drop finish – “scudding like some vast bird with outstretched wings, a spectacle positively appalling in its grandeur,” according to one observer. He later also took a silver medal in the 4x100m relay.
He died, aged 78, three years before the Oscar-winning film Chariots of Fire was released, but how gratified he would have been to know that he would become even more famous than in his sprinting heyday.
For one man to have guided four athletes to the dizzy heights of becoming Olympic or world champion must be an unique achievement among British coaches but Loughborough trained Malcolm Arnold can claim that distinction.
Arnold was appointed Welsh National Coach in 1974, a position he held for 20 years. His first notable success was with sprint hurdler Nigel Walker, then the highly talented Colin Jackson. Arnold’s other successes have included Kay Morley (1990 Commonwealth Games 100m hurdles champion), Jason Gardener (world indoor 60m champion and Olympic 4x100m gold medallist in 2004) and Craig Pickering (second to Gardener in 2007 European Indoor 60m), and this year he has guided David Greene to the World Championships 400m hurdles final and Lawrence Clarke to the European Junior 110m hurdles title.
Voted UK coach of the year 1992-93, he served as British Athletics Head Coach, UK Athletics Performance Director and UKA Senior Performance Coach. He is currently National Event Coach for Hurdles. As Colin Jackson has stated: “Malcolm must be the most successful British coach there has ever been.”
It was Steve Backley’s privilege but misfortune to have been the main rival of the greatest of all javelin throwers, Jan Zelezny, for most of his career. Backley had the distinction of being the first British male to set a field event event world record and his medal haul was awesome.
Backley started his athletics career as a cross country runner but at 14 decided that chucking a javelin was more fun. Within four years, coached by John Trower, he was the 1987 European junior champion and the following year he set a world junior record of 79.50 progressed at such a rate that he ended up ranked as world’s number one, setting a Commonwealth record of 85.90 when winning at the World Cup.
In 1990 he won the first of three Commonwealth titles, initiated an amazing sequence of four European championships and unleashed a world record throw of 89.58, even if it did survive only 12 days before Zelezny wrested it from him. However, Backley reclaimed the record later in the season with 90.98. A worldwide poll conducted by the IAAF voted him male athlete of the year. Backley’s consolation was that he had become the first Briton in any event to obtain an Olympic medal in three Games. He took his final Olympic bow in 2004, placing fourth.
Like Harold Abrahams, Lord Burghley’s status as an Olympic gold medallist would make him a worthy candidate for inclusion in the Hall of Fame purely as an athlete, but he too followed up his active career with a lifetime he set British records at all three hurdling events – 120 yards, 220 yards and 440 yards – and for a few hours in 1927 he shared the world record for 440 yards hurdles with 54.2 in the AAA Championships. He won both the 120 yards and 440 yards hurdles at the inaugural Empire Games in 1930 and ran easily his fastest ever race in defence of his Olympic laurels in Los Angeles in 1932.
Elected Conservative MP for Peterborough from 1931 until in 1943 he was appointed Governor of Bermuda, Burghley became a member of the International Olympic Committee in 1933 and was elected president of the AAA and chairman of the British Olympic Association in 1936. He served as president of the IAAF from 1946 to 1976 and as chairman of the organising committee for the 1948 Olympics he played a vital role in the success of the London Games.
It’s not often that the most precocious of talents go on to fulfil their potential but Steve Cram was an exception. He attracted attention in 1977 by setting a UK age-16 1500m best of 3:47.7 and just kept on improving.
That huge stride carried him to an unprecedented hat-trick of 1500m titles – European, Commonwealth and World – and a silver medal in the Olympics. And there was more, for in 1985 he became the first to crack 3:30 for 1500m, followed by other world records at the mile and 2000m. When Seb Coe broke three world records within 41 days in 1979 we doubted we would ever see the like again. Well, Cram surpassed that by setting three world records in just 19 days!
His annus mirabilis was 1985 as he just held off Said Aouita to break Ovett’s world 1500m record with a barrier-breaking 3:29.67 followed in rapid succession by eclipsing Coe’s mile record with 3:46.32 and John Walker’s 2000m mark with 4:51.39. He then went close to Coe’s 1000m record with 2:12.85 in adverse conditions and ended up beating Olympic 800m champion Joaquim Cruz in 1:42.88 to become the fourth fastest ever at the distance.
He has since retained a high profile in the sport as the BBC’s lead athletics commentator.
Four years after becoming the English Schools’ champion in 1984, Jonathan Edwards made the Olympic team. 10 years later he could have been tempted to retire from triple jumping after being diagnosed as suffering from the energy sapping Epstein Barr virus. He had been competing for 13 years, had won two Commonwealth Games silver medals, a World Championships bronze and a World Cup victory. 17.44 placed him 2nd on the UK alltime list and 36th in the world. But the 1995 season had a dream-like quality; first a UK record of 17.58 and it just kept getting better. At the European Cup he created a sensation by soaring to astonishing wind-aided distances of 18.43 and 18.39. It was no fluke. He went on to bounce his way to a wind legal world record of 17.98, while at the World Championships in Gothenburg he obliterated that with 18.16 and 18.29.
Quick (10.48 100m) and deceptively strong for a man of slim build, Edwards was a joy to watch in action as he skimmed smoothly from one phase to another. Despite jumping 17.88 he was beaten for the 1996 Olympic title by Kenny Harrison (USA) whose 18.09 is the closest anyone has got to Edwards’ world record and it wasn’t until the 2000 Games in Sydney that, at 34, he became easily the oldest Olympic champion in this demanding discipline. He went on to claim world titles in 2001 and in 2002 topped the world rankings for a seventh time. Edwards is now a leading athletics media pundit, joining a formidible BBC commentary team.
Ron Pickering was the renaissance man of British athletics. He was a coach, broadcaster, writer, motivator, visionary, administrator … a force of nature, a communicator par excellence, an inspiration. Perhaps even more important than anything else was his role as the conscience and guardian of the sport. An insightful and independent thinker, his was considered by many to be the authoritative voice of athletics.
Previously a PE teacher, Pickering was appointed National Coach for Wales and South West England. He spotted the potential of a Welsh schoolboy by the name of Lynn Davies. It was a marriage made in heaven as each learned so much from the other and Davies went on to score a shock victory at the 1964 Olympics.
In 1954 Ron married European long jump champion Jean Desforges (their son Shaun competed in the shot at the 1996 Olympics) and it is Jean who is not only sustaining the memory of her husband but helping so many of Britain’s young hopefuls through the Ron Pickering Memorial Fund. No fewer than 52 of the 67 track and field athletes who represented Britain in Beijing were financially assisted by the Fund early in their careers.
Ann started as a sprinter, hurdler and jumper but found fame at 800m and retired immediately after her 1964 Olympic success, aged only 22. She could look back on a remarkably varied career. She won the 100 yards at the 1959 English Schools’ Championships, was WAAA long jump champion in 1960 and was a finalist in 1962 at 200m in the European Championships and 80m hurdles at the Commonwealth Games. In 1963 she moved up to 400m, swiftly bursting into world class, and finally in 1964 she took up the 800m with astonishing results.
In Tokyo, after winning her semi in a European record 52.7, she had to settle for silver in the inaugural Olympic women’s 400m final. Although on paper Ann was the slowest of the 800m finalists, she had plenty of motivation; she wanted to atone for the 400m but also wanted desperately to present a gold medal to her fiancé to compensate for his disappointment at finishing fourth in his 400m final. Despite her novice status, she ran the race with impeccable judgement. Disregarding the furious early pace, she worked her way through to second – one competitor was still 5m ahead entering the home straight but as she flagged so Ann’s stride lengthened – with a beatific smile on her face, she won in a world record 2:01.1. Shortly after she became Mrs Brightwell and, explaining her retirement, said “running a home is more important than running races.”
Mary Rand’s excelled as a sprinter, hurdler, high jumper and pentathlete, triple jumped decades before it became a standard event for women, and even competed in a mile walk race! Her crowning glory, though, was the long jump and in Tokyo in 1964 she set a world record of 6.76 in becoming the first British female athlete to win an Olympic gold medal.
She first attracted attention while at Millfield School and when only 17, she set an English record in her first pentathlon. At the time of the 1960 Olympics she was being regarded as a possible long jump winner and she led the qualifiers with a British record of 6.33 … only to flop in the final, placing ninth. After fouling her first two jumps she registered only 6.01. It was a shattering disappointment, redeemed only slightly by an unexpected 4th place in the 80m hurdles.
She married Olympic sculler Sidney Rand in 1961 and only four months after the birth of their daughter she took the long jump bronze medal at the 1962 European Championships. In 1963 she helped set a world record in the 4×110 yards’ relay and posted British records in the 80m hurdles, long jump and pentathlon. At the Games she collected a complete set of medals, for after the long jump triumph she placed second in the pentathlon – finishing ahead of Soviet winner Irina Press in three of the five events but losing too many points in the shot – and helped Britain place third in the sprint relay.
Acknowledged as the world’s greatest distance runner in the early years of the 20th century, Alf Shrubb was denied his chance of Olympic glory as in 1904, at the height of his powers, Britain did not send a team to the Games staged in St Louis. His reputation rests on the number, range and longevity of his records, together with his victories in the newly instituted International Cross Country Championships of 1903 and 1904.
His supreme achievements on the track in 1903 were world records at 3 miles (14:17.6) and 2 miles (9:11.0) within the space of nine days, that 3 miles time remaining the British record for 33 years. He fared even better in 1904, winning his fourth consecutive English cross country title, his second International cross country championship and his fourth successive AAA titles at 10 miles and 4 miles (the latter just 75 minutes after retaining his mile laurels). ‘The Little Wonder’, as he was affectionately dubbed, now held every amateur world record from 2000m to the hour, but after spending several months touring Australia and New Zealand he was declared a professional by the AAA in September 1905. He continued to race as a ‘pro’ for many years in Canada, served as Oxford University’s first paid coach from 1920 to 1927 but then returned to Canada for good.
Noel Thatcher had an unlikely springboard into his athletics career. At 12 he was caught smoking and his punishment was to run 5 miles a day after school for 4 weeks. From struggling near the back he went to finishing 3rd in the schools’ XC championships. From these beginnings he went on to become a true British paralympic great as a visually impaired athlete.
Thatcher won medals at almost every major championships he competed in. The only two exceptions being the 2003 Worlds where he had to return home before competing due to family reasons, and the Athens Paralympics where he finished 4th in both the 5k and 10k. This record at championships saw him accumulate 42 gold medals across his career. Thatcher was a true championships performer. In the Barcelona Paralympics he set a new world record in winning the 1500m. Four years later in Atlanta he took the 5k and 10k double with his performance in the 10k setting a world record despite the fact he was carrying a stress fracture. Then in Sydney there was a gun to tape victory which saw the 5k world record fall.
As well as substantial success in disability athletics Thatcher represented the South of England at 5K, won the Essex 10k title and also won medals on the roads at half marathon and 10 miles. He also regularly competed for Newham and Essex Beagles in events. Thatcher was awarded an MBE for services to disabled sport in 1997.
The distinction of becoming the first British woman to gain an Olympic athletics medal fell to Dorothy Odam who, at 16 and on her first trip abroad, placed second in the 1936 Olympic high jump. Earlier in 1936 she had set a British record of 1.65 which for some reason was never ratified as equalling the world record. At 17 she won the Empire Games title in Sydney early in 1938. The following year she cleared 1.66 for what was eventually recognised as a world record.
After marriage and an absence of 8 years, she made an astonishing comeback and again went so tantalisingly close to Olympic victory, this time in her native London in 1948. In 1950 she retained the Empire Games title after a gap of 12 years and placed second in the European Championships with the same height as the winner, her team-mate Sheila Alexander. Coached by Arthur Gold, she changed her style from the outmoded scissors to the western roll in 1951. Despite injuries she placed equal seventh at the 1952 Olympics, took yet another silver at the 1954 Commonwealth Games and finished equal 12th at the 1956 Olympics. In 1961, aged 41, she ranked fifth in Britain with 1.63! A fine all-rounder, she won the WAAA long jump and pentathlon titles in 1951, setting a British record in the latter. She later became a coach, official and British team manager as well as taking up golf (three times winning the national over-80 title) and in her 90th year maintains a keen interest in athletics.
Wooderson, a diminutive and bespectacled solicitor, was an unlikely looking champion athlete but with his deceptively long stride, big heart, deadly sprint and genuine modesty he attracted much affection and admiration from the British public of the 1930s and 1940s.
It was in 1937 that Wooderson became a legendary figure by setting a world mile record of 4:06.4 off scratch in a handicap race at Motspur Park in Surrey. He had merely been aiming to better his British record of 4:10.8! The following year, in another Motspur Park handicap event, he broke two world records in one race, clocking 1:48.4 for 800m en route to 1:49.2 for 880 yards.
In 1946 he moved up to 5000m and proceeded to capture the European title in 14:08.6, the world’s second fastest ever time and 23 sec inside the British record. In March 1948 this remarkable man who had at one time or another been the best in the world at 800m, mile and 5000m, became English 10 miles cross country champion!