Podcast #61: History of Sportshall Athletics

With the Sportshall UK Final taking place in Stoke-on-Trent this Saturday 6th April, a special episode of the England Athletics Podcast has been published, looking at the history and global impact of Sportshall Athletics.

Sportshall is an indoor form of track and field for children between the ages of four and 16. Created by George Bunner MBE, the first competition took place in 1976, with the aim of providing a safe and warm environment for young participants to train, especially in winter.

Inspiring generations of children, well-known athletes who have come through the programme include heptathletes Katarina Johnson-Thompson and Denise Lewis, sprinter Mark Lewis-Francis, high jumper Morgan Lake and footballer Nedum Onuoha. Queen Elizabeth II, and Catherine, Princess of Wales are among the honourable guests to have visited events.

This podcast - a heritage project in association with The Athletics Museum - sees George's sons Tom and Ivan Bunner reflect on their experiences working under their father and now leading the operation. Also joining the podcast's panel is Tracey Francis, England Athletics' Participation Programmes Manager.

Ivan Bunner said of his father:

"He was an engineer by profession, but he was an athlete and an ex-English Schools national champion at 880 yards in 1950. His passion and hobby was athletics. He was from Liverpool and moved to the small village of Frodsham. He decided to set up an athletics club. He advertised for people to join it and 80% of the people that turned up were children. In those days, athletics didn't really cater for children."

Tom Bunner said:

"Kids see the Olympics and the World Cup and go "I want to do that". With the Sportshall competition, that is what we are trying to achieve. If the kid that comes last says they want to do it again, then you know you have got it right."

Adapting activities by introducing disciplines like standing long jump and standing triple jump, and turning events into exciting team competitions, helped Sportshall grow quickly.

Tracey Francis said of England Athletics' partnership with Sportshall:

"What we are providing are the fundamental skills to bring these children in at the right level for them, to develop them as athletes. (George Bunner) spent years developing this concept, refining it. The whole industry has grown from it. Not only have you conquered England, Scotland and Wales, there are lots of countries now influenced by Sportshall. You changed the face of athletics for juniors."

As Tom and Ivan discuss, their efforts have taken them as far afield as Inuit communities in Canada, along with trips to Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia - where they initially grappled with local hesitation to put on a girls' sports competition.

Listen to this podcast and catch up on previous episodes through your favourite podcast platform: