IN THE FIRST OF A TWO-PART ARTICLE, RESPECTED ATHLETICS STATISTICIAN STAN GREENBERG LOOKS BACK AT THE CHANGES HE’S SEEN SINCE THE 1940s
Former BBC statistician looks back on changes during his 70 years of watching the sport
NEXT YEAR signals my 70th year of watching and studying athletics and, looking back, I realise what extraordinary changes have taken place in that time.
Although I had been competing in the sport at school level for some years, the first decent class meet that I attended – and competed in (although the less said about that the better) – was the 1947
Public Schools Championships held in
April at Motspur Park. My outstanding memories from that were (a) the remarkably good quality of the cinder track (at the time acknowledged to be the best in the country) and (b) the winner of the high jump, 18-year-old Peter Wells, who jumped a meeting record of six feet (1.83m). Seven years later he equalled the British record of 2.02m.
The next meeting I went to was the second day of the 1948 Olympic Games, at Wembley, where I witnessed performances by all-time greats such as Emil Zatopek, Fanny Blankers-Koen, Arthur Wint, Mal Whitfield, Harrison Dillard, Imre Nemeth, and Roy Cochran.
By the time I left the stadium, I was totally enamoured of this “new” sport and although I had previously been a keen football fan (Spurs) for the previous eight years or so, I have basically not attended a match since.
Firstly, to illustrate how the standards in the sport have increased phenomenally during this time, above I give a comparison of world records (or bests) prior to the 1948 Olympics and after the 2017 world championships.
At the time of the 1948 Games there were a very limited number of events for women and actually in the Games themselves there were only nine events, with the longest track race being 200m.
The actual number of lanes on a track remained at six until the 1960s, when it began to be increased to eight on new constructions. Then in 1981 the Italians rebuilt the Rome track to take nine (so that they could have their team in the IAAF World Cup that year) and nowadays there are a number of such tracks around the world. Of course 100m/110m hurdles straights often held more lanes, sometimes as many as 10.
One of the biggest differences from those early days to today is the actual composition of tracks. The old cinder ones could be very difficult. Quite often good grass tracks were preferred and were in use in New Zealand for instance until the 1960s,
with Peter Snell setting 800m and one mile records on such surfaces.
Also, interesting from a British point of view, was the sheer number of tracks – or more correctly the lack of them. I remember on my trip to the Games in Helsinki in 1952, being astonished to note that even small villages in Finland had a track of some sort.
There are so many things – changes in tracks, equipment, rules, training – affecting virtually all events that perhaps the best way to consider them is by groups of events. It should be noted that female athletes wore far more “modest” (and restricting) clothing than they do now, when they often wear less than swimmers – I am sure you will realise that I make this statement not to complain but merely to make the point.
Another thing is that in Britain and the USA, virtually all events up to the two miles steeplechase were marginally longer than their metric equivalents. Only the 100 yards, three and six miles were shorter. However, perhaps the greatest change – and I personally do not always think for the best – is the major change from amateur to professional, and the effect of that on both life styles and, I believe, on drug taking.
Although starting blocks were invented in 1927, they were not allowed in the Olympics until 1948, and didn’t become widely used, in Europe anyway, until the 1950s. As a reasonably good club-class sprinter, I never used them, and still dug holes with my trowel (especially carried for the occasion) in the cinder tracks of the day.
Some of those tracks could be quite good if looked after, but were usually pitted with large “chunks” of cinder, usually very loose and often waterlogged. To illustrate this last comment, there was the occasion when Britain’s top miler of the time won the AAA mile at the White City, on a track covered with water, and an American report stated that he had not only run against the wind, but also “against the tide”.
The actual spikes in ordinary sprinting shoes of the day were very long, large and heavy, and regularly got bent on the tracks then in use.
The quality, and perhaps honesty, of hand timing was highly suspect, especially outside Britain (which undoubtedly had the toughest timekeepers in the world) and although automatic timing had been available and in use since the 1930s, it was not officially recognised for many years and only for world records from 1977.
An excellent example of what was going on occurred in the 1952 Games in Helsinki (where I was privileged to be present). In the 100m final the first four men were all given 10.4 seconds. When we were able to get the automatic timing, which was in use but not announced, the times were 10.79, 10.80,10.83 and 10.84.
It should be remembered that the timekeepers were almost certainly the best available at the time. The great Jesse Owens was once asked what the difference was between the 9.4 100 yards he had run as a high school boy and the 9.4 he ran a couple of years later, which was accepted as a world record. His revealing answer was “about six yards”.
Until the 1960s there were only sixmen finals in the shorter distances, while the 200m and 400m (and their Imperial equivalents) were run from mid-straight to mid-straight (although not in the Olympics).
Prior to 1951 the IAAF, for record purposes, did not differentiate from furlong races around a curve or on a straightaway. This latter was primarily an American event. Many of their tracks were built in a “meat chopper” design – that is, with the blade being the main track and the handle a straightaway. For most sprinters this was a much faster race – Jesse Owens’ mark of 20.3 (on that famous May 25, 1935) lasting until 1949.
A year later, in Berlin, he ran the 200m curve record of 20.7. In 1966 Tommie Smith clocked 19.5 on the straight, and two years later ran the curve in 19.8 at Mexico City.
On a personal note, I tried sprinting on such a measured course on a field, but found that even though I loved the furlong race above all, I got bored with the straight distance at about 150 yards.
The full quarter mile was also sometimes run, unofficially, on the straight, the best being by Herb McKenley of Jamaica in 1947, when he was clocked at 45.0 on a boardwalk, albeit judged to be windassisted. Such a time was not matched on a standard track until the 1960 Rome Olympic 400m final run of 44.9.
Possibly the most staggering improvement that was made to sprint performances, and some of the field events, was the “discovery” of the effects of altitude. Although the first ever altitudeassisted world record was the 9.6 for
100 yards by Cyril Coaffee of Canada at Calgary (1045m) in 1922, it appears that nobody particularly took much notice of the “phenomenon” until the Pan-American Games took place at Mexico City (2240m) in 1955.
I remember the shock fans experienced when we got the results. By the time of the 1968 Olympic Games, also in Mexico City, we were ready for superlatives – and we got them.
In part two, Greenberg looks at endurance races, hurdles, field events and relays
Mal Whitfield: 1948 and 1952 Olympic 800m champion
Tommie Smith: 1968 Olympic 200m gold
Blocks have revolutionised sprint starts