Athletics Weekly - - Contents -

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


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