MEL WATMAN REVIEWS A NEW BOOK ABOUT BRITISH SUPERMILER SYDNEY WOODERSON
Mel Watman reviews an excellent new book about the former mile world record-holder
HAVING written wellreceived biographies of Alf Shrubb, Walter George, “Deerfoot” (Louis Bennett), Arthur Newton and Jim Peters, Rob Hadgraft has now turned his attention to another iconic athlete ... Sydney Wooderson.
The book’s 400 pages provide a fitting tribute to the diminutive Blackheath Harrier who, but for the Second World War, might well have become an Olympic 1500m gold medallist and the world’s first sub-four-minute miler a decade or so before Roger Bannister. Nonetheless, the range of his achievements – including world records at 800m, 880 yards and a mile, a world best at three quarters of a mile, European titles at 1500m and 5000m (the latter with the second fastest ever time) and an English 10 miles cross country title – remain unparalleled in British athletics history.
“HE HAD PRACTICALLY STOPPED BY THE TIME HE WAS 20 YARDS FROM THE TAPE AND THE OTHERS ALL FLEW PAST HIM. BRITAIN’S GREAT GOLDEN HOPE IN THESE GAMES WAS DONE FOR AT THE FIRST HURDLE”
The amount of detail that Hadgraft provides is extraordinary. Just about every race that Wooderson contested is mentioned in the text, starting with a Sutton Valence School cross country victory aged 12 and ending in 1950, aged 35, when he ran home equal first for his club in a cross-country race against that very same school in Kent.
The bespectacled Wooderson, just 5ft 6in tall, weighing 125lb (57kg) and wearing baggy shorts, may not have looked like a champion athlete – but, as Seb Coe writes in his foreword, “his tenacity, strength and willpower were more than a match for his contemporaries.”
He first achieved national recognition in 1933 when he became the first schoolboy on record to break 4:30 for the mile. The following year, by now a trainee solicitor and coached by the great Albert Hill (1920 Olympic 800m and 1500m champion), he made the big time as a senior. Still only 19, he finished second behind New
Zealand’s Jack Lovelock (who had set a world record 4:07.6 the previous year) with a big PB of 4:13.4 at the Empire Games staged at London’s White City. In 1935 he became Britain’s fastest ever miler with 4:12.7 – finishing far ahead of Lovelock – and both men were regarded as genuine contenders for the 1936 Olympic 1500m title in Berlin.
Wooderson improved the British mile record to 4:10.8 on a grass track in June 1936 and beat Lovelock for the AAA title, but was seen to be limping after the race. An ankle injury had been bothering him all season and, alas, it ruined his Olympic chances. Racing in his 1500m heat with the left ankle heavily strapped, he was on his way to qualifying when, as Hadgraft describes it, “with less than 50 yards to go, he seemed to hop awkwardly on the damaged foot before limping wearily at walking pace looking battered and downcast. He had practically stopped by the time he was 20 yards from the tape and the others all flew past him. Onlookers were stunned. Britain’s great golden hope in these Games was done for at the
Lovelock, among the first to commiserate and shake Wooderson’s hand, went on to make Olympic history, running the perfect race to win in a world record 3:47.8.
Wooderson bounced back in 1937 from the disappointment by breaking the world mile record at Motspur Park. The event was an invitation handicap at an inter-club match with his opponents receiving starts of up to 140 yards. Hugging the inside lane, he overtook everyone to finish in 4:06.4. Among the spectators were Albert Hill and the last Briton to be the world’s fastest miler, Walter George, who as a professional had run 4:12 3/4 in 1886.
He made further history in 1938. An “effortless” 49.3 for 440 yards revealed impressive leg speed and in another specially framed handicap race at Motspur Park he set two world records, passing 800m in 1:48.4 on the way to 1:49.2 for 880 yards, although first across the finish line was Sydney’s elder brother Stanley, off 85 yards. Sydney never ran another worldclass time over two laps but he climaxed another memorable season by capturing the European 1500m title in Paris, followed by a British record of 3:48.7 in Oslo, the third quickest ever time.
The big race in 1939 was the so-called ‘Mile of the Century’ against the top Americans in Princeton, New Jersey. An indication that Sydney was in terrific form was his world best of 2:59.5 for three quarters of a mile in Manchester just before sailing for the States, but the race proved to be an anti-climax.
“In his black club kit and size four shoes, Sydney presented a rather unprepossessing sight on the start-line,” Hadgraft writes. “Was this small, undemonstrative figure really the fastest miler in the world?”
Hopes of a world record pace quickly went by the board as the first two laps took 64 seconds apiece and the third lap was even slower at 66 seconds.
The race came to life only in the last 220 yards with all five runners closely bunched, but entering the final bend Blaine Rideout, in spurting to get past Wooderson, “appeared to cut in and brush Sydney’s upper right arm. Startled, Sydney wobbled, regained some balance but found himself badly hemmed in and his left foot struck the kerb.”
He came last in 4:13.0, Chuck Fenske producing a 56.8 last lap to win in 4:11.0.
Although the author provides a wealth of information on all of his subject’s major races, he does not neglect what was happening off the track and in 1939 Germany’s territorial ambitions were becoming all too alarmingly obvious. A calf strain resulted in Wooderson bringing
his season to a premature end and he missed the match against Germany in Cologne just a couple of weeks before war was declared.
Due to his poor eyesight he was declared unfit for active military service and so he became a member of the Auxiliary Fire Service but later, in July 1940, he joined the Army’s Pioneer Corps, later transferring to the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) and there Corporal Wooderson remained until his demob in February 1946. Despite his Army service with limited amounts of leave and various injuries and illnesses, he managed to compete in numerous races during the war years, including a 4:11.0 mile in 1940 and 4:11.5 in 1943.
His running career was threatened when in the summer of 1944 he was diagnosed as suffering from rheumatic fever and spent nearly four months in hospital. “At one point,” the author reveals, “doctors warned him he may never run again, and with his 30th birthday looming in August, Sydney had to cope with the very real prospect that his sporting career was over.”
How astonishing, therefore, was his comeback in 1945. It was only in February that he was given the all-clear to resume training after a break of seven months but in July he smashed the Army mile record with
4:14.8 and the following month, before a White City crowd estimated at 52,000 (including an impressionable 16-year-old schoolboy by the name of Roger Bannister), he ran Sweden’s
Arne Andersson – who had set a world record of 4:01.6 the previous year – very close in 4:09.2.
They met again in
Gothenburg. Wooderson was ahead at 1500m, in a UK record 3:48.4, before being overtaken by his much younger and stronger opponent. His time: a staggering 4:04.2!
Wooderson would later reflect: “Gothenburg was my greatest ever race. It proved to me that the Army, illness and rationed food hadn’t crippled me as a runner.”
That effectively terminated his miling career but there were other fields to conquer and in 1946 he won the AAA 3 miles title in a British record of 13:53.2 prior to running considerably faster at the European Championships in Oslo. Passing 3 miles in a conservatively estimated 13:42, he triumphed in the 5000m in 14:08.6, a time bettered only by Gunder Hägg’s world record of 13:58.2. It was, he related, “the toughest race, both physically and mentally, in which I had competed, for throughout it was a battle of wits having to keep an eye on not only one but six opponents all of whom were capable of winning the race.”
Even that wasn’t the last hurrah for Wooderson, for in March 1948, aged 33, he won the National cross country over a testing 10 miles course. As Britain’s most celebrated and popular athlete he should, of course, have been chosen to carry the torch at the opening ceremony of the London Olympics that summer – as 55-year-old Paavo Nurmi did in Helsinki four years later. Wooderson was told he would be so honoured but, shamefully, the powers-that-be, headed by Lord Burghley and largely Oxbridge types, changed their minds and chose instead the tall, blond president of Cambridge University AC, quarter-miler John Mark, an Adonis-like figure to follow the precedent established by the Nazis in Berlin 12 years earlier.
Sydney Wooderson MBE, who died in 2006 aged 92, deserved better, but at least the wonderful contribution he made to athletics history and the morale of the nation is celebrated here in this fascinating, deeply researched and affectionately written book. Highly recommended.
Sydney Wooderson – A
Very British Hero by Rob Hadgraft is published by The Book Guild for £10.99
Sydney Wooderson:one of Britain’s greatest athletes, who excelled at everything from 800m to 5000m and cross country
Author Rob Hadgraft painstakingly researched Sydney Wooderson’s life
Athletics legend: Sydney Wooderson running in a 100 x mile relay in 1969 to celebrate Blackheath Harriers’ centenary
Sydney Wooderson, above right, pictured with fellow mile world record-breakers
Cover star: the popular Wooderson graces the front page of this magazine
World mile record: Sydney Wooderson (1) prepares for a handicap race at Motspur Park in 1937 where he clocked 4:06.4