Athletics Weekly - - Contents - PIC­TURES: MARK SHEARMAN

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.


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

first hur­dle.”

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

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