Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The quiet man who kicked up a storm at Motspur Park

SYDNEY Wooderson only raced at Motspur Park three times during his glittering career. All three were won, two joyous affairs in world record time. But the third was a sad and hollow victory, ending with him limping heavily and missing a UK record. It was a rainy London day that marked the beginning of the end of a glittering track career.

Huge crowds turned out for all three races and the excitement and noise levels on those occasions was a far cry from the day of my visit this week – even though that very same field was hosting another sporting occasion when I arrived. As I peered into the now highly secure and carefully screened premises, Fulham FC’s under-18s were beating visitors Reading 3-2 on what was once the infield of the famous Motspur Park track. It was a contest that barely warranted a line in the sporting press, unlike the massive headlines Sydney garnered for his heroics here either side of the 1939-45 War.

The cinder 440-yard track they created here in the Surrey/London suburb of New Malden in 1928 had six lanes with 11 lanes on the straight, built on a chunk of open countryside acquired for the University of London for the princely sum of £18,000. It grew into one of London’s most important athletics venues over the next 40 years or so.
* Motspur Park after Fulham FC moved in.

The track would eventually be grassed over in 1995 having not been used for athletics for five years. The grounds were sold in 1999 as a training base for Second Division champions Fulham FC, owned by Harrod's boss Mohammed Fayed and managed by Kevin Keegan. The covered stand that overlooked the old running track would be spared the wrecking ball and remains in place, now painted in Fulham's black-and-white livery.

Sydney’s exploits made Motspur Park a famous sporting landmark, and the track was also used in three feature films, most notably the Oscar-winning Chariots of Fire. Although the cinders are long gone, the track’s curved sweep remains a feature of the present Arena field, as does a home straight that accounts for the large divide between pitch touchline and stand. The calibre of the facilities has meant international football teams often base themselves here, previous visitors including Brazil, Colombia, England, South Korea and Sweden.

Motspur Park was the ninth venue on my list of 60 to be visited on my whistle-stop tour of Sydney’s race locations this year. But being ninth was purely for logistical reasons – in terms of significance to his career it would be vying for the No.1 spot alongside the White City Stadium of course.

In August 1937 Sydney set a world mile record of 4.06.4 here that would remain unsurpassed for five years. It was a performance that convinced many that a human being really could one day run a four-minute mile. Sydney set off from scratch with the seven other runners up ahead being given starts (including his kid brother Stanley), thus giving him something to chase throughout. It was a run that ensured his place in sporting history for ever. On being re-measured the distance was 22 inches over one mile. Although the record attempt had been carefully staged and was by no means a ‘pure’ race, Sydney would reflect later: “I was quite amazed and couldn’t sleep undisturbed for some days after.”

Almost exactly a year later he returned for another specially-framed handicap event to smash the world half-mile record, running 1.48.4 for 800 metres and hitting the half-mile in 1.49.2.

Much water would pass under the bridge before his final visit, including the entire 1939-45 war: Eight years on New Malden witnessed an attempt on the British two-mile record that came just a week after Sydney magnificently became European 5,000 metres champion at Helsinki. Many thought two miles in 9 minutes would be a formality, but on a rain-sodden Motspur Park track he was badly hampered by a recurrence of an ankle problem. Not wanting to disappoint the huge crowd he carried on, limping to victory less than 10 seconds adrift of the old record of 9.03.4.

* Third time unlucky . . .  Sydney's last Motspur Park race. 
Although he ran and won seven club track events the following summer (1947), that hobbling finish at Motspur Park effectively marked the end of his high-profile track career at the age of 32. He turned to cross-country and focussed on helping his club Blackheath in team competitions.

* 'Project Sydney’ is more than just a forthcoming book about the running career of forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ which is to run at 60 of the places where Sydney raced during his remarkable career - all to be done while I am 60!  This blog records the progress of that challenge which, conveniently, will not only help keep me fit, but assist with the research for the book!


  1. Surprising that there are no comments. The topographical research and the stories give a great deal of insight on the early days of running history. Keep up the good work Rob and waiting for your next football book on Grimsby's rise from the dust and back to the Premiership in 2025

  2. Thanks for the feedback Robert. I'm keeping an eye on Grimsby - as a Luton Town man I know all about the pain of languishing in non-League. Good luck in the play-offs against the likes of Braintree. Although I live quite near Braintree, I can't bring myself to cheer for them after the horrors of playing and losing to them during our 5-year stint in the Conference!