Tuesday, 15 March 2016

A star miler is born - in the middle of a GB drought

TRACKS were dusty and sports fields scorched bone-dry on the June day little Sydney Wooderson made the big breakthrough in his running career. It was early summer 1934 and Britain was suffering its worst drought for at least 80 years.

Not the best conditions, then, for a gala athletics meeting arranged to take place in the grim heart of industrial Belvedere, beside the busy River Thames. Sydney was making his debut at the annual Kent AAA county championships and at the age of just 19 would be up against many of the region’s best men for the first time.

His inexperience, the heat, pollution and generally unattractive surroundings didn’t bode well – but our hero was undaunted and not only pulled out a PB to win the county mile title, he smashed the all-time Kent record by two seconds. Sydney had already collected junior and schools titles, but this was the day the athletics world really sat up and took notice of the little fellow in glasses from Camberwell.

* On this very grass . . . . Sydney imagined in Belvedere 2016. 
The scene of his heroics proved a little tricky to find when I headed to Belvedere this week on my tour of Sydney race venues in advance of publication of my book about him. I had been told the 1934 Kent championships took place on the sports grounds that BICC (British Insulated Callender’s Cables) had provided for their employees, adjacent to their huge riverside factory.

My gentle jog through the area was a far cry from Sydney’s record-breaking mile of 4m:27.8s here – and naturally the passing of 82 years meant many changes to local architecture and road layout. However an old map helped me find the right spot.

The entity known as BICC disappeared years ago after a spell owned by Pirelli. Viewing new construction work underway on their former home, it was hard to imagine that seven county athletics records were broken here on that hot Saturday back in 1934.

Sydney had emerged from the wooden pavilion that day dressed in Blackheath Harriers’ all-black kit, having achieved minor fame as the Public Schools mile champion, but still pretty much an unknown quantity in senior athletics. His 20th birthday was still a few weeks away and his small, bespectacled frame would certainly have not struck much fear into his opposition.

But, less than five minutes later, a star had been born. What would become his trademark late burst won him the Kent mile crown by a three-yard margin as he held off the fierce challenge of Belgrave duo Jordan and Shaw. These two could hardly believe they’d managed to break the seven-year-old Kent record set by E.D.Bell, yet had still been beaten by a young upstart who weighed barely nine stones in his enormous baggy shorts.

* The scene of Sydney's triumph - surrounded by heavy industry.
(PIC: Erith & Belvedere Local History Society).
It was Sydney’s first senior title and he was clearly ready to start challenging for more honours in the world of men’s athletics. Next up would be the Southern Champs three weeks hence in Guildford. His clubmates,‘The Heathens’, were jubilant and agreed he’d been the star turn of the day – particularly as the British 440-yards champion and Olympian Godfrey Rampling hadn’t shown up due to a calf strain.

Although the Thames was just a few yards away, the air on this hot day was thick and oppressive, making Sydney’s run all the more noteworthy and because of his age it had overshadowed records set by others in the three miles, half-mile and field events.

* The Callender's sports ground as it looks today.
 * 'Project Sydney’ is more than just my 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!

*Visit ww.robhadgraft.com or Amazon at http://amzn.to/1C2BjUK for details of all my other books.

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