Friday, 20 May 2016

Sydney got Wagner and Hitler, I got samba-reggae and a nice blue T-shirt!

* The Berlin 'Big 25' races start outside Olympiastadion last week.
AS around 11,000 of us arrive back at Berlin’s famous Olympiastadion, close to finishing 10k and 25k races in bright May sunshine, we are directed underground into a long tunnel which eventually emerges inside the arena and leads us to a finish line on a bright blue running track.

Sydney Wooderson would have trod this route exactly 80 years ago when 4,000 Olympians paraded into the stadium to pass in front of Adolf Hitler. The background music then was an orchestra playing Wagner’s Hymn of Praise, but today in 2016 we runners are welcomed by something less formal . . .

As we trot deep into the tunnel, growing louder by the stride are the thunderous surdo drums of a band playing the distinctive samba-reggae made famous by Brazilian collective Olodum. I’ve witnessed this live on its home ground – Pelhourinho in Salvador da Bahia – but the increased volume here in Berlin created by the tunnel’s acoustics really is something else.
The astonishing noise puts a spring in the step of every runner as we pass. The surroundings are inspiring enough, but these drums ensure we all emerge into the sunlight with spirits lifted, hitting the springy track at a far higher speed than would have otherwise been the case!

I’m nearly halfway through my 12-month ‘tour’ of 60 of Sydney Wooderson’s race venues. Those yet to be visited will certainly be hard-pushed to match these surroundings in north-east Germany for colour, atmosphere and historical significance.
* The Berlin finish line, with tunnel in the background.
Sydney’s Berlin visit in 1936, three weeks ahead of his 22nd birthday, was not a happy one. He would literally limp home to England a broken man, his gold medal hopes in the 1500 metres cruelly ended by injury in the first round of the heats. It left the way clear for the brilliant Kiwi Jack Lovelock to run the race of his life in the final, taking gold in world record time (3:47.8).

Sydney wasn’t the type to weep and wail in public, but he was devastated. Around a month before Berlin he’d twisted his ankle badly in a rabbit hole on one of his long weekly walks into the Kent countryside with his brother. Few knew what had happened and the British press continued to pin major hopes on him in Berlin. Sydney discreetly underwent treatment in a desperate bid to get fit. His club Blackheath paid for coach Albert Hill to accompany him to Berlin to help, but the solid training track at the Olympic Village at Elstal only seemed to aggravate the injury.
* The abandoned 1936 Olympic Village near Berlin.
The official British Olympic Report tells the sorry tale of Sydney’s fate in the first round of the 1500 metres in the Olympiastadion: “From the start all was not well. He was limping appreciably and was obviously at sixes and sevens as to what course was best to pursue. In the final stretch he tried to drive his unwilling body along faster, but he failed to qualify for the final.”      
After Berlin, our Great British hope would not race another step for more than nine months. The next two scheduled Olympic Games would be cancelled due to the war, and by the time they resumed in London in 1948 he had retired from track racing to concentrate on cross-country. Thus Sydney Wooderson joined the surprisingly long list of brilliant talents who would never win Olympic gold.

* 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’ - to visit and 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. Conveniently, it should also help keep me fit and assist with research for the book!

Friday, 6 May 2016

How Sydney personified a nation's brave post-war spirit

*SUDBURY HILL in 2016 . . .  the scene of Sydney's first post-war victory in his native London.
THE war was effectively over, but things were still kicking off big style in the opening few days of August 1945.

The Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, followed by another on Nagasaki, and the Soviets declared war on Japan. 

Two national heroes were also in the news: Head honcho Winston Churchill moved out of 10 Downing Street to make way for Clement Attlee, and the bespectacled Maestro of the Mile Sydney Wooderson thrilled a huge White City crowd with a brilliant run against world record breaker Arne Andersson.

Sydney, not long recovered from a career-threatening illness, was narrowly pipped by leggy Andersson. It was a brave effort by the little Brit - running for an Army team - for he was up against an athlete from neutral Sweden whose recent nutritional and training routines had not been affected by the rigours of war.

Just three days after this White City Bank Holiday showdown, Sydney came out fighting again - appearing at the Anti-Aircraft Command Championships event in leafy Sudbury Hill in the west London suburbs.

*PIPPED at the post . . . but Sydney (No.3) won the hearts of a nation with this White City run in 1945.
I visited this site as part of my year-long tour of Sydney Wooderson race venues (see * below) and found a pleasant bucolic setting, relatively unspoiled by the intervention of 70 years’ worth of development and population growth.

Having so recently thrilled a war-weary nation, Sydney's presence boosted the the size of the crowd at the Lyons Sports Ground, which was just down the road from Sudbury Hill Harrow station and not far from the famous public school. However, in terms of performance, it was inevitably a case of ‘After the Lord Mayor’s Show’ with Sydney winning the mile in a relatively modest 4:26 (a massive 17 seconds slower than his White City epic).

Anti-Aircraft Command was a British Army set-up that controlled the Territorial Army anti-aircraft artillery and searchlight formations and units defending Britain. It took control of smoke screens in 1943, which were manned by the Pioneer Corps in which Sydney had been a corporal for several years.

Immediately after the AA Command meeting, Sydney was named in the GB team for the big head-to-head with France scheduled for Paris a month later. This would be swiftly followed by a meeting in Gothenburg in which Sydney would get another crack at Andersson. Sports fans couldn’t get enough of it, and the crowds turning out were huge. 

These were exciting times for athletics fans after nearly six years of war. Exciting for Sydney too, who less than 12 months earlier had suffered a bout of rheumatic fever which hospitalized him for four months and had the medics fearing he’d never run again. 

During the following summer of 1946 Sydney would return to the Lyons sportsfields venue, turning out in a mile race for a team of past and present servicemen, selected by the AAA. He won by a huge 80-yard margin in 4.19.2 in front of crowd of 22,300. Clifford Bunton (London Univ) and Len Herbert (Belgrave) were left trailing in his wake, a distant second and third. Sydney was one of several famous names claiming victory in seven events that were the highlights of that day's Lyons Sports summer sports carnival.

* ‘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’ - to visit and 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. Conveniently, it will help keep me fit as well as assist with the research for the book!