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!

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