Friday, 10 June 2016

Wartime days when a track runner with a beard was considered newsworthy!

BEATEN by an art college student who was sporting a beard!

That was the fate of British mile champion Sydney Wooderson in a wartime race in Coventry. It was an outcome that shocked his many fans and created big headlines (especially the bit about the winner having a beard!)

There were mitigating circumstances of course. The race in question was a half-mile handicap event in which the hairy victor had been given a 15-yard start on Sydney. Not only that, the track was in a very poor condition, and – perhaps most significant of all – our champion was just a few weeks away from going down with a serious case of rheumatic fever that would hospitalise him for nearly four months.

Sydney’s appearance pulled in a big crowd at the Coventry Godiva Sports at the Coundon Road stadium on Saturday May 27th 1944. It was his first run in this part of the country and one that helped boost morale of local people weary of the war and the various restrictions that went with it. Coventry had taken a real battering (1,236 locals killed in bombing raids over a two-year period) and days like this were to be enjoyed.

Sydney received a big ovation and his trademark fast finish would make it a dramatic race, even though he couldn’t quite catch two of the opponents given starts on him.

Unusually for a track runner, Harold Fox of Leicester College of Art & Technology sported a beard for the race. He stormed off from a point 15 yards ahead of Sydney, with other, lower-ranked runners even further ahead. The local paper called Fox one of most stylish half-milers seen in the Midlands for years.

It proved a great race on a poor track, with Sydney putting in a brilliant late burst 300 yards from home, surging just as Fox appeared to falter. Frank Froggatt (Small Heath Harriers), who’d started 38 yards ahead of Sydney, momentarily looked set to grab the lead, but Fox revived himself and kicked again. All the time Sydney was closing dramatically – getting ahead of Willetts of Godiva in the process - but ultimately ran out of track. The first four crossed the line in a blur, just two seconds covering them all. The finishing order was Fox, Froggatt, Wooderson, Willetts.

I wanted to include Coventry as part of my 2016 tour of Sydney’s race venues, but as the track they used in 1944 has long since disappeared, I had to elicit the help of another star athlete in order to pinpoint its location. Colin Kirkham was the man who came to the rescue – a local runner who took part in the Munich Olympics back in 1972 and who has marathons of 2hrs15mins to his name.

* Coundon Road stadium is now this housing estate . . . 

Colin explained to me the complex history of sports venues in Coventry. Back in Sydney’s day, Coventry Godiva athletics club was based at Rover Sports Ground at The Butts (they used a 360-yard grass track squeezed inside a cycle track), but during the war this was taken over by civil defence authorities. It meant Godiva had to find other places to race and train, hence the 1944 meeting being held at Coundon Road, long-time home of Coventry Rugby Club.

Coundon Road’s facilities would eventually be demolished in 2004, and when I wandered down to the site on a rainy afternoon I found it covered by new housing. But at least the apartment blocks and streets have been named after the former rugby stars who once played there.

The Coventry Godiva club, incidentally, are nowadays based at Warwick University campus, which, as Colin Kirkham points out, is actually part of Coventry despite its name, thanks to politics and boundary changes!

*  ‘Project Sydney’ is more than just my forthcoming book about the forgotten British hero Sydney Wooderson. It also incorporates my 60th birthday ‘challenge’ – which was 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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