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History – Athletics

A History of Athletics at Loughborough

Athletics on the Loughborough campus probably received its earliest boosts from the setting up of a Summer School in 1930, an ‘athletics summer’ in 1934, and a School of Athletics for ‘full-time’ students between 1937 and 1946. The ‘Colleges’ Athletics Club had been formed in 1930 and obviously influenced much of the development while flourishing itself upon such connections. With Captain F.A.M. Webster, Head of the School of Athletics, as its President, the club was led through the 1940’s by captains such as John Robins, Jack Archer, and John Disley. Talent abounded and, after representing New Zealand at the 1948 Olympics, Doug Harris won gold in the 1950 Empire Games at 800 metres. Disley himself, later to be appointed to the Sports Council and to serve as co-director of the London Marathon, earned a steeplechase bronze medal in the Helsinki Olympics of 1952; and the club ended the 40’s as Northern Universities Champions.

A huge influence on Loughborough athletes, from the late 1930’s (minus a ‘sabbatical’ serving in the armed forces,1940-’45) was the coaching of Geoff Dyson who went on to direct national coaching schemes in Britain and Canada. His book ‘The Mechanics of Athletics’ was to become an all-time classic of sports literature with profound effect upon the progress of the sport across the world. Among his early students were John Le Masurier and Dennis Watts, who would later succeed him jointly as Principal National Coaches.

Basil Stamatakis, another of the ‘graduates’ from the School of Athletics, was appointed to the staff at the beginning of the Second World War and remained to make a massive contribution as main coach and a mentor of the club for some three decades. For many he was “Loughborough Athletics” through much of that period and it was fitting that he should end his career as ‘Acting Head’ of the Physical Education Department with the much prized B.Sc degree status for courses in this subject by then a reality.

The club’s membership during the 1950’s reads like a physical educationists’ roll of honour: Ian Ward, international pole vaulter, subsequently became a National Coach and later Director of Physical Education at Liverpool University; Geoff  Gowan who came onto the staff and made an invaluable coaching contribution in the early sixties prior to moving to Canada and becoming Director of their National Coaching Foundation; John Evans,  returning to·the staff and later moving to Carnegie College in Leeds where he became head of the Physical Education Department; Don Anthony, Olympic hammer thrower, moving on to head the Department of Physical Education at Avery Hill College and to earn international recognition for his work for educational development in Third World countries; Colin Rains, to become head of the Physical Education Department at Trent Polytechnic; Mike Ellis whose club record for hammer throwing has survived unbeaten for some three decades and who, after placing 5th in the Rome Olympics, moved on to the University of Oregon where he became Professor and Head of the Department of Physical Education; Isaac Eli from Sudan who was to return home to play a leading part in educational development; Jim Railton, international sprinter, who became Director of Recreation at Oxford University; Nick Whitehead, relay medallist at the 1960 Olympics, later to earn his doctorate, becoming Director of the Sports Foundation, and managing the British athletics team at two Olympic Games and the first World Championships, thus earning an OBE; and Derek Haywood  who was heavily involved in founding prodigiously successful ‘Five Star Award Scheme’ for young athletes before taking up a P.E. Adviser appointment in Shropshire.

International athletes who captained the club in this period included George Ellis, John Salisbury, T.Y. Tan (Singapore), and Peter Cullen, then British javelin record holder and 1956 Olympian who soon joined the staff of the University’s Recreation Unit and later that of the Department of Physical Education and Sports Science. Top performers were to b found in most events, but the most impressive achievement was perhaps the capture of the top four placings in the 1955 AAA Championship  100 metres by George Ellis, K.A.B. Olowu, Ken Box, and Ken Jones.

The achievements of the Colleges’ team were formally acknowledged in 1959 when, under the chairmanship of John Jeffery (then Head of PE and fitness unit and subsequently a member of staff in the amalgamated university’s Physical Education and Sports Science Department) was awarded a1959 fixture in which its ‘past and present’ members could compete against the representative team of the national governing body, the AAA. This was the first time such an honour had been bestowed upon a student club and the annual contest has since prospered for over a quarter of a century, with victory being earned on seven occasions by the mid-1980’s.

The club had moved into the sixties under the chairmanship of J.G. (John) Lewis whose strength of personality and enthusiasm helped ensure the administrative effectiveness necessary to sustain demanding competitive involvements. The coaching staff was briefly augmented by Ian Boyd a former international middle distance runner, and victories in the U.A.U. Championships were achieved in nine out of ten years. An amazing 25 per cent of the British men’s team at the Tokyo Olympics were past or present Loughborough team members. The level of performance and commitment were characterised by athletes like John Cooper (silver medallist in the Tokyo Olympics in 400m Hurdles)whose efforts for the club, prior to his tragic death in a Paris air crash, are commemorated by the University by the naming of one of its buildings and by the Students Union in the naming of one of its present bar facilities; Robbie Brightwell, hero of the 4×400 meters silver medal success in the 1964 Olympics, who returned as a staff member and coach before progressing to Managing Directorship with Adidas and Le Coq Sportif, Peter Warden, one of Britain’s most successful 400 metres hurdlers and thereafter one of the National Coaches; Martin Higdon, international pole vaulter, who later returned for a brief period as a member of staff and a club coach; Stuart Storey, international hurdler, later to become Director of Physical Education at Thames Polytechnic and well known as a sports commentator with the B.B.C.; John Sherwood who was taken for experience to the Tokyo Olympics and repaid the confidence by winning the bronze medal at 400 metres hurdles at Mexico in 1968; John Whetton, European Champion at 1500 metres; Dave Travis, British javelin record holder; John Caine, Commonwealth Games medallist at 10,000 metres, who managed Gateshead Stadium through to recognition as an international venue and then moved onto executive status with the shoe giants, Nike; Tony Wadhams, for many years Britain’s top triple jumper; Clive Longe, international decathlete, who now travels as coach with the Bermuda team in international competitions; Keith Fielding rugby playing long jumper who played both league and union for his country and earned further recognition as winner of the British ‘Superstars’ contest; Richard Perkins, international javelin thrower; John Greatrex, 800 metres specialist who, it is said, never missed a match for Loughborough and never lost a race in the club’s colours; Bill Tancred, who became British discus record holder, and later Director of Physical Education at Sheffield and Buckingham Universities; Barry Williams who was later to break the Commonwealth hammer record; and Mike Tagg, who became  International Cross-Country Champion and took a European Silver medal at 10,000 metres.

Frank Dick, who became Britain’s first Director of Coaching and President of the European Coaches Association from the 1980’s, had made his mark as a 400/800 metres runner in the early sixties at Loughborough. Captain for two of these years was triple jumper Mike Turvey, later Professor in Psychology at the University of Connecticut. Another team member John Brooke became Head of P.E. Department at Salford University; Mike Wade became Head of the Physical Education Department at University of Southern Illinois; Joe Medhurst became Director of Physical Education at Lancaster University; and Charles Mukora, from Kenya, represented his country for several years on the I.A.A.F. Triple jumper Bob Chappell moved on to become a lecturer/coach at rival student club, West London Institute of Education (previously Borough Road College); and Tony Rice was appointed Director of the National Coaching Institute in Australia. Also in Australia as Senior Lecturer at Kelvin Grove College, was Conrad Raine, who had given stalwart service to the club as coach/impresario during the late sixties and into the early seventies. Malcolm Arnold (ex-coach of Olympic Champion John Akii-bua and later famous for association with Colin Jackson and Dai Greene), and Carlton Johnson (to achieve great success with Jonathan Edwards), employed as British National Coaches. Bruce Longden, who coached Daley Thompson to Olympic gold in 1984, had moved on from such to a similar position in Norway.

Relatively speaking the early seventies was beset with problems for athletics at Loughborough. Increasing demands on applicants for course entry were taking their toll – causing such as Brendan Foster, Sarah Rowell (later Director of the National Coaching Foundation Despite the efforts of an enthusiastic committee under the chairmanship of Duncan Case and leading athletes of the calibre of Jon English, Jim Whitehead, and Steve Chappell (subsequently owner/managing director of several sports manufacturing corporations in the U.S.A), the U.A.U. title was lost in 1970 and 1971 in the face of increasing student rivalry. Outside of universities’ competition many top athletes were being attracted by Borough Road College at whose hands defeat was to be experienced for four consecutive seasons.

Former Athletics Administrator for the North of England, George Gandy was appointed to the staff from September 1971, becoming Chief Coach of the Athletics Club and President of the Cross-Country Club soon afterwards. Working alongside  energetic chairmen in David Ayres and climbing expert Bill 0’Connor, and such excellent captains as Steve Mitchell, Barry Parsons, and Stuart Biddle, he took on the task of rebuilding Loughborough’s teams and restoring pride. Existing talent, particularly in the running events, was once again harnessed: the National Junior Cross-Country Championship was annexed in 1973 with a team led home by a youthful David Moorcroft (who would become world record holder at 5000 metres); the record was put to rights in U.A.U. competitions with victory in eight (and second position the other two) of the next ten years Championships and the Borough Road ‘bogey’ was laid with repeated successes from 1975 onwards. Gandy’s personal influence was to help attract several new talents to the Loughborough scene including: Gary Armstrong, 1972 Olympian at 400 metres; Angus McKenzie, a European Junior bronze medallist at 110 metres hurdles later to be first-ever Britain to high jump 7 feet outdoors, and in 1984 to be a member of the British Olympic bobsleigh team; Martyn Shorten, then a junior international high jumper who was eventually to chair the club and also to become the first student to progress to doctorate qualification through the Department of Physical Education and Sports Science; and emergent middle distance prospects in Paul Williams, Terry Colton, Kirk Dumpleton, Sebastian Coe, Tim Hutchings, David Lewis, Jack Buckner, Chris McGeorge and Ikem Billy, and circumstances rather than willingness prevented promising teenagers Steve Ovett and Steve Cram from taking similar pathways.

A particularly memorable year was 1975 with Borough Road College and the A.A.A both defeated, under Stuart Biddle’s captaincy, following an earlier victory in the U.A.U. Championships. Even more impressive results followed in 1976 when the U.A.U. title was spiced with individual victories in 15 of the 19 scoring events; the Midlands and Northern Counties representative teams were beaten; and a match record victory margin against Borough Road College was ensured by wins in every track event – Armstrong (100 and 200m), Steve Scutt (400), Coe (800), Moorcroft (1500), Andy Armitage (5000), Dave Driver (Steeplechase), McKenzie (both hurdles, as well as high jump and long jump) and both relay squads.

1977 was notable for another National Championship victory with Andy Neves  (200m), Villi Vilhjalmsson (400m), Scutt (600m) and Coe (800m)  annexing the indoor medley relay title at Cosford.  In 1978 another victory was earned in the annual match against the A.A.A. This latter occasion was particularly memorable for perhaps the worst weather conditions in the history of the meet, causing cancellation of the 110m hurdles and a much delayed start and increased pressure for the installation of a synthetic track facility which became a reality by 1983.

Further important figures behind the club’s success were Ron Futcher an athletics official of international standard, whose abilities remained unselfishly at the disposal of the present club committee over many years; and David Williams whose quietly effective work with the club’s hurdlers was also to continue into the eighties. By this time it was gratifying to note that Doug Stewart (fixtures secretary in 1972/73) had been appointed Assistant Director of Sport for Edinburgh; that Ian Grant (captain in 1978/79) had become Secretary of the U.A.U.; John Trower (captain 1977/78) was Recreation Manager for Telford; and that Richard Simmons (vice- captain of 1974-75) had become a National Coach.

The Colleges and University had been administratively and educationally distinct from each other since the 1950’s and had their own separate athletics clubs, but re-amalgamation as Loughborough Students A.C. was agreed and implemented in 1975, as a precursor of academic almalgamation between the University and the College of Education a year later. Linked with this a women’s competitive section was formed in 1976-77 with admission of female physical education students for the first time. Firstly under the guidance of Sue Campbell, then a lecturer and by the 1980’s the Director of the National Coaching Foundation, the women’s teams were to win the U.A.U. Athletics Championship (or its earlier W.I.V.A.B. equivalent) for seven consecutive years.

During the early 1980’s the great success was gained by the men’s cross country and road relay teams with British Students’ Championship titles (incorporating U.A.U.) in four out of six years, and wins in the internationally popular Hyde Park Relay in five out of seven. In 1984-85 an unprecedented treble was achieved in winning the three major student events of the winter – the Osterley Park Relay, the British Student Cross-Country and the Hyde Park. David Buzza, Phil Makepeace and Alan Guilder consistently performed with distinction in these events.

Behind the top performances of course there was always been enormous volume of enthusiastic participation, enlightened organisation and sheer hard work. Loughborough was never only a place for good athletes to come and study, it was at least equally a place where athletes at all levels made impressive progress. Malcolm Prince’s improvement of 59 seconds on his previous best 5000 metres time, in competition with the famous Dave Bedford -· and a further 18 seconds reduction while still a student, to earn world-ranking status, stands out in the memory; as does Sebastian Coe’s reduction of his best times by 13 seconds at 1500 metres and 12 seconds at 800 metres during student years; Jack Buckner’s ‘four minute mile’ break­ through by the biggest margin in the history of the event with 3 minutes 53.4 seconds, and many more at levels far less frequently acknowledged.

The contribution to the British status in the 1980’s as world leaders in middle distance running was clearly demonstrated in the British rankings for 1984. It was seen that past and present Loughborough-based athletes achieved ‘number one’ individual placings in each of men’s 800 metres, 1500 metres, 3000 metres and 5000 metres, and in the women’s 1000 metres, 1500 metres and 3000 metres. The depth of contribution was also clearly apparent and nowhere more so than in the men’s one mile event where six of the top ten and eleven of the top twenty-five were current or past Loughborough students.

With athletics at international level increasingly focusing upon individual ‘stars’ Loughborough certainly gained further esteem through such feats as Steve Scutt’s top British 400 metres ranking in 1979 and his relay gold medal at the 1982 Commonwealth Games; Jill Clarke’s World Students Cross-Country victory in1979; John Trower’s A.A.A. title at javelin in 1980 and Steve Pearson’s progress to 2nd on the British all-time list at the same event in 1985; the English native high jump records of Alan Dainton and Tim Foulger; the Commonwealth gold medals of Christine Boxer and Kirsty McDermott; the World and Olympic medal winning runs of Wendy Sly; the Commonwealth and Olympic successes of long jumper Susan Hearnshaw; plus ‘world top ten’ rankings for Omer Khalifa; the cross-country, road and track exploits of Tim Hutchings (2nd in World Cross-Country 1984 and 4th in the Olympic 5000m), David Lewis (National Cross-Country Champion 1985) and Jack Buckner (National 10 kilometre road race champion 1985 and 7th fastest miler in the world in 1984); and the Commonwealth gold European bronze medals and magnificent world 5000 metres record of David Moorcroft. Other current students such as Chris McGeorge, Ernest Obeng and Ikem Billy had already won medals at the major Games and lesser international honours had been earned by many more. Of athletes who had studied at Loughborough during the previous ten years at least 18 medals have been won at World, Olympic, European or Commonwealth Championships and over 20 National and 6 World Records have been set. Such is the strength that if Loughborough’s past and present students participating in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 had been scored as a national team on the medals table, they would have been placed equal 8th.

In the early 1980’s several top non-student athletes based themselves in Loughborough in order to avail themselves of the coaching guidance available. The presence of such as Michelle Scutt (Commonwealth Silver medallist at 400 metres), Graham Williamson (former World Junior Record Holder for 1500 metres) and Adrian Royle a 1982 American Cross-Country Champion) has been a positive influence in the development of younger athletes. Chief Coach George Gandy was appointed to successive Great Britain teams at the World Student Games and was with the British team in their Base Camp preparations for the 1984 Olympics.

The opening, in 1983, of the much needed synthetic track was a stimulus for further enhancement of the ‘A.A.A. Match’. With Sebastian Coe as figurehead, the meetings of that year and the next were fully serviced by several university departments, the governing bodies supplied teams of full England’ status, while sponsorship and television coverage reached unprecedented levels for sport on the campus.

In the last analysis, it is probably the few rather than the many who have earned Loughborough an exalted international reputation in track and field athletics – the relative few that is, who have excelled at world level. But  what the  many had aspired to here for half a century was perfectly epitomised in the fantastic spate of  world records in 1979 and 1981 and in the  Olympic medal successes (two gold, two silver) of one man. That man, Sebastian Coe who had previously been awarded the MBE was acknowledged by the University with the honorary award of a Doctor of Technology degree in the summer of 1985. The success story is not yet ended for in May 1985 at the inaugural British Universities Championships Loughborough’s winning margins were a resounding 52 ½ points in the woman’s section and 71 ½ in the men’s.

The message was always clear: ‘Fortius, Citius, Altius’. What the elite few have done so far, many will aspire to surpass in the future. In track and field athletics on the Loughborough campus, some surely will, sooner or later.