Local athletes running scared of county championships

The Surrey championships used to be a highlight of local athletes’ year, and they used to be staged at Croydon Arena. IAN LAMONT witnessed the 2013 edition at Kingston at the weekend where despite last year’s London Olympics successes, there was little sign of “legacy”

Running scared: numbers were up at this weekend’s Surrey County Championships, but not by very many. Picture by Ray O'Donoghue

Numbers were up at this weekend’s Surrey County Championships, but not by very many. Picture by Ray O’Donoghue

Entries were up at this year’s Surrey County athletics championships, held over the Bank Holiday weekend, but not significantly better, as doubts persist as to whether the London Olympics has had any real effect of producing any sort of sporting “legacy” for the future.

Years ago, but not so very many, the championships were stretched over several evenings in May to cope with qualifying rounds for the large number of entries, all culminating in a meeting held on Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday. For many years, and long after all-weather tracks were commonplace across the country, the Surrey championships continued to be staged at the traditional venue of Motspur Park, on the finely kept cinder track on which Sydney Wooderson famously broke middle distance world records in the 1930s.

With its main stand and licensed bar, Motspur Park remained popular as a venue with local athletics fans, all the way through until the late 1980s, when the likes of John Gladwin still turned out to tune up by winning the 800 and 1,500 metres county double, just a few weeks before he was racing with the likes of Seb Coe, Steve Ovett and Steve Cram and winning a medal at the Commonwealth Games.

Those days are long past now. Coe, of course, is Lord Olympics, and this weekend’s first post-London Games county championships in Surrey saw a 47-year-old winning the men’s 5,000 metres senior title in a straight final in a time outside 16 minutes, slower than anyone can remember in the championships’ long and proud history. There has been worse: last year, the men’s 800 metres final saw a single athlete toe the start line.

Is this the sort of “legacy” for the youth of Britain that Coe had meant when he headed London’s bid in front of the International Olympic Committee?

Of course, some London Games venues were temporary. The Olympic village was always to be turned into housing. Stratford got a revamp. Lawrence Okoye took the opportunity to become famous at something he was half-good at through sheer power. He became three-quarters good at the discus, and placed 12th in the final but now has signed up with the San Francisco 49ers to become the only Croydon Harrier in the NFL.

But are there any real benefits for youngsters who want to get into sport, or for the volunteer-run sports clubs who continue to struggle to exist? Would there be funding for sports programmes, new facilities, or extra sports teachers? There has been some. Woodcote School, in conjunction with South London Harriers, will open a new track and facilities this summer, but only thanks to a bequest of more than £200,000 from a former member of the club.

One, immeasurable, legacy, however, was to see who would be inspired to put in the hard work and dedication to try to make themselves a big noise in their discipline.

Eliot Safo: Croydon Harriers' world-class long jumper was among the absentees from the county championships this weekend, nursing a tight hamstring

Eliot Safo: Croydon Harriers’ world-class long jumper was among the absentees from the county championships this weekend, nursing a tight hamstring

There was varying evidence at Kingsmeadow at the weekend, the venue for the Surrey championships.

Total entries were up from last year, from 1,276 to 1,341, across the two days of competition, where athletes ranged from aged 13 up to 50-year-olds, across the full athletics programme. But these entry totals are notably down on what they were 10 or 20 years ago.

“It’s more like a young athletes’ meet these days,” said one spectator who has been a regular at the event, as competitor and observer, since the 1970s.

Senior men’s entries were down from an already low 153 to just 133 this year, under-20 women down from 65 to 55 and under-17 women down from 148 to 123. The only senior track events that had sufficient entries to require heats were the 100, 200 and 400m for men, and the women’s 100 and 200.

In the senior women’s events,  there was but a single entrant in the 100m hurdles, the pole vault and the triple jump.

These show large, year-on-year declines in under-20 and senior events for what is supposed to be the leading Olympic sport, and for a regional championships which always used to be the highlight of the season for local club athletes.

Boys and girls age group numbers were up over last year, but not by significant margins.

The Surrey champs is a prestigious event that, in the years after Motspur Park, briefly found a home at Croydon Arena, attracting the best athletics talent for what is usually the first major event of the season. Croydon hardly gets considered to host the championships any longer.

“We’ve held it at Woking, Walton, Wimbledon Park and Croydon in the past,” said Mike Callard, the Surrey County Athletics Association’s president. “But on balance it has proved to be easiest here at Kingston and the most complete facilities.

“For example, at Guildford, there’s no café next to the track, you have to go over to the leisure centre. It’s the best arena – in my opinion.”

While Croydon Arena might get an upgrade should a proposed academy school be built next to it, that would be some years in the future.

Familiarity with the surroundings certainly fell into the hands of hammer thrower Gareth Cook, of Kingsmeadow-based Kingston and Poly AC, who won his umpteenth county men’s title. His 51.51-metre throw was nowhere near his personal best of 67.32, or his championship record 66.28. But then Cook is 44 now. Hardly a young up-and-comer. Second placed Paul Derrien hardly offered much challenge at 41.92.

Cook, though, is well aware that his championship records will not last much longer. One, at under-15 level, was chalked off by Munroe Ritchie last year. This year, Ritchie – who was only 15 in January – won the under-17 hammer title with 59.92, improving his personal best by three metres.

While Ritchie might be one for the future, the long jumpers are very much of the present. Joe Lawrence might not be quite up to the standard of Olympic champion Greg Rutherford yet, but the Kent AC athlete –  he grew up in Sutton, so is qualified to compete in Surrey – almost seemed to fly to a (wind-assisted) personal best 7.62 metres to take the men’s title. The competition seemed a battle between his coach, John Herbert, and John Shepherd, whose own contingent based at Sutton’s David Weir Leisure Centre included the under-20s winner Oliver Newport, who leapt 7.30m.

Missing from the under-20s competition, however, was the championship record-holder and last year’s winner, Elliot Safo. The Croydon Harrier had tight hamstrings after jumping 7.70m at the Loughborough International the previous weekend, and so was only watching at Kingsmeadow.

But on the track, much of the senior competition lacked youthful exuberance, or much quality. Andy Robinson can say he is the Surrey County champion, but the 47-year-old’s 5,000m time hardly offers much hope for the future. Robinson’s 16:01.34 works out at more than a minute a mile slower than Mo Farah’s national record.

Bright future: local runner Katy-Ann McDonald won her first Surrey County track title at Kingsmeadow on Sunday. Photograph: Ray O'Donoghue

Bright future: local runner Katy-Ann McDonald won her first Surrey County track title at Kingsmeadow on Sunday. Photograph: Ray O’Donoghue

Just six other men lined up with Robinson for the race. In 1968, there were 43 entries for equivalent event. It can hardly be because fewer people are running in 2013: on the morning of Robinson’s track race, the free-to-enter ParkRun 5km race at Wimbledon Common had more than 300 entrants. And there were similar ParkRun races staged in Lloyd Park, on Roundshaw Downs, in Banstead Woods and across the country.

It appears that the Surrey championships are lacking quantity as well as quality, if Robinson’s race and winning time is a benchmark. “Back in 1968, Pete Mulholland finished last of 16 runners in the Surrey 3 miles championship in 15:01.0 after clocking a personal best of 14:10.4 in his qualifying heat on the previous Tuesday evening,” said Dave Cocksedge, a former assistant editor at Athletics Weekly and a leading NUT – that is, a member of the National Union of Track Statisticians.

“Those of us who can remember what a splendid event the Surrey county championships meeting was back in the day are as saddened as I am to see what it has become,” he said.

But at the other end of the age scale, Alexandra Brown, an athlete competing only for the second year, won the under-13 girls’ 1,500m in a championship best performance 4:54.19. Her club? Herne Hill, where a fellow member is Katy-Ann McDonald, who ran a European under-15 age-group record 2:10.99 for 800m last week. After a winter in which she won her age group’s national cross-country title, McDonald duly won her first Surrey County title on Sunday, in a tightly contested 800m.

It seems training groups hold the key to success. Two young hurdlers with the same coach, Russian-born Marina Armstrong who trains at Sutton, set championship bests. Wilson’s School pupil Jacob Paul, who already has a European junior championships qualifying time, lowered his own under-20 400m hurdles record to 52.19sec, while Shona Richards, who lives in Epsom, ran 1:01.08 for under-20 women’s gold.

So maybe therein lies the true legacy of London’s Games: youngsters who were inspired during the seven-year run-up to find a way, a coach and a platform and follow their dream of being the best, with the Olympics brought tangibly close to their own home.

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1 Response to Local athletes running scared of county championships

  1. Two interesting stats in the latest issue of Athletics Weekly on the subject of the decline of county championships.

    It is not a phenomenon restricted to Surrey.

    In Yorkshire, there was a single competitor in the senior women’s 100m hurdles and high jump. Significance? Yorkshire is the home county of Jessica Ennis, the Olymnpic heptathlon gold medallist.

    And before any athletes, especially middle distance runners, claim that their county championships are in some way not relevant to them, they might want to consider this: in a 14-year span from 1975 until 1989, Seb Coe only missed his county champs twice.

    HT to Jason Henderson for those gems.

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