Olympic boost gives Woodcote School’s track a flying start

IAN LAMONT reports on the opening of an important sports facility in Coulsdon

Evidence of the “Olympic legacy” since last summer’s global sporting showpiece was staged in the capital has been hard to find.

On the run: three young athletes cut the tape at the official opening of Woodcote track

On the run: three young athletes cut the tape at the official opening of Woodcote track

The Surrey county athletics championships has long ago abandoned a claim to being an elite stepping stone meeting, having turned into a young athletes’ meeting, where senior events can be won by 47-year-old veterans.

But last night, South London Harriers and Woodcote School unveiled what might well be the first track and field facility in the country to open since last year’s Olympics, just days before the first anniversary of London 2012. It prompts hopes that, one day, a club member can go one better than Gordon Pirie (at 5,000 metres in 1956) and Tom Richards (second by just 14 seconds in the marathon in 1948) by winning Olympic gold.

Track Coulsdon might have been seed-funded by a £200,000 bequest by John Jewell, a former SLH president who died in 2008, but the legacy funding from last summer’s Games also made a contribution to funding the £800,000 joint venture between the athletics club and Woodcote High School.

The polymeric track is less than a mile from SLH’s long-term clubhouse in the Comrades’ Club handy for runs over the downs at Coulsdon, and therefore far easier to reach than their traditional summer base of Crystal Palace – or the various other tracks and venues across which members are scattered for training.

Headteacher Mark Southworth told Inside Croydon that the school will use the facility before 5.30pm, after which it is available for community use until 9pm, with Sunday morning sessions already planned as well.

With Whitgift and Caterham independent schools also lined up to use the track, contributing to the £10,000-a-year pot needed to accrue the cost of replacing the surface once a decade, Woodcote now has athletics facilities among the best in the country.

Coulsdon-based South London Harriers: one of the country's oldest athletics clubs

Coulsdon-based South London Harriers: one of the country’s oldest athletics clubs

The school has already signed up to stage the Sports Relief Mile next March, while Collingwood Athletics Club, based in Sutton, will use the track on Wednesdays, sandwiched between SLH’s regular mid-week sessions.

Regional events could also be staged at the venue, with Southworth hoping that a raised bank on one side – courtesy of having to level the area for the facilities – will give an amphitheatre-style atmosphere when supporters are cheering on competitors.

Clubs including Croydon Harriers, Reigate Priory, Belgrave Harriers and Sutton Runners were represented among about 150 people who witnessed Tuesday’s unveiling.

Addressing them, Southworth recalled how he had made a speech at SLH’s clubhouse three years ago saying the facilities would be a “win, win, win project” for the school, club and wider community. “When I spoke of that vision, it was more in hope than expectation,” he confessed. “At that point we were £600,000 short.”

Funding was found from the London Marathon Trust, the Mayor of London Fund, the Football Foundation, Coulsdon Cluster of Schools and Coulsdon West Residents’ Association as well as the Places People Play scheme funded through Sport England, providing the link to Olympic funding.

“Perhaps we were in the right place at the right time with London 2012. Perhaps we just had brilliant fundraisers,” Southworth said, referring to Brian Cakebread, chairman of governors, and SLH club members Peter Emery, Richard Carter and Ian Lymath who, he said, had been “working full time” on the project.

Lymath added: “Who could believe that a couple of waterlogged football pitches could be transformed into this glorious arena?”

Referring to Jewell’s bequest, he said: “It was an immense sum and the spending of it a huge responsibility. Peter Emery was determined this once in a lifetime legacy should not be thrown away.”

Formed in 1871, Lymath described how SLH is one of the four oldest clubs in the country, having begun life in Peckham before moving to Coulsdon. “It has taken 100 years to get a track in the same location.”

He went on to state how members had held three world records and two Olympic silver medals – including Pirie’s – adding: “So I say to anybody at Woodcote High School, why not further your ambitions by joining the club and running on your local track?”

Pirie’s closeness to Olympic glory was recalled vividly by Jack Parker, who joined the “Irrepressibles” of SLH 70 years ago, twice competed in the Olympics and witnessed Pirie’s silver medal run in Melbourne. “With three laps to go Vladimir Kuts looked round at Pirie, found him to be just as exhausted and ran ahead. If only Pirie had smiled, he might have gone on to win,” Parker said.

Last night a series of races were staged by pupils and runners from different clubs to mark the opening, with the school’s Chuks Ajeh, a Croydon Harrier, winning the first 100-metre race in 12.0 seconds. He was ranked in the top dozen nationally last season at under-13 level over 100m and 200m. PE teacher Simon Manning has hopes he can build on his fifth place in the Surrey Schools Championships 100m this year at under-15 level, to reach the national championships next year.

Fulham footballer Steve Sidwell, who opened the sports hall some years ago, remains the school’s only famous sportsman, something they now hope the new facilities can change. Southworth also has another idea in mind: “The world athletics championships is in London 2017, so maybe this could be a training base for one of the countries taking part.”

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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