The London Marathon takes place on Sunday. It will be 40th running, but entirely different from the previous 39 editions. And because of the special covid staging, a Purley-based sports photographer who has covered the race every year since the first running in 1981 will be excluded.
PAUL SPALDING reports
The Tokyo Olympics, if they finally get to be staged next summer, will witness many record-breaking feats. Sports photographer Mark Shearman is aiming to reach a personal milestone of his own as his career goes full circle in Japan.
Shearman, who lives in Purley, was all ready to cover his 15th Olympics in a row this year, an unbroken sequence stretching back to the last time the Games were staged in Tokyo, in 1964, until coronavirus intervened and the 2020 Olympics were postponed.
Shearman’s Olympic record is one few members of the media can match. Over his career, he has travelled the world and photographed many of track and field’s historic moments, from Ann Packer winning gold in Tokyo 56 years ago, through to Usain Bolt bursting on to the world stage in Beijing in 2008, to Mo Farah’s gold medal triumphs over the past decade.
In the early 1980s, it was a Shearman portfolio of photographs of a teenaged running prodigy, Zola Budd, training on the veldt in South Africa with ostriches which, at least in part, helped to alert the Daily Mail to how she was qualified to run for Britain.
And Shearman also has a unique archive of photographs of Sebastian Coe from when he was a youngster training on the hills of Sheffield for his record-breaking feats which ultimately led him to become, as he is today, the head of world athletics.
Shearman had joined a photo agency straight from school, and in his early 20s was working as a photographer at the Central Office of Information. His first steps in professional sports photography came at a meeting at Tooting Bec in 1962, where athlete Trevor Burton was attempting to break the British pole vault record. Shearman was able to capture the moment and, at the suggestion of his brother, sent a picture on spec to Athletics Weekly magazine, which made full use of the image.
“They couldn’t have had many pictures sent in that week because they used one of mine on the cover,” Shearman says with typical self-deprecation.
This encouragement led to him travelling to Tokyo in 1964 to cover the Olympics.
“I had no press accreditation in 1964,” says the 77-year-old who was awarded an MBE in 2014 for services to sports photography.
“I bought seat tickets like any other spectator then moved around the stadium to whatever area I wanted to work from, sometimes having to climb over fences. For the Games in 2021 it will be very different, as I have full accreditation so will have full access to the areas I want to work from.”
The journey to Japan next year will also be much more straightforward.
“Today you can fly direct from London to Tokyo in around 12 hours. In 1964 it took three days, with stops in Brindisi, Damascus, overnight in Karachi, Bombay, Bangkok, overnight in Hong Kong and then Tokyo,” he says.
Shearman has been the official photographer for athletics’ national governing body in Britain for most of his career and rarely missed a national championships in his 58 years behind the camera.
For most of his career, Shearman has operated as an independent freelancer from his home in Purley, working through the film and developer age into the 21st century’s high-tech zoom lenses and digital images.
Nearly all the national newspapers have called on Shearman and his work has featured on the cover of Running Magazine, Runner’s World, Athletics Today and The International Track and Field Annual.
A sub-three hour marathon runner in his day, athletics remains his passion. He is a vice-president of his local club, Croydon Harriers, who at the weekend were celebrating their centenary with a socially distanced relay run.
Like most people, Shearman’s work has been impacted by covid-19, not least this Sunday, when the London Marathon goes ahead under special coronavirus conditions, a race being staged for elite runners only in a special “bubble” around a cordoned-off St James’s Park.
Shearman has been at every previous edition of the race, from that damp and cold March morning in 1981 when his picture of Dick Beardsley and Inge Simonsen holding hands as they crossed the finishing line as joint winners symbolised the spirit which did so much to establish the race’s enduring popularity.
But such loyalty counts for little in our covid-19 world: on Sunday, only four photographers will be allowed on the course, including two from the world’s biggest picture agencies. Shearman will not be one of them. He is, he admits, “very disappointed”.
The next Olympic Games, if they are able to go ahead in 2021, will take place in the shadow of the global pandemic, but Shearman is hopeful that he will be able to return to Tokyo, where his sports photography adventure began.
He expects the virus protocols to be stricter than ever.
“In 1964, I saw people wearing face masks in public for the first time, Japanese people having always worn masks when they have a common cold,” he says.
“Next year I would imagine there will only be a few people not wearing a face mask.’
A different time but a new challenge. Tokyo awaits again.
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