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The History of Athletics in Great Britain

The History of Athletics in Great Britain

It is hard to be sure when humankind first began to play sports. It is easy to see that organised sports must have their roots in the kinds of play that mimicked the skills needed for survival of early humans. Running, throwing and lifting must have been all part of our early efforts to provide food and shelter. Clearly speed, accuracy and strength would all be keys to successfully surviving the undoubtedly tough existence in prehistoric times.

It should come as no surprise then that one of the earliest known organised forms of sport was athletics, in the form of the Greek Olympiad. In classical times, men would compete in trials of strength, speed, endurance, and also throwing, where both distance and accuracy were tested. Even in the modern era women were not allowed to compete for the first 32 years after the games were revived in 1896. The ancient games were the blueprint for The Olympic Games that are now held every four years and are possibly the biggest sporting showpiece in the world. It encompasses an ever increasing list of sports that are growing in number and popularity, but the Track and Field Athletics events always form the centrepiece of the Games.

For many years prior to the Olympics, countries spend vast amounts bidding for the right to stage future competitions. London was chosen for the Olympic Games in 2012 and Britain is now preparing for the event by upgrading many of its sporting facilities. The Olympic Stadium in London forms the showcase for the high profile Track and Field athletics, it forms part of The Olympic Park which stretches across the East End of London between Bow and Stratford .

The Olympic Games were held in London back in 1908, when the official distance for the Marathon race was increased from the 40 kilometre (just under 25 miles) distance set at the first modern Olympiad. Initially the course was measured from Windsor Castle to the stadium in London. However, in order for the race to finish in front of the royal box, an extra 0.2 miles was added; making the current official marathon distance 26.2 miles!

The Olympics came back to London again in 1948, although they would have been a far cry from the spectacularly hyped up events that we know today. Britain was still under rationing with World War II having only ended five years earlier. Tracks were made using cinders left over from people’s fireplaces and there was nothing of the glitz and glamour seen at games in recent decades.

Following the original golden era of Track and Field athletics in ancient Greco-Roman times, the sport went into something of a decline. In the British Isles it was revived at various times between the 12th and 18th centuries. It did not truly revive its fortunes until British universities began to organise meetings following the historic 1864 competition organised between Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Oxford and Cambridge are the oldest and most famous of all the universities in England and, to a large extent, the world. The rivalry between the two colleges dates back to the origins of Cambridge University , which was formed by renegade, former Oxford professors. It continues to this day in the form of competition for the top scholars and in a great variety of sporting contests.  In 1989 the athletics rivalry that is still going strong today celebrated its 125th anniversary.

The 1940s and 1950s were something of a golden era for British athletics, with a great many distinguished British-born athletes competing at the time; including names like Sydney Wooderson, Jim Peters, Alan Paterson, Sheila Alexander, Dorothy Tyler and, of course, the legendary four minute miler Sir Roger Bannister.

Sir Roger Bannister will always remain as one of the great historic names in British Track and Field Athletics. He was a neurologist of some note and a Master at Oxford University. He contributed much more to his University than the fame of his legendary feat on the track alone. He also created the first test for detecting the use of anabolic steroids. It is fitting then that it was at the Iffley Road track in Oxford, that Sir Roger achieved his goal of a sub four minute mile; the first person in the history of Athletics to perform this feat. In a meeting between the British AAA and Oxford University on the 6 May 1954, Bannister registered a time of 3:54.9. The crowd, however, had to find out the exact time later on; having drowned out the remainder of the announcement after hearing it begin with ‘three’.

Cambridge University also produced many great British athletes, including Harold Abrahams . His story was told in the film ‘ Chariots of Fire ’, he also took part in the famous Trinity Square run (also depicted in the film) at Cambridge University. In 1924 he went on to win gold in the 100m at the Paris Olympics.

The history of British Athletics is not just confined to the University teams, however.  There are a number of famous athletics clubs based at stadiums around Britain, who have consistently produced star athletes for Britain over the years. Gateshead Harriers is just such one club. Founded in 1904 as the Gateshead St Mary’s Church Running Club and a men only establishment for almost 50 years, the club moved to its present site in 1956. Now known as the Gateshead International Stadium, it is one of the country’s top athletics stadiums.

Brendan Foster was one of Britain’s most notable distance runners in the 1970s, in the era prior to the golden era of British middle distance running that included the likes of Cram , Coe and Ovett . Foster is often remembered for his exploits as a 10,000m runner, winning bronze in the Montreal Olympics, but he had many other fine wins at other, shorter distances. On August 3, 1974 he famously broke the 3000m world record in front of his home crowd at Gateshead Stadium. He also beat the legendary Lasse Virén in the same year to take the 5000m gold at the European Championships in Rome. For his achievements, Brendan Foster was awarded the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in 1974.

Another great from the Gateshead Harriers club was the Triple Jump legend Jonathan Edwards. He has held the World Triple Jump record since 1995 and was at one stage seemingly invincible at the sport. He broke the world record twice in the same World Championship meeting, finishing with a distance of 18.29m. After winning the gold at the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002, he briefly held all four major titles in the sport; World, Olympic, European and Commonwealth.  Unfortunately, he could only manage bronze a week or so later at the European Championships, thus giving up one of the four titles.

Another great British athletics club is Birchfield Harriers , based at the magnificent Birmingham Alexander Stadium. It is another club that can boast some legendary names from the heritage of British athletics, as well as more recent sporting heroes such as highly successful Heptathlete Kelly Sotherton and 100m sprint star Mark Lewis-Francis. Kelly follows in the footsteps of Denise Lewis , Britain’s gold medal winning Heptathlete from the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, also a Birchfield Harrier.

The Birmingham Alexander Stadium is a fine athletics venue and was upgraded in 2003 to include the Birmingham High Performance Centre, offering some of the best training and coaching facilities available in Britain. As well as being home to the Birchfield Harriers, it is used for many international, national, regional and school events.

Another of the historical athletics venues is the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre. Built on land once occupied by a football stadium that was used for some of the early FA Cup finals, it has become the traditional home of UK Athletics. Meetings of all levels up to top international Grand Prix events have been staged at the stadium for many years.

One athletics event that has grown massively in popularity over the years is the London Marathon. This event dates back to 1981 and is normally held in April. It has become increasingly more important as a part of the world athletics calendar. The popularity of the race comes from two distinct sources. On the one hand it is a race for the people. Anyone can enter and many thousands do, often running for charities and often in fancy dress! On the other hand it is seen as a major sporting title and is highly prized by the world’s top distance runners. It is also something of a sightseeing tour of London. The race is the only marathon in the world to cross two hemispheres, the East and West, as it is run on either side of the Greenwich Meridian. The route follows either bank of the River Thames for a large part of the race. The course takes in sights such as the Old Royal Naval College at Greenwich (as used in many films), St Pauls Cathedral , the London Eye , Canary Wharf and even Nelson’s Column.
The London Marathon attracts many of the biggest names in athletics in both the men’s and the women’s races. No single entrant has attracted more attention in Britain than Paula Radcliffe . She has become the darling of British athletics, her popularity helped by her most public and gut-wrenching feats of endurance. Re-inventing herself to make the jump from a successful athlete to a true great, Paula has become one of the feared names in world distance running, despite injury problems dogging her in recent years. Once known more as a 5,000 and 10,000 metre runner, Paula has achieved greater success since increasing the distance and tending to run cross-country and marathon events. She first won the London Marathon in 2002; near the beginning of an incredible few years for Paula Radcliffe where she claimed countless victories in big races.  She claimed the world record for women’s marathon in the same year and this record still stands today. Paula won the coveted BBC Sports Personality of the Year award in the same year. Radcliffe has won the London Marathon three times and has also won the New York Marathon on three occasions.

The Commonwealth Games is another high profile four-yearly sporting event featuring athletics at centre stage. It features entrants from countries that were formally under the dominion of the British Empire. Many successful Commonwealth Games have been staged in this country. The first games were held in Canada and they had their British debut in London in 1934. Originally known as the British Empire Games, the name was changed first to British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1954 and then to the British Commonwealth Games in 1970. The beautiful and historic city of Edinburgh has been host to the games on two occasions; in 1970 and 1986.

The most recent Commonwealth Games to be held in Britain was in 2002, in Manchester.  The cities commercial centre had been devastated by a terrorist bombing in 1986. The Games helped to galvanise its regeneration efforts and became the focus for redevelopment of the city centre. The 2002 Commonwealth Games became the largest multi-sport event ever to be held in England, surpassing the 1948 Olympic Games. The Games include many other sports, such as swimming, cycling and rowing; but it is the Track and Field that traditionally becomes the focal point, as with the Olympic Games. There were ups and downs for the English Athletics team (in the Commonwealth Games, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland do not compete as Great Britain). Paula Radcliffe won her first major gold medal in the 5000m and Jonathan Edwards completed his briefly held full set of major titles in the Triple Jump. But sprint hopes were dashed in the men’s individual events due to injuries. The sprinters rallied as a team to end the contest on a high note, however, winning both gold medals in the 4 x 100m and the 4 x 400m relay events.

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