By Bob Phillips
8th January 2019
Sydney Wooderson – Not So Much a Reverence as a Re-evaluation
“Sydney Wooderson, A Very British Hero”, by Rob Hadgraft, published by The Book Guild Ltd, 9 Priory Business Park, Wistow Road, Kibworth, Leicestershire LE8 ORX, England, freephone 0800 999 2982, [email protected], ISBN 978 1912575 350, £10.99.
Rob Hadgraft has made a lasting contribution to athletics history and literature over the past 15 years with his series of intensely-researched and affectionately written biographies of Alfred Shrubb, Walter George, Louis Bennett (” Deerfoot”), Arthur Newton, Jim Peters and now Sydney Wooderson. Surprisingly, this is the first full biography of one of the very finest of all British athletes, though David Thurlow has written a profusely illustrated booklet and the late Michael Sheridan compiled a descriptive career record.
Undoubtedly such industriousness must be much more a labour of love than any sort of fruitful commercial enterprise. Publishers seem little interested in sports history these days, and therefore the aspiring author often has to rely on his own resources if he wants to see in print a subject that he considers worthy of recognition. Rob and The Book Guild are to be heartily congratulated on producing such a comprehensive record of Wooderson’s remarkable career at such a reasonable price. And it is by no means a hagiography – Wooderson is called to account.
Of course, the meek and mild appearance of the man – so easily caricatured in those baggy black shorts and vest and studious spectacles – is a source of constant reference throughout more than 400 pages, but the author proves conclusively that it is something of an over-fond illusion. As we know, Woodersopn was the most fearsome of competitors – though with occasional lapses – but not only that because he could be firmly entrenched in his views. He refused constant invitations to the USA until 1939, and maybe then only accepting because he realised that it might be his last chance of major competition before war broke out. On his way to competing against Arne Andersson in Sweden after peace was restored Wooderson reacted forcibly to the suggestion that his host preferred to compete at 1000 metres rather than a mile. It’s not easy to conjur up a vision of Wooderson saying “It’s a mile or nothing”, but to all intents and purposes he did so. Certainly he got his way and ran his fastest ever time.
The Berlin Olympics provide the setting for what seems to me to be the core of this biography rather than his more famed triumphs. Wooderson had gone there as favourite for the 1500 metres, but that was probably a matter of media hyperbole. Still only a novice (born 30 August 1914), he had raced against Jack Lovelock five times during 1934 and 1935, and had exchanged wins in the AAA Championships, had lost at the Empire Games, and both had twice been beaten by a now forgotten middle-distance runner of real talent, Aubrey Reeve. Wooderson then beat Lovelock again for the AAA title a month or so before the Olympic final but was suffering from an ankle injury, caused on one of his habitual long walks which were sometimes of 20 miles’ duration.
But was it the sprained ankle that was responsible for Wooderson’s demise in Berlin or another less obvious factor? Rob Hadgraft quotes the eye-witness report of that most respected of British athletics correspondents, Joe Binks, who wrote about the finish of Wooderson’s 1500 metres heat, “Watching Wooderson closely, I saw nothing to cause alarm; He had a good position, and the limp was no more pronounced than in previous races. Running strongly to all appearances, he had just reached the third man, 20 yards out, when suddenly he stopped and walked to the winning-post, rubbing his head as if puzzled at the happening”. Binks completed his report by suggesting that Wooderson was “over-trained”, and that expression in use in the 1930s could be applied to a mental state as much as a physical one. Lovelock, of course, got both conditions absolutely right, winning the Olympic 1500 in World-record time.
Rob Hadgraft places store by a subsequent British Olympic Association report which emphasises that either apart from his injury, however slight or serious, or because of it Wooderson clearly could not make up his mind as to how to run the race. The author here was Harold Abrahams, and the inference is that both he and Binks thought that Wooderson had been overawed by the occasion. Before Berlin Wooderson had only once competed outside London, the home counties or the south of England – and that was in Glasgow. He had never previously travelled abroad.
Could this set-back in Berlin then be linked to the closing stages of Wooderson’s career when he confirmed his decision not to compete in the 1948 Olympics at Wembley even though he had won the National cross-country title four months before? Did the memory of 12 years before still haunt him? Rather than conjecture on a matter which can never be resolved, Rob Hadgraft rightly discusses in sober terms the hierarchy’s decision not to award Wooderson the honour of carrying the Olympic torch into the stadium and lighting the flame; This only became a cause cèlebre in later years, though the media – not in an investigative frame of mind so soon after the war was over – should still have made more of it at the time/
By now Wooderson had long since given up serious miling, not having got within a quarter-of-a-minute of the 4:04.2 he had run against Andersson in 1945, and had astonishingly in the course of little over a month beaten in his first truly competitive three miles the renowned “Flying Dutchman”, Willy Slijkhuis, at the 1946 AAA Championships in a British record time, then won in the match against France, and become European 5000 metres champion.
After 1946 he never again raced further than two miles on the track, and his experience of half-miling, at which, of course, he set a World record, as he did for the mile, was even more sparse. Apart from a brilliant victory over the Olympic silver-medalist, Mario Lanzi, in 1:50.9 at the White City 20 days before his record 1:49.2, Wooderson only once broke 1:54!
Rob Hadgraft describes every one of Wooderson’s races in as much detail as he can muster, and adds zest to his coverage by venturing out himself at the age of 60-plus to run over the same tracks or cross-country courses, some of them now long since abandoned and overgrown. Readers might perhaps have benefited from more photos of Wooderson in action, but maybe that was a matter of economics or sheer space, with so much text to contain.