Obituary: Harry Wilson

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HARRY WILSON, according to his friend Sir Eddie Kulukundis, that great benefactor of British athletic talent, was "a gentleman who ate and dreamed athletics non-stop. His sole interest in life was athletics."

Wilson's own talent as a runner was a moderate one, despite a remarkable versatility which enabled him, at the age of 29, to switch from being a sprinter to a long-distance runner. At one time or another he covered every flat distance from 100 yards to the marathon, for which he had a best time of 2hr 35min. But it is as an innovative coach, and as Steve Ovett's coach, that he will be best remembered.

Ovett first met Wilson as a 16-year-old trialist at Crystal Palace. Having been originally selected for the 400m training group, it was only because there were too many quarter-milers that Ovett came under Wilson's guidance. It was the beginning of a relationship that endured through countless world records for Ovett as well as the 1980 Olympic 800m gold medal, right up to the time of Wilson's sudden death at his home in Hertfordshire last week, following an evening out with his former protege.

Although he represented Wales, the country of his mother's birth, as a cross-country runner, and was Welsh six-miles champion in 1958, Wilson hailed from Bishop Auckland in the north-east of England, and later moved south to Welwyn Garden City. There he played football in the Air Training Corps and became a sprinter, joining the St Albans Athletic Club. "It was decided that as I'd played on the wing at football I should be a sprinter, and that as I wasn't big enough to be a real 100m sprinter, I should do 200m and 400m," he wrote later in his book Running Dialogue (1982).

After the death of his father, a civil servant, at a relatively young age Wilson became responsible for his aunt as well as his mother, with whom he lived while employed as a marketing executive for the Engineering Industry Training Board at Watford, working long hours during the winter in order to have time off for his coaching in the summer.

He never earned money from coaching, which he took up in his early thirties and carried on throughout his life. As recently as Monday last week he was making arrangements with Kulukundis to travel to Gothenburg for the European Under-23 Championships this July to be with one of his runners, Kelly Caffel, who earlier in the day he had witnessed winning the British University 1,500m title.

Wilson's early inspiration was the former British National Coach, Geoff Dyson, and later he studied the writing of the world's leading authorities of the time such as Franz Stampfl, who coached the famous Oxford trio of Bannister, Brasher and Chataway, and Percy Cerutty, the 1960 Olympic 1,500m champion Herb Elliott's coach, whom he had first met at the 1958 Commonwealth Games in Cardiff.

Wilson soon developed his own ideas and, as Dyson had been, was often critical of coaching methods favoured in Britain, as well as selection procedure. His contention was that technique and training should be adapted to the individual, and not vice versa, as had usually been the case. "The coach's job is to make the most of the material he has to work with, whether it is a rough diamond or a huge lump of granite," he said.

In 1961 Dyson invited Wilson to become National Middle Distance Coach and he went on to work with international athletes of the calibre of Ian Stewart and Tony Simmons before Ovett came along, and more recently he has been involved with Julian Goater, Lesley Kiernan, Christine Benning, Kirsty Wade and Mark Sesay, currently the British No 2 over 800m. Briefly in 1986 he was Zola Budd's coach but it was not such a happy liaison.

Until February of this year, Wilson was coaching the Oxford University cross-country team but, after helping them to victory in the Varsity Match, he quit. "They were all having a drink together after Oxford had won the match and nobody bothered to offer me a drink, so I thought if they can't be bothered it means they don't really appreciate me," he said.

Wilson remained unmarried, never finding time for personal relationships outside athletics, but he was by all accounts wonderful company and a witty raconteur. "He had the intuition and the ability to transmit what he thought you should do in a form you could accept," said Ovett.

At the height of Ovett's great rivalry with Sebastian Coe, Wilson, in stark contrast to Coe's father-coach Peter, always kept the lowest of profiles under his ever-present baseball cap, insisting that the accolades belonged to Ovett alone. "My idea of success," he said, "is coaching to produce satisfied athletes."

Adam Szreter

Harry Wilson, athletics coach: born Bishop Auckland, Co Durham 18 August 1926; died Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire 5 May 1999.