Sydney Wooderson

Distance running champion dubbed 'The Mighty Atom' whose feats inspired Roger Bannister

Sydney Charles Wooderson, athlete: born London 30 August 1914; MBE 2000; married 1950 Pamela Willcocks (one son, one daughter); died Wareham, Dorset 21 December 2006.

Appearances can be deceptive. Sydney Wooderson was the living embodiment of that expression. As Harold Abrahams, the 1924 Chariots of Fire 100-metre Olympic gold medallist observed,

If someone were to point out Sydney Wooderson to you on the running track and tell you he was the athlete who had run a mile more quickly than any other human being, you just wouldn't believe it.

On weekdays, Wooderson looked like the epitome of the suburban commuter of the era, a short, slightly built solicitor's clerk, hair Brylcreemed back, short-sighted eyes peering out through thick, horn-rimmed glasses, "looking as if he had been mugged for his ration book", as one biographer wrote.

Yet come the weekend, and stripped down to his Blackheath Harriers club vest and stepping on to a cinder running track, there was a transformation. Perhaps not quite of Superman proportions, for Wooderson's skinny white legs still stuck out incongruously from his baggy all-black kit. But once the race started, he was a ruthless competitor, dubbed "The Mighty Atom", who managed to win European titles either side of the Second World War as well as setting world records for the mile, 800 metres and 880 yards, the latter with a time, 1min 49.2sec, that would remain unbeaten for 17 years.

The running career of Sydney Wooderson will also be remembered as one that was denied by the circumstances of his time, as well as the frailties of his body.

He missed his only chance of Olympic glory in 1936 through an ankle injury that might have ended his running career. The 1,500m gold medal in those Berlin Games was won by the London-based New Zealander Jack Lovelock. Before the Games, and his injury, Wooderson had beaten Lovelock repeatedly. In 1937, Wooderson ran the mile in 4min 6.4sec, faster than Lovelock and any other man had ever managed.

Wooderson missed the 1938 Empire Games because he had to sit his law exams. War broke out when he was just 25 and might have been considered close to his peak as a middle-distance runner. The 1940 and 1944 Olympics were cancelled.

And even in 1948, when the Olympics came to his home city, Wooderson, by then retired from the track at 34 but still a sporting hero with the public, was denied the honour of carrying the flame into Wembley Stadium. The organisers preferred that a more statuesque figure should carry out the symbolic task. "Of course we couldn't have had poor little Sydney," the then Queen said to one official.

Yet, in other respects, Wooderson carried the flame for British middle-distance running, from the great W.G. George of the Victorian era through to Roger Bannister, who admits to being inspired to the first sub-four-minute mile by the sight of the battling Wooderson racing at the White City on the August bank holiday in 1945.

Then, 54,000 sports-starved Londoners broke down the gates to get into the old stadium to see Wooderson take on Arne Andersson over a mile. For Wooderson, it was barely six months after a bout of rheumatic fever and being told by doctors he could never run again, and - declared unfit for active service - after a war spent digging latrines in the Pioneer Corps and repairing radios for the REME.

Meanwhile in Sweden, neutral and without wartime rationing, Andersson and his compatriot Gunder Hagg had been able to revise Wooderson's world-best marks for the mile.

At White City, physically dwarfed by the Swede, Wooderson ought never to have stood a chance, yet he produced a battling performance and was only narrowly beaten in the final yards. Shortly afterwards they met again in Gothenburg. Again the Swede won by three yards, but Wooderson, at 31, recorded 4:04.2, his fastest ever.

Among the White City crowd was the 16-year-old Roger Bannister. "As boys we all have our sport's heroes," he said. "Wooderson from that day became mine. His run inspired me."

A year later, at the European championships in Oslo, Wooderson opted not to defend the 1,500m title he had won in 1938, but instead stepped up in distance to 5,000m, and duly won in the second fastest time ever.

By 1948, Wooderson was still capable of seeing off England's best distance runners when that March he won the National Cross-country title over nine gruelling miles. Of the athletes of the modern era, only Steve Ovett, with an Olympic 800m title, Commonwealth Games 5,000m gold medal and the winner of the Inter-Counties Cross-country, has ever shown similar versatility over such a range of distances.

Throughout, Wooderson was modest, shy and unassuming. His retirement bungalow in Dorset had no memorabilia of his racing days on display. The only clue to his life as an athlete was his daily four-mile country walks, which he continued into his eighties.

"Poor little Sydney" finally received a public honour when appointed MBE in 2000. But he always dismissed suggestions that he might have beaten Bannister to the four-minute mile. "I do not think I would have done it," Wooderson said:

It was a great strain keeping at the top. It was only because I lost six years that I started again. I felt I had to go out at the top and that spurred me to get back.

The race against Andersson was my best race because I had not competed for so many years and yet I ran a time faster than my world record.

Steven Downes

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