Charlie Spedding: We're running out of time for legacy

Marathon man had a plan to make children fit for 2012 but it hit the wall down in Whitehall
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It is good to see Charlie Spedding looking so well as he opens the door to his Newcastle home. The Gateshead Harrier, who remains the only British man or woman to win an Olympic marathon medal since 1964 – a bronze in Los Angeles in 1984 – has been through some battles in his time. He was born with a serious eye defect that handicapped him throughout childhood. He finished last in his first ever race. He almost died in 1975 when he suffered an adverse reaction to anaesthetic during what was supposed to have been a routine Achilles tendon operation.

Over the past eight months, however, Spedding has been fighting the biggest battle of his 58-year life. Last August he discovered a lump in his armpit and was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma. He spent six months having chemotherapy at the Sir Bobby Robson Cancer Unit in Newcastle. "The chemotherapy really makes you feel awful and it can get you down," he says. "But I'm fine now. I'm feeling well. I've got the all-clear."

Another victory, then, for the County Durham man who won the London Marathon in 1984, and his most crucial victory of all. Still, as he settles back into normal family life with his wife Christina and their combined brood of seven children, and into working life running a pharmacy in Wallsend, he cannot help being niggled by a defeat he suffered during his treatment.

England's fastest marathon man, with a record time of 2hr 8min 33sec that has stood for 26 years, has seemingly hit the wall with a plan to use the London Olympics to motivate a generation of children to improve their health and fitness. The British Schools' Olympic Challenge, which he formulated shortly before his illness was diagnosed, is simple but ingenious. Schoolchildren would undergo a basic test of their fitness at the start of the 2011-12 year. Senior pupils would take a bleep test, a 20-metre shuttle run with an increasing tempo, and primary school children would run for four minutes, the distance they covered being measured.

Each child would be given a mark and these would be added up and divided by numbers to give each school an overall score. Pupils would be encouraged to improve fitness – "It could be riding their bike, going swimming, walking to school instead of getting a lift, walking the dog more often, whatever worked for them," Spedding says – and in May 2012 they would undergo the same test, with the improvements measured. The big carrot would be the three top schools being awarded gold, silver and bronze medals, with the winners marching a lap at the opening ceremony of the Games.

"The idea was very simple, which is why I thought it would work," he says. "The Olympic motto – higher, faster, stronger – is about improvement. The Olympic creed is about trying your best and trying to improve. So I thought we should have a legacy event that would sit with that: schoolchildren trying to become physically fitter, no matter what level they start at.

"I'm required to encourage people to live healthy lifestyles at my work. A third of schoolchildren are obese and the Olympic Games is a huge opportunity to motivate them to become healthier and fitter. Obviously the unfit, unsporty kids would stand to make a greater improvement and gain a higher score than the sporty kids who are already fit.

"If this worked properly you would have documented proof that four million, maybe even five million children were now physically fitter than they were eight months earlier, purely because of the Olympic Games. I took the idea to Sebastian Coe, who said he liked it but I needed a sponsor and, being the Olympics, it would have to be one of the designated Olympic sponsors. He put me in touch with a couple of companies. They said: 'Yeah, it's a good idea, but we've already committed our budgets.'

"Shortly after that I was diagnosed with cancer and I started chemotherapy. I just wasn't in a fit condition to travel up and down to London going to these meetings. But I didn't want to give up on it so I put the whole thing down on paper and wrote to Hugh Robertson, the minister for sport and the Olympics, and copied it to David Cameron, because there's a Big Society connection in it, and also to the departments of health and education.

"I thought if they all saw it had been copied to each other they could maybe get their heads together and make it work. But I got negative responses from everybody. They seemed to think that a national school sports competition was all the legacy they needed. But that just will not motivate or involve any of the unfit, unsporty children who are going to be the obese diabetics of the future."

Robertson had replied: "We too are committed to increasing health and fitness at schools. We have set out our plans to do this through the introduction of an Olympic and Paralympic-style competition, which will be offered to every school and pupil in the country. Engagement and achievements in this new series of inter-school competitive events will be recognised throughout the country by a national school sports league, and exciting 2012-related rewards."

Spedding was not impressed. "I just think they've missed a huge opportunity to use the Olympic Games to involve all of the children in the country and at the same time improve the health of the country," he says. "There may be better ideas out there than mine. But I haven't seen one in the Government's plans that is so all-inclusive with the benefits I think this can bring with just improving health, which is probably going to bankrupt the NHS if nothing is done about it."

It is not the first time he has crossed paths with a government minister. In his excellent autobiography From Last To First (Aurum, £14.99) he tells of schoolyard football at Durham Chorister School: "One of the lads I played with was a boy called Tony Blair. I don't recall his skill with the ball, but I do remember his ability to make up the rules of the game to suit his team's situation.

"When a team-mate of mine fell over, but still managed to kick the tennis ball against the wall, between the two pullovers, Tony managed to convince all of his team, and some of mine, that it was against the rules to kick the ball when you were on the ground. I should have realised that he was destined for a life in politics."