Athletics: Hemery back in the running

At 54, the one-time golden boy bids to become the elder statesman.
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The Independent Online
HE REMAINS tall, upright and uncommonly fair and that description still applies well beyond his physical features. David Hemery always was the quintessential Englishman of yore, a status which schooling in America and exposure to the white heat of international sporting competition could not remotely diminish.

It is impossible, of course, to be a transcendent Olympic gold medallist and later a champion sporting all-rounder without having a certain competitive steel. Perhaps it is that as much as his other attributes which has persuaded Hemery to enter the maelstrom of British athletics. Much has been achieved since the sport went belly-up and almost died of shame a year ago but if the patient is out of bed the convalescent period is far from over.

Hemery is one of five candidates for the post of president of Athletics UK, the vibrant new body which has succeeded the moribund British Athletics Federation. Whoever wins will have to act as much more than a figurehead. He will join the admirable chief executive David Moorcroft in being the public voice of a sport which has been tainted by scandal. Money is only part of it. There is a perception, not entirely proven but not exactly refuted either, that drugs, albeit of a different variety, have been as rife in track and field dressing-rooms as on inner-city street corners.

"One of the things I hold dear is that the only way for evil to succeed is if good men stand by and do nothing," said Hemery. "The issue of illegal drug use is one that must continue to be addressed by the organising body because it is so far-reaching. We want all our athletes to be free of steroids but we want them to be operating on a level playing field."

The new president - to be elected by 15 November by the 1,612 affiliated clubs who between them have 2,318 votes - is expected, according to the job description, to select staff, to be the sport's conscience and to be its ambassador. Hemery is in a strong and eminent field, a fact he is quick to acknowledge, but nobody should doubt his own qualifications. The old-fashioned virtues he has seemed always to personify down the years - a man for whom the very phrase Corinthian values might have been coined - are combined with free-thinking modern ideas and philosophy.

The man who so patently believes in fair play and a sense of justice and will regularly allude to their importance in living one's life has also fervently embraced modern management training methods designed to bring the best out of each individual. Questions, questions, questions are his motif. Ask the right ones of people and they will provide the answers themselves. For Hemery it is a system which works in business as in sport.

"The aim has always got to be raise awareness and generate responsibility," he said. "If more was done in that respect it would, I'm sure, be a better world. This applies in sport as everywhere else. It has always been a microcosm of the world at large but it can be so vital to the development of young people. I want athletics to be a major part of that. We want champion athletes but we want young people who have fun and grow doing it."

Hemery, now 54, was himself inspired to become a track and field athlete when he saw the performance of Chris Chataway in beating not only the great Soviet runner Vladimir Kuts but also the world record in a startling 5,000m race at White City in October 1954. Fourteen years and two days later Hemery, then at college in Boston, was in Mexico City running in the final of the Olympic 400m hurdles. He wore No 402, he ran in lane six with assured elegance, his left leg leading over the hurdles, like some blond antelope, and he destroyed the field. He won the race by eight metres and smashed the world record. At the end although his lungs must have come close to bursting he looked serene, partly because he was unsure he had won. It was one of the greatest of all British athletics performances but Hemery has spent the years since quite as affected by his third place in 1972. "The trouble was that 10 months before the Munich Games I started to prepare myself to lose.

"I had been thinking of not competing but carried on because I was at some paraplegic games and saw what it meant to those competitors and then when Lilian Board died I realised that she would never have another chance of going for a gold medal." (Board finished runner-up in the Mexico 400m and died of cancer two years later at the age of 22).

His ill-conceived attitude in 1972 has stayed with him - more perhaps than the precise, albeit instinctive, mental approach which helped him to overwhelming victory four years before - and he has never ceased to impress its importance on charges.

The Seventies were the years of the Superstars, a televised competition in which champions from various sports competed in a variety of events. Hemery was champion three times - and, incidentally has a suggestion that it might be time to bring it back with age group categories from under 20 to under 70.

He has been constantly on the periphery of athletics, coaching sporadically those from grass roots to elite performers who have asked for his help. He has been a low-profile if regular presence but until now he has not sought an official post in the sport.

"I am passionate about this sport," he said and mentioned the significance of the clubs and the importance of the United Kingdom element, embracing Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. "I think that now might be the time to be involved, perhaps for Britain to be at the forefront in some ways. Rightly or wrongly these little Anglo-Celtic islands travelled the globe in the last century and we gained a reputation for honesty, credibility and fair play. There's no reason we shouldn't have that again."

Hemery emphasises integrity and tries to practise it strictly. In such regard he gave an example of not nicking the extra tablet of hotel soap. But he still has a twinkle in his piercing eyes and that crucial urge to compete which makes him far from a soft touch. He might have stopped timing his daily runs over the Wiltshire Downs which overlook his home near Marlborough but he is obviously pretty chuffed that he can still beat his 16 year-old son, Adrian, a promising decathlete, over 300 metres.

If you were to meet him it would probably take about two minutes to work out why he became a sporting hero in Mexico 30 years ago. And it is to do with something substantially more than his astonishing ability to run the 400m hurdles in 48.12 seconds.

IN THE RUNNING: THE FAMOUS FOUR TAKING ON HEMERY

SIR EDDIE KULUKUNDIS

When athletes needed money to sustain body, soul and performance they turned to Sir Eddie. Since the Seventies (when he bumped into David Hemery at the Munich Olympics) he has provided funding for many a desperate competitor, Steve Ovett being among the first. He has always been accessible to athletes and was vice-patron of the AAA in the Eighties. Kulukundis established both the London and Midlands coaching foundations, has been chairman of the Sports Aid Foundation and is on the board of Performance Athlete Services. His name is well known to the clubs who will do the voting but his profile outside the sport is not large. This may be a factor - UK Athletics may feel the need of a prominent figurehead who is known to the public at large - but he will start as one of the front-runners.

TOM MCNAB

Something of an athletics polymath, McNab has done the lot from performing, through to coaching and on to writing about the sport. He is articulate and persuasive and unafraid of stating an opinion. McNab was a nationally ranked triple-jumper from 1951 to 1963 and latterly has competed as a veteran hammer thrower. He was southern national coach for 14 years and then helped to coach both the British bobsleigh and the England rugby teams. It is impossible to pin down a particular coaching skill, for he has run the gamut: triple jump, decathlon, hurdles and sprinting. He has written technical tomes delving in the how to's and what not to do's, evocative books on the sport's (more illustrious) past and had a bash at a sports novel, Flanagan's Run. Perhaps not among the favourites, but well known in the circles that matter.

STEVE OVETT

As an Olympic gold medallist and television commentator he has perhaps the highest profile of all the candidates. For a heady period in the late Seventies and early Eighties his rivalry (though extremely infrequent head-to-head races) with Sebastian Coe made him one of the most celebrated people in Britain. He famously beat Coe in the 800m at the Moscow Olympics and lost to him a week later in the 1500m. The way he and Coe kept breaking world records (in Ovett's case at one mile, 1500m and two miles) put athletics on the front pages. Sometimes aloof, he could also be emotional in defence of his sport. He has kept in touch with athletics since retirement as a competitor. He has been a member of two government working parties, preparing papers on Sport in the Inner Cities and Sport: Writing the Curriculum.

DR MIKE TURNER

Another former runner, who was captain of England teams on road, track and cross- country. He still competes as a veteran but this Cambridge University academic also slipped easily into administration. In the Eighties, he was the manager of British teams at Olympic Games and World and European championships. His long involvement in the sport brought an invitation to be a member of the British Olympic Association's team manager's working group. He was also treasurer of the British Amateur Athletic Board for four years and vice- chairman of the Eastern Council for Sport and Recreation. Turner was then elected as chairman of the BAAB Committee established to enquire into the feasibility of establishing a single UK governing body for athletics. It is that body that he now seeks to head as its first president for at least a two-year term.

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