Athletics: Sickeningly close to history

FIRST NIGHT: DOUG WALKER; The ghost of Harry Hutchens stalks Meadowbank as an ancient record stays intact.

Doug Walker was sick. That much was plain to see through the Hogmanay gloaming at Meadowbank Stadium. For five minutes the Edinburgh man who was crowned the 200m champion of Europe in Budapest last summer leaned against the trackside wall, retching in familiar discomfort. As well as suffering from the stomach complaint that afflicts him after every race, the local speed merchant was sick in the metaphorical sense too. He had ended his year with a victory on his home track, winning the 300 yards invitation event in the Edinburgh New Year Sprint meeting. He had, though, failed to beat the clock. In his first run as a world record chaser, the latest Flying Scotsman had finished 0.05sec behind schedule.

"I feel as though I should apologise to the crowd," Walker said, emerging from his pit of physical despair with typical self-effacement. It was rather different when Harry Hutchens, whose ancient record time survived Walker's assault, famously stirred restlessness among the natives of England's capital city in 1887. It would not have been prudent of Hutchens to have attempted appeasement when "The Race of the Century", as the newspapers of the day billed the 120 yards world championship challenge race between himself and Henry Gent, failed to materialise at the Lillie Bridge stadium. With 15,000 spectators packed into the west London ground, the two runners were forcibly removed from the dressing-room, bundled out of a side-entrance and spirited away in separate carriages. When their non-appearance was announced, the crowd tore down the wooden stadium buildings, ripped up the perimeter railings and burned everything that stood. It was not so much Chariots of Fire as Chariots on Fire.

The spark, it transpired, had been a band of bookmakers fearful of being cleaned out after discovering that Gent had secretly broken down in training. "They stood over me in the dressing-room with open knives and bottles," Hutchens told The Sporting Life. "They swore they would murder me if I tried to run."

The ghost of Harry Hutchens and the Lillie Bridge riot reared its head with ironic timing at Meadowbank on Thursday. The burning of the Bridge prompted the demise of pedestrianism, as the popular sport of racing for prize money was known in its 19th-century heyday. Professional running has survived the amateur, shamateur track and field times through to the present era of open competition for all. But in Edinburgh on New Year's Eve its showpiece event was unsteady on its feet, if not quite on its last legs.

Even the novelty of a local man chasing a world record (Walker hails from Newington, a southern suburb of the city) failed to pull in more than the usual die-hard punters. The competitors virtually outnumbered the spectators at the 130th New Year Sprint meeting. "Yes, I suppose I'll be making a big loss," Frank Hanlon, the promoter, sighed, surveying the sparsely populated stadium, the scene of two Commonwealth Games. "Each year I double my losses and without any backing it's getting increasingly difficult to keep the meeting going."

The meeting has been going since 1870, when it was introduced at the old Powderhall track, which took its name from the gunpowder factory next door. It ought to be protected by a preservation order, if not wrapped up and cuddled by a combination of Edinburgh City Council, Tony Banks and a National Lottery grant. "Powderhall," as it remains affectionately known to the pocket of professional sprint groups that can be found mainly in the Scottish Lowlands and Borders, is the oldest track meeting in the world.

It boasts a priceless sporting heritage that could be tangibly measured when Walker crossed the finish line on Thursday. The track-side clock flashed his time: 30.05sec. By a margin of 0.05sec, the European 200m champion of 1998 failed to beat the official world professional 300 yards record that has stood for 115 years now. On 2 January 1884, Hutchens clocked 30.0sec on the grass track at Powderhall.

"It's scary," Walker said, when it was pointed out that Gladstone was Prime Minister in 1884, that General Gordon was preparing to march on Khartoum and that Adolf Hitler had not yet been born. "It was an amazing run, absolutely amazing. Apparently he had his hands in the air, celebrating, from 30 yards out. Some runner." Some runner indeed. Hutchens was described by Harold Abrahams, Britain's first Olympic 100m champion and one half of the Chariots of Fire story, as "the Jesse Owens of his day". The Putney pedestrian, who always ran from a standing start, set nine professional world records in all (including 9.75sec for 100 yards) but never won the Blue Riband event at Powderhall: the 130 yards handicap, as it was in days of yore.

Hutchens is in good company. Arthur Wharton also failed to win "the big sprint". Wharton was the first black athlete to win a AAA title, the first black professional footballer, and the first sprinter to make "even time" in championship conditions (to run 100 yards in 10 seconds). He raced at Powderhall in 1889, stunning the crowd by winning his heat of the 130 yards in 12.6sec, off a "mark" of four yards. Unfortunately for Wharton, he stunned the handicappers too. He lost his four-yard start for the final. Starting from the scratch mark, he finished unplaced.

Concealing form, from bookmaker as well as handicapper, has always been part of the Powderhall game. Findlay Scott, who earned pounds 15,000 for his backers as a 33-1 winner of the big sprint in 1954, died his hair ginger and trained at a disused dog track in a balaclava, lest information of his improving speed should leak out from deepest Ayrshire. Jackie Milburn, hero of Newcastle's three FA Cup wins in the 1950s, was guilty of more blatant duplicity in the 1940 Powderhall meeting. The young sprinting prospect stormed to a decisive win in his heat but was then instructed by his backers to save himself for the following year, when, with better preparation, he might have a better chance. He finished last in his cross- tie, as the semi-finals are still called, weighed down by a dozen pennies in his left running shoe. "I ran like a lop-sided whippet with three legs," he recalled years later. It remained one of Milburn's great regrets that his football life precluded him from returning for a big shot at the big sprint.

The winner of the 1998 big sprint, the 110m handicap, hailed from further afield than Milburn's Northumberland. Joselyn Thomas, who clocked 11.19sec from the back mark, 3.75m, is a native of Sierra Leone. His prize, for following in the spike-marks of his twin brother, Josephus, the 1997 winner, was a pounds 3,500 cheque and the Eric Liddell Memorial Trophy. Liddell, sporting Corinthian though he was, honed his chariot-scorching speed by training with the pedestrians at Powderhall. Allan Wells was another Olympic-winning product of the professional sprinting scene in Edinburgh. He was trained in the pro tradition, employing the use of a boxing speedball, by Charlie Affleck and Wilson Young, both Powderhall veterans.

George McNeill might have been an Olympic champion too, had he not been barred from amateur competition because he was a pounds 4-a-week part-time footballer with Hibernian in his youth. McNeill, from Tranent, south of Edinburgh, clocked 11.00sec off scratch in the 110m handicap in 1971 - 10.00sec 100m speed at a time when the British amateur record stood at 10.29sec and when Valeriy Borzov was about to emerge as Olympic champion with 10.14sec.

McNeill was at Meadowbank on Thursday, not pondering what might have been as he watched Walker, who was free to launch a career on what used to be the amateur side of the track and field fence after winning the big sprint in 1994, but preoccupied by concern for the future of Scotland's undervalued treasure of a sporting event. "It would be a terrible thing if the meeting died off," he said. "Just look at how it has brought Doug through. That shows its worth."

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