Dave Bedford: 'Rebel in running shoes' at the finish line

Half a billion pounds for charity crowns hair-raising exploits of London Marathon's much-loved athlete

Alan Hubbard
Sunday 17 April 2011 00:00 BST

When the last shroud of tinfoil is draped around the shoulders of the last straggler to stagger across the finishing line of the London Marathon, probably some time around dusk this evening, it will signal the end of an era, as well as the race. Dave Bedford will step down from his full-time role with the iconic event he has orchestrated for more than two decades, and head home to Hampstead for his usual Sunday night of a few beers and a curry. "I might," he says, "get rather pissed."

Bootsie is hanging up his boots because, as he puts it, "I don't want to be around to overhear them saying 'the old fella's lost it'." The loss is more likely to be sport's, with this valedictory wave of one of its most charismatic personalities.

Forty years ago, he was up there with George Best as an incorrigible hellraiser. The hairy monster of athletics whose name was on everybody's lips, not least his own. Bedford revelled in being the bearded braggart of the track, giving the V-sign to officialdom, filling the stadiums wherever he ran and dallying with the dolly birds.

The only performance-enhancing substances which mattered to Bedford were Guinness and gumption. He chuckles as he reminisces. "The trouble with sport now is that there aren't any great characters left. It is all too serious, too intense. No one enjoys themselves any more." Old Bootsie (so called because he used to train in Army boots) may be 61, and the shaggy curls and Zapata moustache could do with a dollop of Grecian 2000, but his enthusiasm has remained eternally youthful.

He certainly never rationed his enjoyment, even if things sometimes went ingloriously wrong. "Stand by your beds and watch me win a gold medal for Britain," he exclusively urged readers of The Sun at the Munich Olympics. He came sixth and ran off the track and deep into a nearby wood weeping. His was a career always destined to end in tears, but there are no regrets, no recriminations. "I had a marvellous time. It was a different era. What was wrong with being young, good at sport and having a laugh? You couldn't do it today."

There has never been a bigger name in British athletics in terms of selling tickets. So it seems appropriate that Bedford has remained in the business of pulling them in, and sports audiences don't come any bigger than that which lines the streets of London today for what Bedford calls the greatest pro-am free show on earth.

As poacher-gamekeeper conversions go, his was definitely in the gold-medal class. He has not only been the international race director but also responsible for marketing and promoting the entire event. From rebel in running shoes to establishment man in a suit was a remarkable transition for someone whose battles with the blazers (as well as the 118 118 directory service who stole his hirsute trademark) were legendary, and still are.

Of his well-chronicled fall-out with organisers of next year's Olympic marathon, he says: "The truth is I decided to step aside, though while I am no longer directly involved, other members of our team will be. Of course I would like to have been in the thick of it when it all happens but it just wasn't possible for me to work with Locog. I am disappointed because I feel Seb [Lord Coe] could have done something about it and didn't."

Thirty-nine years ago, they tried to drum him out of the Olympics as a shamateur – ironically the late Chris Brasher, founder of the Marathon, shopped him to the IOC. Even more ironically, Brasher's son Hugh is taking over from him. "I was right in the shit," Bedford recalls. "You are young, you are brash and you do things without thinking. I had signed to write a column for The Sun and they splashed the news across the London buses. It was dead against Olympic regulations. Fortunately a few people played a blinder and I got out of it. Yes, I got paid in those days, but everyone knew what was going on. You couldn't even call it beer money because it hardly covered what we drank."

When Ashley Cole fired an air gun at an apprentice at Chelsea's training ground, it was deemed a scandal. In the Seventies, Bedford was involved in a similar incident when he took a pot-shot from his hotel balcony in St Moritz at the swaying behind of road walker Paul Nihill. It was regarded as something of a hoot. As was a bar incident in Düsseldorf at the World Cross Country Championships. "It was the first time I was given the responsibility of being team captain. Due to a misunderstanding with the German bar owner, who took exception to our sense of humour, there was a bit of a bundle, and me and six members of the team spent the night in jail. It was a misunderstanding, of course, but I was never captain again.

"It is always hard to argue against saying that the days when you were young were the best of your life," he adds. "For me, they were magic. I'd love to do it all over again and I would make the same mistakes."

They had to turn them away at Crystal Palace when Bedford was running. He was the Ali of athletics. There he dismantled the world 10,000m record in 27min 30.80sec, and he held every UK record from 2,000m to 10,000m and steeplechase, running, as always, from the front. He ran the Marathon twice: "I did the very first one in 1981. I was in nightclubs at the time and I was pissed out of my mind, with no sleep and a curry inside me which I'd eaten at 5am and later deposited during the race on Westminster Bridge. But when I did it again 10 years later I ran quite a respectable 3hr 3min."

He has worked on the marathon's behalf since 1989, his selling of the race to punters, sponsors and TV has helped to make it the UK's greatest one-day fundraising event, amassing half a billion pounds for charity.

"When I talk to people about the marathon I say that, apart from having sex for the first time, running the marathon will be the most exciting thing they do in their entire lives." He admits he will probably miss the buzz of being in sole charge. He will hand-hold with Brasher next year and then hand over. "The simple fact is that I don't want to be doing what I am doing now for the rest of my life."

But won't it be a case of loneliness for the long-divorced ex-long distance runner? "No way. For one thing I want to spend more time with my son Tom [at 26 himself a possible 2012 marathon prospect] and play more snooker before I finally do lose it." He may never have won a gold medal – or even received an MBE – but the one thing Bootsie has never been is a loser.

The thing about sport, he says, "is that there are loads of wankers. But there's an awful lot of nice people too. As long as you know the difference, you can make it work."

The London Marathon is on BBC2 and BBC1 today from 8.30am

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