Athletics: When Cram and Ovett held court at a packed Palace

Fading old stadium will be full of golden memories tonight

Steven Downes
Friday 23 August 2002 00:00 BST

The stars always shine brightest in the evening, certainly when they are athletics stars at Crystal Palace at the end of the track season.

Tonight's Norwich Union Grand Prix at the fading grande dame of British stadiums represents a return to the great nights of British athletics invitation meetings, stretching back to the popular Coca-Cola meetings of the 1960s and 1970s, and with a lineage that recalls the glory nights of the White City half a century ago.

"My Crystal Palace memories are of late nights and a packed stadium," says Steve Cram. "When I raced Steve Ovett there in 1983, there was a phenomenal atmosphere – more like a football match. The Friday night meetings definitely had something special about them," adds the former world record-holder for the mile, who tonight will be commentating for BBC television.

The meeting was first staged in 1968, making the most of the novelty of the country's first rubberised all-weather track before the British team set off for the Mexico City Olympics. In a more innocent age, when the gathering of young people in south London for a "Coke meet" had no sinister connotations, the event really was the forerunner of the modern Grand Prix meetings as we know them today and did much to transform international athletics into a professional sport.

Over 20 years, the Coca-Cola meeting established itself as the finale to the European track season, always attracting the world's best athletes and placing Britain's finest at centre stage.

By staging this year's event on a Friday evening, the meeting organisers are putting themselves in a position where they might regain such international pre-eminence. Sitting in the stands tonight will be Lamine Diack, the president of the world governing body, the IAAF. It is one of the worst kept secrets in international athletics that the London meeting is being considered for inclusion in the Golden League, the collection of the world's top meetings.

But the evening setting also somehow adds extra magic to the proceedings at the Palace. The last time a world record was set at Crystal Palace, it was on a Friday evening, the transmission of the News at Ten being delayed to accommodate Steve Backley's final effort in the javelin that night. "It was a courageous decision by the editors," says Peter Matthews, the commentator that night.

"I remember us showing Steve's throw, going to the finish of the 1500 metres, and then going back to the javelin to confirm the distance. I said something like 'and that's a world record for Steve Backley, now over to the news.' It really was unheard of. We went to the news three minutes late."

It seems that anyone who is anyone in British athletics over the last 30 years has enjoyed a night of nights at the Palace: Sebastian Coe's first British record was set there over 800 metres in 1977; Steve Ovett stepped up in distance to win a famous duel with the Kenyan distance legend Henry Rono over two miles a year later, setting a world best; Brendan Foster beat the Olympic gold medallist Frank Shorter in a gripping battle in his 10,000m debut and stayed late into the night, signing autographs and tending to his blisters.

Matthews, a former editor of the Guinness Book of Records, rattles off the statistics like a machine gun, from John Boulter's 1,000m British record in 1969 through the likes of Alan Pascoe and Geoff Capes in the 1970s, and Kathy Smallwood and Zola Budd in the 1980s.

"There is something magical about the event, when the floodlights come on and focus the packed crowd's attention on the athletes," Matthews says. "It was the same in the 1950s, with those special nights at the White City." Indeed, the 17,000 seats for tonight's meeting were sold out two weeks ago, prompting plans to add temporary seating in 2003.

Maurice Greene, a student of the sport as well as being the world's fastest man, agrees: "The history of Crystal Palace always gives this meeting something extra. I love running here. The atmosphere is great, the crowd is great – it's a fun place to go."

Possibly the last great Friday night meeting at Crystal Palace was after the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984. Coca-Cola ended its sponsorship soon after and the introduction of the IAAF Grand Prix saw London jockeyed out of its traditional date. When the meeting moved out of London it went into decline. A row with Cram, one of the event's biggest stars, who felt he was railroaded into a clash over one mile against Said Aouita, did not help.

The meeting had been originally staged by the International Athletes' Club to raise some travelling expenses so that Britain's élite athletes could have some warm-weather training. Long before the sport was professionalised, it led the way in making payments to athletes, usually in wads of cash straight out of a briefcase, with a queue of expectant world-record holders and Olympic medallists lined up in a hotel corridor.

When Cram raced Aouita in 1984, the meeting received £27,000 in TV rights fees and had a budget for athletes of £150,000. Eighteen years on, and now organised by Fast Track, a company run by the multi-millionaire former athlete Alan Pascoe with Lord Coe as the chairman, tonight's meeting is part of a £17m, five-year TV deal with the BBC. Greene is said to be receiving £75,000 for racing in the 100m and the event's overall athletes' budget is more than £1m, making it the world's richest athletics meeting. But, with the floodlights on, there will still be something magical about the Palace – and it will all be over before the 10 o'clock news.

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