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Sydney Wooderson MBE

Centenary of birth of Sydney Wooderson MBE

100 years ago on 30 August 1914, one of the UK’s greatest ever athletes was born. His achievements during his Athletics career were massive and but for WW2, its very likely he would have won Olympic Gold in the 1940 and 1944 Games which of course never took place. For the politicians who advocate boycotts, the lessons from this are very strong! But for the war, Sydney might even have been the first to break 4 minutes for the mile. Nonetheless, Sydney was an Olympian, representing GB at the Berlin Games in 1936. Unfortunately he had injured himself while out walking just before the Games and so did himself no justice, not even finishing in his heat. He won Gold at the Paris Europeans in 1938 at 1500m and also in 1946 at 5000m in Oslo. Sydney won silver in the Mile at the London Empire Games in 1934 but missed the Sydney Empire games in 1938 as he was taking his law exams. He set World records in 1937, 1938 and 1939 at the Mile, Half Mile (and 800m) and also at the Three Quarters of a Mile. 4.06.4, 1.48.4 (1.49.2 for 880), and 2.59.5 were his World record marks and in 1945 he improved his mile time to 4.04.2 in Stockholm. He had to wait until he was over 85 for his MBE, the result of a lengthy campaign by his friends.

Arguably his greatest Athletic achievement was winning the ‘National’ at Sheffield in 1948 leading Blackheath to their first ever National team medals. It took that great Club until 1986 to match that achievement. The photos from Sheffield show just how much he wanted this win, what he put himself through and his absolute determination to win. He decided not to run in the 1948 Olympic Games as he took the view that he could only properly prepare for either the ‘National’ or the Olympics and he chose an event that had massive significance at the time. Whether, by effectively turning his back on the Olympics, he lost the opportunity to light the flame is open to conjecture. He was our greatest ever athlete and deliberately choosing not to participate in the Olympics probably lost him some support. But Sir Roger Bannister is firmly of the view that Sydney should have had this honour.

His gravestone in Wareham, Dorset is typically modest, makes no mention of his MBE or his prowess and status as one of the greatest athletes of all time. But his wife and family never knew him as the superstar athlete and a wonderful poem written for his funeral spoke of the person in the photo on the wall that nobody really knew.

He was twice President of Blackheath Harriers, the second time during their centenary year in 1969. He turned to coaching after effectively hanging up his spikes after the 1949 National where he finished 45th, 4 places behind 1948 Olympian and clubmate Jack Braughton. Earlier Sydney had finished a creditable 14th in the 1949 Southern, an event he had won in Olympic year.

His 80th birthday was celebrated in great style at the Blackheath clubhouse, now renamed the Sydney Wooderson Centre. This renaming took place after the Memorial Service in his honour that was held in 2007. A great event attended by over two dozen Internationals and over a dozen Olympians, including Bill Nankeville, Doug Murray, John Parlett, Eric Shirley and Paul Nihill. Some wonderful messages were received and read out. These were from the likes of Lynn Davies, Steve Ovett, Brendan Foster, Tim Hutchings and David Coleman.

The connection with David Coleman, I have written about before and Sydney was David’s all time athletics hero something he told me when I was trying to get David to come to Blackheath for their annual Club dinner. David told me of how he took the Manchester Mile trophy to bed with him after his win at Fallowfield in 1949. All because it had his hero’s name on it as first winner in 1943. In the great Olympic arena in the sky they will both be pleased that the Manchester Mile has made a welcome return to the Athletics calendar. David, donning his journalist’s hat, honed at the Stockport Express and at the BBC, would most certainly be asking Sydney about his experiences and his thoughts on the controversy surrounding the lighting of the 1948 Olympic flame. He would also be querying why it took so long for Sydney to receive an MBE and whether Sydney thought that but for the War he might have been the first to break 4 minutes for the mile. David, I’m sure, would also express his annoyance that Sydney was ignored on SPOTY (Sports Personality of the Year) and left off the list of prominent Sports people who had died in the previous year. Can well imagine David shouting at the TV during this 2007 programme. David himself will of course not be ignored in the 2014 programme and wouldn’t it be nice if, at the same time, they could give a mention to his all time hero. Possibly David could get a message through to that nice young man Gary who used to score a lot of goals and who was suitably apologetic when the omission was pointed out to him.

Sydney’s legacy is well preserved and every year very close to the anniversary of the 800m World record an 800m race is held as part of the BMC meeting at Cambridge Harriers’ HQ. It is a high quality affair with a decent cash prize for the winner and a bonus should the winner better Sydney’s World record time. A few years ago the winner missed Sydney’s mark by just .3 of a second, probably the most expensive .3 that athlete will ever have! This year there will also be a special centenary bonus of £100 for the winner.

His memory lives on. He was the greatest ever ‘Heathen’ and as the song goes “his soul goes marching on”!

Mike Martineau
Past President, Blackheath Harriers
4 August 2014

This year's event is on Wednesday, 20th August 2014 at about 8.45pm in the BMC meeting at Sutcliffe Park. Hopefully we might then get some B&B members there. Parking can be difficult so allow spare time.

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From the England Athletics website. Further details of all recipients can be found at

Hall of Fame - Inductees 2009

Sydney Wooderson

Wooderson, a diminutive and bespectacled solicitor, was an unlikely looking champion athlete but with his deceptively long stride, big heart, deadly sprint and genuine modesty he attracted much affection and admiration from the British public of the 1930s and 1940s.

It was in 1937 that Wooderson became a legendary figure by setting a world mile record of 4:06.4 off scratch in a handicap race at Motspur Park in Surrey. He had merely been aiming to better his British record of 4:10.8! The following year, in another Motspur Park handicap event, he broke two world records in one race, clocking 1:48.4 for 800m en route to 1:49.2 for 880 yards.

In 1946 he moved up to 5000m and proceeded to capture the European title in 14:08.6, the world's second fastest ever time and 23 sec inside the British record. In March 1948 this remarkable man who had at one time or another been the best in the world at 800m, mile and 5000m, became English 10 miles cross country champion!


Over 60 members, spouses and partners (along with lots of guests) attended the Service for Sydney Wooderson on Saturday 8 September 2007.

The Church, and Club afterwards, was crowded for an event that enabled the Club and the Sport to join with his family and celebrate in a very appropriate manner the life of our most famous son. Over 20 members had a part to play in this event. It was a team exercise and showed the Club at its very best.

All age groups came together to make sure that the day was a success. To all those who attended and to all those who helped, a big "Thank You". The calls and reaction since Saturday indicates that we all have a lot to be proud of. Well done!

Mike Martineau


These photos from David Johnson



Soon after joining Blackheath Harriers, Sydney Wooderson’s outstanding talent became obvious, and under the guidance of his trainer, Albert Hill (the former Olympic 800 & 1500 metres champion), he was rising to great heights both on the Track and over the ‘Country.

Sydney’s peak achievements can best be summarized as world record holder at 880 yards and 1 mile, 5000 metres European champion and National Cross-Country champion in 1948. He had epic meetings with the Belgian Slykhuis, the Swedes Arne Anderson and Gundar Haegg and New Zealand’s Jack Lovelock, to mention a few of the greats – all meetings at which he was rarely beaten.                 arne-andersson

In no way did all this success detract from Sydney’s love for Blackheath Harriers, for whom he served as President in 1946 and Centenary President in 1969. He was deservedly awarded an MBE in the 2000 Birthday Honours List for services to Blackheath Harriers and athletics.

 Sydney was a quiet, retiring and unassuming solicitor’s clerk. A truly great Blackheath Harrier and amateur sportsman, whose very qualities endear him to all who had the privilege to know him.

Sydney died on 21 December 2006 aged 92 years.

Sydney, greeting and beating Lovelock

Sydney beating Lovelock (again?)


Letter of the week in the 11 January 2007 edition of Athletics Weekly

A true legend

SYDNEY WOODERSON, who died just before Christmas, was arguably the greatest athlete to have ever worn a British vest. Injury in 1936 and war during the two subsequent Olympics denied him chances to win the medals his standing in world athletics deserved and the attention that would still be given to such performances today. Obituaries elsewhere will eulogise on his performances on the track, which I was never fortunate enough to have seen. My memories of him were in other spheres.

We first met when I interviewed him about his coach, Albert Hill. Throughout the course of our time together he talked enthusiastically about others who had influenced his athletics career but whenever I tried to steer the conversation around to his own achievements he remained charming but was noticeably reluctant to talk about himself. Equally, he only accepted an honorary award from Roehampton University when he was assured that he would not have to give an acceptance speech.

Though shy and unassuming in public, on the track he dominated his events like few others have, either before or since - or for so long. He spent most of his leave during the war racing around the country. His status by then was so iconic that the author Richard Holt in Sport and the British said the "small, thin, dowdy; bespectacled man in Blackheath's all-black strip represented the courage and endurance that defeated Hitler's· armies".

Even after the privations of war and serious illness he managed to run faster than ever and win major races - and it was not unknown for sell-out crowds to be joined by others who broke into grounds simply to see the little man run.

To me he was the perfect athlete. The most telling comment he made came when I asked him if he regretted not being an athlete today, as his performances would have made him very rich. Without hesitation he responded that he loved his time in the sport; it was a hobby, relaxation and highly enjoyable. Today, he commented, he would be a full-time athlete; it would be his job and he would have to get out of bed in the morning and run as work. He would have lost much of the fun. No, he regretted nothing.

We will never see his like again. The era of the dedicated amateur is long past. He may have died but he has been a legend for so long that it seems he has not, and never will, leave us. Anybody who met him will have fond memories of a great, great man.
Dr Greg Moon, London NW5



First published by Athletics Weekly 20 December 1995

When Athletics Weekly was starting out,
Sydney Wooderson was a national hero.
Now he's a legend
Words: Trevor Frecknall

Accidental Hero

JUST ABOUT THE MOST enduring mystery in postwar British athletics is why Sydney Wooderson has never been knighted.
He so typified the stature and spirit of war-torn Britain, it was taken for granted by his friends and admirers that royal recognition would follow.
They're still waiting, while Wooderson spends his 82nd year in contented retirement with his wife in Dorset.
His eyesight, never the best, is "not at all good" now. But his wiryness - at 5ft 6in, he weighed in at 125lb for his best races - remains such that he still goes for a daily constitutional of two to two-and-a-half miles because "there's nothing like it to clear the mind."
And he recalls the high and low points of 50 and 60 years ago as clearly as if they happened yesterday ... but with a politeness and deference that belongs entirely to yesteryear.
Wooderson is almost apologetic about how little he trained to reach his pinnacles. "I did very much less than athletes today," he begins. "Most people would be shocked at the little amount of training I did.
“I was working, you see. It was in an office, pretty much nine to five, but it was not like today where athletes can fly over to Australia for the winter.
"I wouldn't have wanted to be a full-time athlete - though I suppose, if I was running today, I would have done what was expected of me."
As it was, he trained on four or five nights a week, after work as a solicitor in his native London.
He would warm up with a three miles jog. Then would come a set piece - a half-mile or three-quarter mile or one-and-a-half mile hard run, rounded off with a couple of miles jogged warm-down.
"I varied the set piece each time," he recalls. "But that was my training."
More confusingly for today's athletes , .who are being told to work more intensely, Wooderson reveals he had two lengthy rest periods each year.
"I would take a month's break after the end of the track season. Then I did some cross country up to Christmas, running at half speed or three quarter speed.
"From Christmas I had another six weeks break before beginning to prepare for the new track season.
Could this be where today's middle distance runners go wrong? "I hesitate to say it," says this quietly-spoken gentleman, "but it's my opinion that they don't rest enough. It's slightly different, of course, because they are full-time athletes, whereas I had a full-time job."
Does he envy the full-time athletes? "Oh no! I wouldn't like to do their hard work. It's too much pressure, I think.
"Those Grand Prix meetings, for example. The athletes have to do them. Once they are involved, it seems they have to do as they are told."
Stories are legion of Wooderson adhering to his amateur status by even turning down travelling expenses, and he almost shudders to recall: "There were two races when I was offered money. I was actually sent £12 after a race in Scotland. I sent it back."
His most extravagant reward? "I ran at a meeting at Derby and won a Crown Derby bowl. We still have it." He pauses, as if a novel thought occurs: "I bet that's worth something now"
Not worth nearly as much as his memories ... memories of a world that turned upside down at the very time when he would have been reaching the peak of his athletic prowess.
Not that he blames Adolf Hitler for robbing him of the chance to become the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes.
"Obviously I could have gone faster if I had been able to continue training," he says.
"Perhaps 4:01. something like that," he adds hastily, lest one begins to believe he envies Sir Roger Bannister's indelible place in history.
Doesn't Wooderson honestly believe he could have threatened the magical four-minute mark? "No, I don't really think so, I think it's a matter of progression.
"I did 4:06 before the War and 4:04 after the war.''
The 4:06 - to be precise, his world record 4:06.4 - came on August 28, 1937 in a specially arranged handicap race in London's Motspur Park that was so well publicised it attracted 3000 spectators.

Triumphs and pain
The following year, in Paris, he easily won the European I500m title in 3:53.6. These triumphs were sandwiched by his two greatest disappointments.
His love of walking in the countryside forced him to limp out of the 1936 Olympic 1500m heats in Berlin.
"I twisted my ankle while out walking," he says. "I was very prone to that kind of thing because it was very easy to keep on my toes. I always did quite a bit of walking every weekend. I liked to get out in the country, away from the house."
Despite the injury, he travelled to Berlin - literally, an innocent abroad. '"We were all housed in a village and it was quite enjoyable, really. I didn't get the impression of Hitler and the Nazis being terrible - but, then, they didn't want us to get that impression, did they?"
More remarkably, given his shyness, he recalls: "I chatted a lot to one of the Finnish 10,000m runners can't remember his name, though."

He may not have looked like an international athlete, but Wooderson could move with speed
"There were two races when I was offered money. I was actually
sent £12 after a race in Scotland. I sent it back."

But Wooderson's other great disappointment resulted from his unease among strangers - when he travelled to the USA for the Princeton Invitational Mile in 1939.
"I hoped to win it but my main worry was that I was not too used to talking to many people, or being away from home." He finished fifth in a race won by the USA's own Charles Fenke in 4:11.0 - Wooderson's only major defeat in three years.
The performance he rates as his greatest ended in defeat, too, but he still recalls it with considerable pride.
It came on September 9, 1945 in Gothenburg in Sweden, which had remained neutral through the Second World War.
While Wooderson laboured all hours in first the Pioneer Corps and then the REME from 1940-45 (because his C3 eye sight prevented him fighting on the front line), Swedes Arne Andersson and Gunder Haegg took slices off his world record.
At the age of 31, after very little training, Wooderson ran his fastest-ever 1500m (3:48.4) on his way to a mile PB of 4:04.2 behind the 4:03.8 of Andersson.
"It was better than my world record," asserts Wooderson. "Remember, I hadn't been able to train during the War. It was a remarkable thing after one summer's training and only three real races."
It was, too. But, then, his entire athletics career was remarkable, not only because he never actually looked like an elite athlete but also because it all began by coincidence.
"My elder brother started running, and winning, school races and I just sort of tagged along," he recalls. "Blackheath Harriers had a cross country match with the school every year, and it was a natural progression for me to join the club.
"It was just the fact that I liked running and I was determined to do the best I could.
"Why could I run? It's one of those mysteries. "Why are people actors, or singers, or dancers? Something draws them on ...
And does he have any regrets about the War so rudely interrupting his progress. Handing accolades to Andersson and Haegg ... and Bannister?
He shrugs: "You hand the torch, so to speak, onto someone else."
And what of those still carrying the torch of hope that he may yet become Sir Sydney "Oh, it's too late now, isn't it?"
Is it? Is it really?

Wooderson's heroes
Ask Sydney Wooderson to name the athlete who has impressed him most during his lifetime, and he says: "Seb Coe, I suppose. Holding world records for the half and the mile and winning Olympic titles makes him the greatest Briton, don't you think?
"But otherwise I would say Jesse Owens (who won the 1936 Olympics l00m (10.3sec), 200m (20.7) and long jump (8.06m) as well as a 4xl00m relay gold).
"I always thought he was the tops, probably because I was younger when he ran. The easy way he sprinted was marvellous. "
Born in London on August 30,1914, he set a world record for the mile 4:06.4 in Motspur Park on August 28,1937, ran world records for 800m (1:48.4) an 880 yards (1:49.2) and won the European 1500m title in 1938, added the European 5000m crown in 1946 (In 14:08.6, then the second fastest time in the world, a week short of his 32nd birthday); and signed off by winning the English National Cross Country Championship in 1948.


Photo and short article on Belgrave website. Match vs Bels 1941

Obituary in The Herald 

The lastword radio programme featuring reminiscences of Sydney


Sports Journalists


The Scotsman


Entry in Wikipedia




Read The Independent Obituary


Read the New York Times Obituary


Read the Athletics Weekly Obituary


Read the Times Obituary,,60-2516259.html


Read the Daily Telegraph Obituary


To: Mr Ken Daniel, President, the Blackheath & Bromley Harriers AC

24th December 2006

Dear Ken,

It is with sadness that we have learnt of the passing of Sydney Wooderson. Sydney will be remembered for his great athletic achievements on the track and on the country, but throughout his distinguished running career he considered himself a Heathen above all else. His devotion to your club was exemplary, and remains a lasting inspiration to club athletes everywhere.

Would you please pass on our condolences to his family.

Kind regards,

Andrew Howey Chairman, the Tunbridge Wells Harriers


To John Baldwin

Would you relay the commiserations of both Newham & Essex Beagles (current National 6 and 12 stage Road Relay and English Cross Country Relay champions) and England Athletics London Region to the members of Blackheath and Bromley Harriers (via your website) on the passing of such a great athlete and inspiration to many generations of participants and supporters of the sport.

Best wishes.
Tony Shiret
Co-Chair, EA London Region.

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