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SYDNEY WOODERSON, MBE
Sydney Wooderson and his
his death on 21st Dec 2006, Sydney Wooderson was the greatest living ‘Heathen.
‘Heathen being short for a member of one of the oldest Athletics Clubs,
Blackheath Harriers. Sydney was President twice, the second time in 1969, their
Centenary year. The 150th was celebrated at the Houses of Parliament in November
2019. The mantle of ‘greatest living ‘Heathen’ passed rightly to Alan Brent
until his own death. Probably now the wonderful Dina Asher-Smith is worthy of
the title. Past President Tony Week-Pearson preserved Sydney’s memory until his
own death a few years ago and as a Past President myself I have tried to do the
same, helping Rob Hadgraft write a wonderfully comprehensive biography of Sydney
which contains a photo of me and Rob holding a portrait of Sydney.
Sydney married after his career in Athletics ended. As an
Amateur he worked for his living and missed the Empire Games in Australia
because of his Law exams. You had to sail there and back in those days. His
children never knew him as the greatest ever British Athlete. Instead that was a
“different person in the photo on the wall”. So said his daughter at his funeral
after his death in 2006. Some years later Commentator, David Coleman died on the
21st December the same date as one of his all time Heros, Sydney Wooderson. My
wife spoke to David when I was trying to get David to talk at a Blackheath Club
Dinner and he told her the wonderful story about David winning the Manchester
Mile In 1949. Sydney won the first event in 1943 and David said he took the
trophy to bed with him (it is a wonderful bowl and quite big). And in his words
“felt he had gone to bed with Sydney”. David was no mean athlete himself winning
a team medal in the National Cross Country Championships and not being too far
away from qualifying for the 1952 Olympics. Injury and his career in
broadcasting ended his career which coincidently started on the night Bannister
broke 4 minutes for the mile. But for the War, Sydney might have done that
himself, but 4.04.2 was his best. In 1948 he was expected to run in the
Olympics, especially as he was reigning European Champion, having won the 5000m
in 1946. But Sydney’s ambition in 1948 was to win the National Cross Country
Championship (see photo). This he did leading his Club to 3rd place team medals.
This required different training so he didn’t put himself forward for Olympic
selection. In most people’s eyes he was favourite to light the Olympic flame.
Even the Queen Mother said ‘they should have let little Sydney do it”! But the
honour went to John Mark, a tall good looking blond. Ironically, this would have
been much approved by Hitler as an example of his ‘Aryan’ ideal. I always wonder
whether Sydney effectively snubbing the Olympics influenced the decision not to
give him that honour.
Sydney had a memorable 80th birthday party at the Hayes HQ
of his Club which many members attended. He belatedly received an MBE when he
was 86 after a campaign involving Blackheath Past President Tony Weeks Pearson.
Wonderful party after with his family and both Chris Brasher and Roger
Bannister. Tony, as a top class Athlete, had been coached by Sydney and had
stayed close to him and his family. His daughter attended Tony’s funeral at
which I spoke.
It was an honour for me to organise a Memorial Service for
Sydney in 2007. Very difficult to fix a date but we found one in September. Sent
invitations to many household names in Athletics: Lynn Davies, Steve Ovett,
Brendan Foster, Dave Bedford, Mary Peters, Seb Coe and many others. UKA
supported the event financially meaning that the event cost the Club just £142.
Great support from Cherry Alexander a fine servant of the Sport. UKA were
represented by the now notorious Zara Hyde Peters. Readings at the Service from
John Baldwin, married to Olympian Margaret Coomber, and International Mike
Skinner. I did Apologies for Absence with great messages, one from Steve Ovett
in Australia and others from UKA President Lynn Davies, Brendan Foster, Dave
Bedford and Mary Peters. Seb Coe didn’t make it but got great publicity when
Jeff Powell wrote about Coe “making a pilgrimage to West Wickham to honour the
memory of Sydney Wooderson”. No publicity to the fact that he didn’t make it! I
talked to Seb at the amazing Guards Chapel Memorial Service for legendary Sports
Journalist, Ian Wooldridge about the Service for Sydney and he said “it’s in the
diary”! Never heard from him. 22 International Athletes attended including 13
Olympians, at least 3 from 1948. I took a fair selection of my Dad’s photos from
1948 and was talking with 800m runner, John Parlett about them. Only one black
face in the Men’s Athletics team, sprinter McDonald Bailey. John said he might
have some newsreel footage from the ‘48 Games that might have my Dad in it. A
few days later I received a DVD which showed the start of my Dad’s 50k Walk.
Very emotional in 2007 to see my Dad on screen and alive. He had died in 1994.
Amongst the bits I inherited, was an Olympian’s Dinner menu, signed by Sydney.
Dad knew him and had run against him in a handicap race. Sydney remembered my
Dad when I spoke to him at his 80th. Dad had also briefly worked with Sydney’s
coach, Albert Hill, himself a former double Olympic Champion. The Mayor of
Bromley attended and spent a lot of time talking to Sydney’s family. She was a
very attractive lady with a very attractive personality. Her name was Pauline
Tunnicliffe. Two 1948 Olympians, Bill Nankeville and Doug Murray were very taken
with her. I had calls from both in the following week. Bill is Dad to Bobby
Davro, Comedian and Eastenders star. Very proud of his’Bob’.
Sydney was a wonderful man. Modest and unassuming. A great
Athlete whose Athletics career is very well told in Rob Hadgraft’s great book. A
very good read for an Athletics fans and for Sports fans. Very well researched
and contains Sydney’s photo of Hitler at the 1936 Olympic Games. We are all left
wondering how many Golds Sydney would have won had the Olympics taken place in
1940 and 1944. ‘40 had been originally scheduled for Tokyo then changed to
Helsinki. ‘44 had been scheduled for London. So many quality Athletes missed
out. A word then about Tebbs Lloyd Johnson, 3rd in my Dad’s race at age 48. The
oldest ever British medallist at the Olympics. Tebbs had also walked in Berlin
at age 36. What would he and my Dad and Sydney have done in ‘44 and ‘48.
A privilege to have known him and to have had some family
connection and a privilege to have organised his Memorial Service.
Past Presidents all... Charing Cross Hotel, Friday 18th April 1969
Back row: Victor
Thompson, Will Vercoe, Cecil Pollard, Dick Cockburn, Alan Brent, Laurie Hammill,
Jack Sims, W J (Bill) Traer
Front row: Charlie Wiard, William (Bill) Knobby Clarke, Dudley Child, Sydney Wooderson,
J. Morrison. Cyril Starnes, Freddie Barker