One theme of this summer’s Olympic sports coverage will be the weak challenge by British athletes in the men’s and women’s middle distances – in the women’s 800 metres for example, UK athletics have been able to fill just one of the three potential spaces . There is no expectation of a serious medal challenge at any distance between the 400 metre and Mo Farah at 5k
It hasn’t always been like that. There was of course the Ovett-Coe-Cram moment, but in the thirty years before that, UK middle distance running was generally competitive; and (as I’ve posted before) elite UK marathon times have been getting consistently slower, year by year, for a while. Where did the previous tradition of middle-distance running come from?
Once answer, I suspect, is the figure of Alf Tupper, who was a staple of many working-class childhoods, from his first appearance in the Rover in 1949. Aged 18, living with his Aunt Meg in a one room upstairs and one room downstairs house, Alf’s bed was just a mattress on the kitchen floor. A welder paid just £1 5 per week, which he paid his Aunt all but two shilllings, Alf’s staple diet was fish and chips. Alf was a perennial underdog, who ran as often as not short of sleep from a night’s work. His main rivals were the pampered students of the universities. Alf’s own title was “The Tough of the Track.”
A typical short entry described him as follows:
“Height – 5 feet, 9 inches.
Age – Younger than he looks!
Fave food – Fish Fingers, Fish Cakes and Fish and Chips.
Pet hates – Snobs, especially those who run fast.”
Alf Tupper worked in a running milieu which was different from today’s in the following respects: the typical runner was younger than they are now, and better rooted in an athletics club. Running itself was overwhelmingly a working-class sport – distinguished from hockey, cricket, yachting, etc by the fact that it was free to do and relatively meritocratic.
Ovett’s public persona had a dose of Alf Tupper, as for that matter did Peter Elliot’s. Britain is of course still a country where the Alf Tuppers are a natural majority. But our running culture is no longer working-class.
The break-point of course was the success of Seb Coe, a company manager’s son, who was was marketed by the press as the impeccable middle-class product of generations of public school people (he had in fact attended a comprehensive, after failing his 11+, but that’s another story).
Few schools still encourage their pupils to run; it is now a sport that people sign up to in their twenties and thirties rather than something that just emerges naturally from people’s lives.