Prior to retiring as chief football correspondent for an international news agency five years ago, a close friend asked if I knew who John White was. Now, it may be a function of my great age, rather than my knowledge of football history, but, ‘Sure,’ I replied, ‘he was the Spurs’ footballer killed by lightning back in the sixties’. ‘While he was sheltering under a tree on a golf course in Enfield,’ elaborated my pal. He went on to tell me that the young football journalist at his agency who was the dedicated correspondent for Tottenham Hotspur did not know this sad and salient fact from Spurs’ history, and that he, my pal reprimanded the youngster and told him to go and read up on the club’s history if he wanted to keep his job.
Athletics has a far longer and more colourful history – full of myth and legend and marvellous feats – than association football, with the occasional sad tale like that of John White; but commentators on our sport also occasionally get their facts muddled or just plain wrong, through ignorance or laziness or some combination of both. Insofar as some of the totemic events in athletics’ history are concerned, they and we will have less reason to err when we have a work of such scholarship as Roger Robinson’s recently published Running Throughout Time to hand.*
A former international runner for both England and New Zealand, as well as being a professor of English Literature and long-time contributor to a variety of running publications (and one-time training partner of yours truly), Robinson has brought his multiple talents to bear on some of the most memorable events in athletics history; from the Atalanta and Pheidippides of Greek legend through to the modern marathon movement. Highlights and revelations in between include the tales of Spyridon in Athens 1896, of Dorando in London 1908 and the pro marathon mania which followed; of the much-maligned women’s Olympic 800 metres in 1928; of the heroes of the Berlin Olympics of 1936; of the first sub-four Mile; leading to the ultimate acceptance of women’s right to run marathons at Olympic level (1984), and coming full-circle with a latter-day Atalanta.
In order to achieve this wide-ranging re-evaluation of what his sub-heading describes as, The Greatest Running Stories Ever Told, Robinson has gone to source materials and witnesses as much as possible in order to inform us of the likely truth of the event. In doing so, I particularly like that he does not shrink from pointing out where previous ‘experts’ have either taken official histories without question, or simply not done their homework sufficiently. On our behalf, Robinson has clearly spent months on end in reference libraries and, in one case, hours of slogging across fields in order to situate an historic cross country course. Given his pedigree as a pedestrian (in the C19th sense) professor, it was a labour of love on both counts. And we owe it to him and his scholarship to be much, much better informed on the history of our sport by reading his book.
* Running Throughout Time, The Greatest Running Stories Ever Told – Roger Robinson, Meyer & Meyer Sport, UK £16.95, USA $18.95