School Athletics

I was once again clearing stuff out from my apartment the other day and I was delighted to come across school magazines from ’84 to ’88. The main reason I was excited was because these publications contained Sports, and more specifically, Athletics results and records, from those 5 fabulous summers.

Before I knew it my mind was drifting back to those balmy athletic evenings in North London.

In 1984, Torvill and Dean had scored perfect 6’s in Sarajevo. The miner’s strikes were at a peak and the £1 note was seeing its last year. Katherine Hamnett’s slogan T-shirts were huge and Frankie Goes to Hollywood were kings of Top of the Pops.

The ’84 school Athletics season began in April, just after the Easter holidays. Back then Athletics didn’t really mean that much to me. I recall my brother in 1980 glued to the TV and the Moscow Games while I was more interested in playing hide and seek with the neighbours. My next recollection is Athens ’82. My dad had just bought us our first VCR and my brother’s experimenting with the new toy involved him recording and then constantly replaying Daley Thompson’s Decathlon win. I also quite vividly remember Brisbane ‘82’s 200m Final with that memorable dead heat between McFarlane and Wells. Apart from that I can’t really say that Track and Field played a huge part in my life…… Then came April ’84!

The school Athletics Club met once every year in the beginning of the summer, at the Dining Hall’s ‘Top Table’, just after lunch. As I looked on from afar, these kids seemed like the most naturally gifted people that I had ever come across. These athletes, with their very different physiques, amazed me. They looked strong, lean and focused. I had seen my fair share of sportsmen on TV but this was different. These were my fellow schoolmates, my peers. I wanted a part of it!

As the weeks rolled on, I would hear news of the fabulous Athletics Club and its marvellous achievements. Everyone was ranting about 17 year-old Henry Villiers’ 14.7 for the 110m Hurdles. Richard Gregory’s 1.90m High Jump was also much talked about. And then there was stocky 16 years old Lee Pittal. He was an all-round sprinter and the fastest boy in the school. By May he had already run 10.9 for 100m and 52.1 for the 400. These numbers though didn’t mean much to someone who, up until that time, only watched tennis, soccer and snooker. It was time to get comparisons.

I discovered that a certain F. Furlotti was holder of all the school sprint records: 10.8, 22.2 and 49.6, all from 1981. O.K, but how do these figures correspond to World standards. I went out and bought myself a £10 Guinness Book of World Records. It was all there in black and white: 9.93, 19.72 and 43.86!!! If Pittal and Villiers looked like locomotives on the school track, these guys must truly be flying!

1984 also saw the introduction of an Athletics League during the second half of the term, whereby volunteers from each school house would match up on a weekly basis in an attempt to tally up points for their respective house. I turned up to the next school event to see where I stood. I had done all my statistical homework, but what was my body capable of?

I entered myself in the short sprint. It was the event that initially attracted my attention and made the biggest impact on me. I wanted to be as fast, effortless and elegant as Pittal and Villiers. I was drawn in lane 5, of 6, on a bumpy grass track, but what caught my eye was the fellow next door to me. He too was 14 years old. However he looked nothing like me. This kid had muscles popping out of everywhere. His deltoids, biceps and triceps looked chiselled out and as for those hamstrings……they were so prominent I could count them! I was also drawn to his neat little flattop that seemed to complete this athletic package.

In response to the crack of the pistol, I threw myself forcefully into my first ever century race. But within the first few seconds I was left dumbfounded. The kid from lane 4 had wings. As I continued to pound the ground in a vain attempt to emulate the technique of the senior-school legends, lane 4 was bouncing off the track like an India rubber ball. All I can remember from that race was the sight of his hamstrings churning like pistons as they ran away from me, fading out of sight with every stride.

When I finally crossed the line, I turned to my friend Sacha, who a few weeks earlier had helped the junior 4x4 team set a new school record, and asked him who on earth that was. The reply was an impressive one. His name was Matt Barry and he had only recently set a junior 200m record of 24.2 as well as anchoring a 4x1 record of 49.2. Sacha quickly turned my attention to me and what I had just run. With a smile on his face, the numbers “13.6” came out of his mouth.

I looked lanky and weak and felt powerless and tired but this was the introduction to my life in athletics. Track and field quickly became my one and only sport, my hobby, my passion and then my work; to all intents and purposes, my life.

I was also fortunate enough to overlap my debut in athletics with Olympic year. And what an Olympic Games! Many experts still cite LA84 as one of the greatest ever. I can only just imagine what they’d be calling it if Eastern Europe had rocked up! What a show that would have been!!

As I sporadically watched the Olympic track events from a taverna TV on a Greek island, my eyes fell on a familiar silhouette. Tall, fit and lean, with a neat flattop, the athlete wasn’t at all dissimilar to Matt Barry from the London grass track’s lane 4. Of course it was someone Matt had carefully modelled himself on……a certain Mr. Lewis, who made the ’84 Games his own with his unbelievable 4 Gold medal tally and someone who, along with BJ, Griffith-Joyner, Reynolds and Moses, inspired both Matt and I over the forthcoming years.

Charlie, thanks for the last 23 years.

Nice post, and thanks for sharing. I remember getting handily beaten by almost everyone in my first ever 100m while I struggled along at 12.6x.