Wednesday, 28 December 2016

White City: A sporting landmark demolished for BBC offices



MOST people – especially sports history buffs – hate to see a well-known and much-loved landmark building demolished only to be replaced by something of far less architectural or aesthetic merit.  
A typical example was the case of the White City Stadium. There was deep dismay and gnashing of teeth when the old place was smashed to smithereens by a wrecking ball in 1985. This athletics ‘Mecca’ in London W12 was removed to make way for a widely-detested office block for the BBC’s ever-proliferating management.
It’s true the White City facilities had become pretty much obsolete, but surely this historic site should have been earmarked as a striking and much more convenient location for Wembley Stadium’s replacement? That never happened, vested interests winning the day with the ‘new’ Wembley being created on the old footprint.
 My year-long tour of 60 of Sydney Wooderson’s race venues culminated in a visit to the spot where the White City Stadium once stood. I found that although the old place has been wiped off the face of the earth, at least there were a couple of small reminders of the past among the mundane and functional edifices of today.
By looking skywards I found a memorial wall (above), bearing the five Olympic rings and names of medal winners at the 1908 Games held on this spot – and by looking down I located engraved paving that showed where the finish line on the old cinder running track was positioned (below).
The only other reminder of the past in the vicinity these days is the adjacent street Dorando Close. This was named in tribute to Italian marathon runner Dorando Pietri, who stumbled across the finish line in first place at the 1908 Olympiad, only to be disqualified for receiving assistance.
The stadium was built in 10 months on the site of the Franco-British Exhibition and opened by King Edward VII in April 1908. There were more than 60,000 seats and the original running track three laps to the mile. The classic 26.2 miles distance for the marathon was fixed here, with the 1908 Olympic race starting at Windsor Castle to a point in front of the White City royal box.
In 1926 the Greyhound Racing Association took over the stadium and grassed over the running track for dog racing and speedway and built new covered terracing and a restaurant. From 1927 until closure in the 1980s it would be considered the top greyhound track in Britain.
In 1931, a 440-yard running track was installed for the AAA Championships, which were held there from 1932 - the very year of Sydney Wooderson’s breakthrough in senior athletics. The AAAs main event continued here up to 1970 and there were many other major internationals fixtures. Crowds, especially in the immediate post-war years, were huge.   
QPR used the stadium for home matches in the 1930s and again in the 1960s, and when a World Cup 1966 group game between Uruguay and France clashed with dog racing at Wembley, the match was switched to White City.
* Sydney Wooderson wins the 1939 AAA mile at White City.
My on-going research for a biography of Sydney Wooderson tells me the little man raced at White City around 25 times between 1933 and 1946. He regularly thrilled the big London crowds with his fast finishes in mile races, arguably the most memorable of the lot being a rare defeat – at the hands of the brilliant Arne Andersson on a Bank Holiday Monday in August 1945.
Sydney had only just recovered from a serious bout of rheumatic fever that hospitalised him for many weeks, whereas Andersson arrived from Sweden in peak condition having avoided all the hardships of the recently-ended war. Wooderson ran bravely and brilliantly but was pipped in dramatic style right on the line, losing out by less than half-a-second.
Watching wide-eyed that day was a young Roger Bannister, who admitted later the excitement, the roaring of the crowd and the courage of the little English underdog inspired him to take running seriously . . .  and the rest is history!

* The Sydney Wooderson book is still a work in progress, but my other books – including biographies of runners Jim Peters, Arthur Newton, Alf Shrubb, Walter George and ‘Deerfoot’- are on sale via Amazon now. Link:  http://amzn.to/2hp3etz

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