Absorbing history of famed event: Lead insoles and noms de plume laced Sprint with subterfuge
The first New Year Sprint took place at Powderhall in 1870, a year before the first Scotland-England rugby international and three years before the first football international between the countries.
On Monday 31 December and Tuesday 1 January its 144th edition will take place at Musselburgh Racecourse in conjunction with the National Hunt Meeting. Commonly referred to as the “Powderhall Sprint” because of its having been held mostly in that now demolished stadium over the first century of its existence, it was for a long time as much a part of New Year as black bun, first footing and the football derbies.
Back in the day, Edinburgh, with Powderhall as its main venue, was one of the country’s main centres of pedestrianism, professional foot racing, along with cities such as Sheffield, Newcastle and other towns in the north-east of England. Pedestrianism was professional in the sense that the athletes ran for prize money off handicaps to ensure tight, exciting finishes and to fuel betting interest and was poles apart from amateur athletics.
Its peak years were the Victorian era and the first half of the last century when large crowds would flock to Powderhall, many with the punters’ eternal optimism of having a successful flutter. Eventually Sheffield and other English pedestrian centres’ involvement came to an end, leaving Powderhall as effectively the sole torch bearer for professional sprinting.
There was also potentially a lot of money at stake for the athletes and their backers, traditionally bookmakers who would sponsor extensive “preps”, training camps for their runners held in conditions of great secrecy and featuring some unusual rituals. Many subterfuges were adopted to protect the identity of a “hot tip” for the top prize paving the way to a betting coup, such as athletes doing trial runs with lead insoles in their spikes and their facial features concealed with balaclavas and having them adopt noms de plume and the like.
At times such practices bordered on the farcical. John Robertson of Logierait, Perthshire, a former well-known Games athlete, recalls as a young Powderhall aspirant in the late 1960s going on a “prep” to Northumberland and being instructed while out on afternoon walks there in the country always to wear his balaclava in case he was recognised. “Just who was supposed to recognise me, an unknown 18-year-old from rural Perthshire in rural Northumberland, I simply don’t know,” he laughs.
A common perception in the amateur world was that the professional sprinters were a lesser breed who could not really hold a candle to the top amateurs of the time. But does such partisan opinion stand up to scrutiny? A look at some of Powderhall’s top performers through the years may assist.
The very first winner of the Powderhall Sprint, Dan Wight, of Jedburgh, went on to dominate the scene over the next decade, winning countless races. That first sprint was run over 160 yards but was not timed. In 1877 he again won, on a waterlogged track, this time over 150 yards, in a time reported as 14.25 secs. How reliable that time is will never be known but if it is accorded the benefit of some doubt it was staggeringly fast running for the time. For example, about 90 years later, in 1963 at Cowal Games in Dunoon, “Ming” Campbell, now Sir Menzies the well known polititian, created a new Scottish amateur record over the same distance of 14.3 secs. Campbell of course was a British international, American national Collegiate champion and captain of Britain’s Athletics team at the Tokyo Olympics of 1964. Wight’s run three years later would also have seen him comfortably win the first AAA 100 yards title.
Near the end of that century professional sprinting was dominated by Alf Downer, the Jamaican-born Scot. Brought up in Edinburgh, Downer as an “amateur” shared the world best 100 yards time of 9.8s. Under suspicion for having his palm “crossed with gold”, his evidence at a Scottish amateur athletics enquiry in 1893 was described as “of a very untruthful and unsatisfactory character”. But he was not ejected from the amateur ranks for his misdemeanours until 1895 when he began to run officially for cash at Powderhall. In 1898 he cemented his status in Powderhall folklore when at New Year he ran a tie over 130 yards off 1½ yards in 12.4s. This time was recorded by Mr. David Blair of Edinburgh, a timekeeper of great repute. Over 100 yards this equated to just under 9.6s, which was not established as a world best until 1902 in the USA. Downer, in that form, would also comfortably have won the Olympic 100m in 1900.
In the 1930s, Willie McFarlane of Glasgow became the first and so far only athlete to win successive sprints in 1933 and 1934. In the later year he won on a heavy track and running into the wind 3 ½ yards inside :evens”, equating to about 9.65 secs for 100 yards. That run would have won him that year’s AAA title, the Empire Games and the European titles as well as a podium place in the 1932 Olympics.
In the early 1950s Eric Cumming, the great Australian, ruled the roost. Of Scots descent he lived for over a year here prior to his outstanding success in 1952. His winning run over 130 yards against the wind and with snow falling was timed at 12.19s off a two-yard handicap, about six yards inside “evens”. That would have won him that same year the AAA and Empire Games titles as well as a dead heat for the Olympics gold medal. Cumming died prematurely in 1963 aged 40 after a heart attack attempting the caber at a Highland Games, near Melbourne.
More recently the two outstanding performers were Scotland’s Ricky Dunbar of Edinburgh and George McNeill of Tranent. McNeill’s feats are probably better known, giving rise to the perennial question of how he would have fared against near contemporary Allan Wells. McNeill won both the Centenary Sprint, the last ever held at Powderhall in 1970 and in 1981 the Centenary Stonwell Gift, Australia’s Powderhall, the only man ever to do so. In 1970 he broke Dunbar’s world 120-yard record in 11.14s while in the New Year Sprint of 1971 also at Meadowbank he ran a best 110m time of 11 secs. This was better than the British record of the time while it put him on a par with the 1972 Olympics winner.
Chris Brasher, himself a former Olympic gold medallist, wrote about McNeill: “…he is the greatest native born sprinter I have ever seen in Britain…” Barred from amateur athletics through having signed to play professional football for Hibs, the question about him and Wells will forever remain unanswered but on the day he was capable of beating Wells.