Powderhall athletics tradition a tribute to champion

You have to admire Frank Hanlon, a semi-retired former wholesale butcher from Bonnyrigg.

Frank Hanlon is the redoubtable champion of Powderhall, now the New Year Sprint. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Through thick and thin – and for a time towards the end of the last century it was extremely thin – he has stubbornly fought to maintain a sporting tradition, one far older than the Commonwealth Games for example, which only began in 1930.

For 23 years Hanlon has carried the responsibility of organising possibly the world’s foremost professional sprint: “Powderhall” as it was called after the Edinburgh stadium where the race first took place in 1870.

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Though the venue has changed several times and is now at Musselburgh Racecourse, the race itself, a 110 metres handicap officially known as the New Year Sprint, has continued in an unbroken sequence despite two world wars.

It is easy to denigrate this far-from-wealthy man who has sunk his savings into the event and who probably would not have taken it this far were it not for the support of faithful colleagues such as Adam Crawford from Glenrothes, the handicapper for 33 years, and Edinburgh coach Bill Walker, who supplies the electronic photo-finish and entries back-up. Vital too since the move from Meadowbank in 1999, has been the financial support of the racecourse and East Lothian Council, though the often heavy grass is certainly not to everyone’s liking.

There have been murmurings of discontent over the years which grew into a crescendo last year when a new meeting, the Pitreavie Gift, was staged at Pitreavie Stadium in Fife at the end of January.

But that meeting, bedevilled by poor weather last winter but planned again for 26 January, has been called off due to a disappointing response from athletes. Not that the New Year Sprint is exactly brimful of competitors this time, with only ten heats of six runners in each due to line up, and on the day there are often no-shows due to injury or illness or perhaps the weather, though Hanlon, who had a course inspection yesterday, insists there is no threat to the event from recent heavy rain.

Crawford is quick to point out that the overall entry including the supporting events such as the “four furlongs”, the 90 metres sprint and the youths events, the finals of which are on the first day, is up.

However, he also admits that he can remember more than 130 runners in the past with as many as 20 heats.

Others point out that even in Australia, where professional sprinting is well established and takes place mostly in their summer, numbers are down.

It is easy to scoff at some of the old wives’ tales which still surround pedestrianism, as it used to be known, but many of our fastest speed merchants…Olympic 100m champion Allan Wells (though he did not run at New Year), European 200m champion Doug Walker (winner in December 1994) and George McNeill (winner in 1970)…have been produced by coaches or trainers who have been inured in the system – speed balls, diets and most important of all, handicap racing in squads.

In a year when Scotland may not have a single entrant, male or female, in the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games 100m, Scotland can ill afford to neglect an event which gives our talented teenagers something worthwhile to aim for and a potential £4000 boost for their training funds.

A trio of teenagers, all from Edinburgh AC, dominate the back marks for the heats which begin at 11:25am today following the 11am youth sprint heats.

Morro Bajo is a Gambian-born Liberton High School pupil off 2.75m in heat four, while last year’s winner, George Watson’s Ben Robbins is in heat two, trying to repeat the feat of Willie McFarlane (Glasgow) who in 1934 became the only man to have retained his title. Sam Revie, a 19-year-old Heriot-Watt student, will be trying to progress from heat three, possibly at the expense of Gemma Nicol (Dunfermline) the six times finalist and Commonwealth Games 400m place contender.