The rise and fall of Alfred Downer, Scotland’s first sprint sensation

AS USAIN Bolt prepares to defend his Olympic titles, few remember another Jamaican-born athlete who was the pride of Scotland as he, too, was champion sprinter of the world.

Huge crowds flocked to see Edinburgh’s Alfred Downer, who blazed a trail through athletics before he lost his mind and died in an asylum, aged just 39, 100 years ago yesterday. An athletics historian later wrote: “Downer quaffed to the deepest from the goblet of life, and in its dregs he found much bitterness.”

Born in southern Jamaica in 1873, the son of a police superintendent, Downer was brought to Scotland by his mother as an infant. He was educated at George Watson’s, where he first discovered his talent for running, spent a couple of years at Portsmouth Grammar School, and wrapped up his schooldays at Edinburgh Institution (later Melville College). When he took up an engineering apprenticeship in Glasgow, to gain access to a good running track, he joined Rangers FC, paying 15 shillings for the privilege of running round Ibrox – most football grounds had running tracks in those days.

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He first ran as a senior for Clydesdale Harriers in 1890, and steadily improved in form until he broke the 120 yards Scottish record twice in one month in 1893. After he won the Scottish 100, 220 and 440 yards titles at the national championships, on his return to Edinburgh that night he was carried shoulder high from the station by the waiting crowd. The following year he successfully retained all three titles, and in 1895, the peak of his fame as an amateur, he not only set Scottish records in the 120, 150, 220 and 440 yards, he retained his three championships, and won all the sprints for Scotland in the international against Ireland.

A man who could run 100 yards in ten seconds was great box office and Downer knew it, yet under the rules of the day he could not be paid a share of the gate receipts. He became an accomplished negotiator for under-the-counter appearance money, and knew that his prizes – perhaps a gold watch, a tea service, or cutlery – could be sold. And he had no doubts about the value of medals worth £5: “one can always realise £4 on them,” he wrote.

These sums represented his income as he had no day job, and he went where the money was: in one particularly busy month he covered over 2,500 miles, travelling around the country to race meetings from his base in London. However, to keep up appearances as an amateur he would run for free at a few prestigious events, such as London Athletic Club meetings.

The pretence could not last and in the summer of 1896 Downer, along with other high profile athletes, was suspended for life by the Amateur Athletics Association for charging money to race, which they euphemistically described as ‘irregular practices’. Downer thought his AAA hearing was a farce: “I could do very little but laugh the whole time. There was such a sanctimonious look on every face in the room that one would have thought we were being tried for manslaughter at least.”

He ran his first professional race the very next day at Penicuik, and a week later 12,000 turned up at Bridge of Allan to see him in the Strathallan Games, where his presence was so much resented by the other ‘pros’ that they blatantly shouldered him out of the first race, which had to be re-run. Finding his feet in the professional arena, he soon found he could win £100 at the bigger meetings, a huge increase on the ‘amateur’ payments of up to £10. People flocked to see his fierce rivalry with Edgar Bredin, the top English sprinter, and at Rochdale another crowd of 12,000 watched Downer defeat his opponent over 400 yards. In less than 50 seconds he made about £240, the equivalent of two years’ salary for ordinary mortals.

However, he also discovered the down side to being a full-time professional athlete, that injury or illness meant no pay. In 1897, having torn a muscle, he took a trip to his Jamaican birthplace to recuperate but although delighted by the reception he received, he caught malaria there and had to return home sooner than anticipated. The fever would recur on a regular basis.

Arrangements were made in 1898 for Downer to be pitted against three top English runners for the world’s sprint championship for a £300 prize, but his opponents’ backers cried off on hearing that Downer had just run 128 yards in under 12-and-a-half seconds at the Powderhall sprint, and he was accepted as champion sprinter of the world. He was as well known in America, and papers there reported in 1899 that Downer had issued a challenge to race any man in the world, at any distance from 100 yards to 500 yards, for a side bet of $1,000.

He was trained by Jimmy Duckworth, a trainer and masseur who also looked after the Hearts football team, but Downer’s supremacy came to a sudden end. In July 1900 he went with a party of British athletes to Paris, where professionals competed in the World’s Fair just before the amateur Olympic Games, held in the same stadium. In the 120 metres hurdles he badly injured his Achilles tendon over one of the jumps, failed to finish the course, and never fully recovered.

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He took advantage of the enforced break to publish one of the first British sporting autobiographies, ‘Running Recollections and How to Train’, where he dished the dirt on underhand practices in amateur athletics, and also described the lifestyle of an athlete. He had few qualms about diet: “So long as the cooking is good I don’t care what I eat,” and was more concerned about having a good night’s rest before tucking into chops or bacon and eggs for breakfast.

Downer recovered sufficiently to return to the track but although he carried on running into 1902 he could no longer compete at the highest level. Then his health started to give way, and his wife Ellen, whom he had married in Northumberland in 1900, appears to have left him. He was not entirely forgotten as in 1909 a testimonial fund raised £30 from ‘admiring friends’ but generally he kept a low profile.

As he deteriorated physically and mentally he was cared for by his mother in Edinburgh, where they lived in Bruntsfield Gardens, until he was admitted to the Royal Edinburgh Asylum for the Insane. He died there on 8 June 1912, with his death certificate stating he had been suffering for two years from ‘general paralysis’, medical shorthand for tertiary syphilis.

Downer was buried in Morningside Cemetery alongside his sister Kate, who had died young. Obituaries praised him as ‘one of the most brilliant runners ever known in Scotland’, but memories soon faded. Sadly, his grave is now a wreck, the headstone tipped over and lying on the ground. It could be a metaphor for the sorry fall from grace of one of Scotland’s finest athletes.