With the countdown on to this summer’s Olympics, David Johns finds Birchfield Harriers are on track to maintain a remarkable record
Ninety-seven days and counting. The race to go to the Olympic Games in Rio this summer is under starter’s orders and for the top athletics club in the Midlands it can’t come soon enough. Birchfield Harriers is steeped in Olympic tradition and history having been represented at every Games, bar one, since 1908. This year looks to be no different with a clutch of great young athletes – including Commonwealth triple jump champion Laura Samuel – aiming to make the British proud in Brazil. You could call Laura, pictured above, the ‘pin-up’ girl of Birmingham athletics. She’s one of the current crop of role models based at the Alexander Stadium, where the final pre-Olympics meet will see many of Britain’s finest athletes take to the track and field on 4 June. But there’s more – much more – to Birchfield than the big stars past (such as Olympic champion Denise Lewis) and present. Birchfield is a place where anyone can turn up and run, jump or throw whether they’re nine years of age or 79. The club has more than 800 members who enjoy the outdoor facilities but also the High Performance Centre, an indoor base which provides training for a range of events – even pole-vaulting!
There’s proper professional coaching on club nights on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the club runs two youth academy programmes for youngsters from nine to 15 on Saturdays and Wednesdays. “We want to give as many youngsters as possible the chance to have a go at lots of different events,” said Birchfield’s commercial manager (and also a coach) Cath Muth. “Of course we are always looking out for young talent to develop, the ones that show not only talent but a real commitment to work hard and a mentality to succeed.” For those teenagers with real elite promise, Birchfield has a junior development programme launched in 2012 and sponsored by Lloyds Capital which currently helps finance 10 budding stars of tomorrow. It’s this kind of attention to youth that has seen 100 Birchfield Harriers fly the flag for Britain at the Olympics and countless more compete in European and Commonwealth championships. Birchfield held its very first track meeting way back in 1879 when a cinder running path was laid on a meadow at Aston Lower Grounds which was part of the Aston Hall estate. The club was created after a row in a cross country event led to disillusioned runners meeting up in a Sunday school in Wheelers Street, Lozells. They took their name from the Birmingham district where they were based.
ROLL OF HONOUR
It’s doubtful many of today’s Harriers know how their illustrious club came about. They are much more likely to recognise the names on the modern roll of honour. Like Olympic bronze medal-winning heptathlete Kelly Sotherton, now one of the Harriers coaches, gold medal sprinter Mark Lewis-Francis, bronze 400 metres runner Katharine Merry – and of course Denise Lewis. The club also boasts London 2012 Olympic wheelchair gold medallist Mickey Bushell among its stars. While the sport of athletics internationally is mired in ongoing doping controversy, there’s been no impact on major regional clubs such as the Harriers attracting youngsters into track and field. “We are very confident about the sport at our level,” said Cath. “We take a lot of care in everything we do and we make sure that our athletes have all the relevant information they need.” Cath quoted an example of just how alert the club is to any possible drugs issues. “This was a couple of years ago,” she explained. “We were holding training inside the stadium when we could smell someone smoking what seemed to be cannabis outside in the park. We reported the incident to the authorities as we didn’t want any of our athletes facing the possibility that they had inhaled it from outside. That’s how careful we are.”
In fact it’s child obesity rather than drugs which is of more concern day-to-day. “The general fitness and condition of youngsters has fallen hugely,” she explained. “When youngsters first come to us we have to do a lot of work with them to get them fit before they can even step onto the track.” Despite this, Cath is confident the Harriers will continue to discover future Olympic talent in Birmingham. At the end of April the club launched Search For A Star with a free year’s membership and paid-for training fees for the best boy and best girl winners who will be selected at the stadium on 8 June. Who knows, maybe the next Denise Lewis or Mark Lewis-Francis could be among them…