Olympic athlete- turned TV presenter Katharine Merry tells David Johns why her home city of Birmingham is on the cusp of a golden age for athletics – and why a footballing heartthrob made her a Villa fan for life
Katharine Merry has competed at some of the greatest sporting events in the most amazing stadia on the planet. But the athlete-turned-TV and radio presenter who was the fastest 400 metres runner in the world at both junior and senior levels, says there is nowhere to compare with ‘home’ – Birmingham’s Alexander Stadium.
She is confident that ‘the Alex’ – which has produced some of the UK’s finest athletes down the years – is set to embark on a golden age like it has never seen before. Besides being the base of the famous Birchfield Harriers club, of which Katharine is vice-president, the stadium is shaping up to become the undisputed home of British athletics, eclipsing London’s Olympic stadium.
With the stadium slated to undergo a major transformation as the centerpiece of Birmingham’s Commonwealth Games 2022 bid, Katharine says: “It’s such an exciting time for sport in Birmingham in particular and the Midlands in general. The legacy it will bring to future generations will be amazing. It will motivate so many youngsters to take up the sport while bringing in valuable income to the area. Athletics needs a permanent home, and that will be Birmingham.”
Katharine is a rare athlete who had outstanding success at junior and senior level before being forced to retire due to injury. Born in Dunchurch, she started running aged 10 before joining Birchfield at 13 and training at Tudor Grange, Solihull. She was selected to run for Britain, winning championships and medals over a six-year period before representing her country as a senior. Katharine famously won bronze in the 400 metres Cathy Freeman race at the 2000 Sydney Olympics and the following year became the world number one. She was coached by 100 metres gold medallist Linford Christie as part of his Cardiff-based squad. Three years later she had to quit due to a foot injury – and found her new love for broadcasting.
“I started getting involved in the whole TV punditry thing during the time I was suffering with injury,” she explains. “I was getting injured a lot so I was available when TV and radio wanted comment from someone who was involved in the sport. In the years since, I’ve made a conscious effort to expand my career in broadcasting.”
Katharine’s credits include being a regular guest on TV and radio shows including A Question of Sport, Pointless and Celebrity Mastermind. She is the only female TV lead commentator in athletics, working at numerous Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, European Championships, as well as lead commentator for Channel 4 at the Paralympics and Paralympic World Cup events.
She covers a wide range of sports away from athletics, including triathlon, beach volleyball and continues to be one of Sky’s lead commentators on their netball coverage. Katharine is also an in-demand live events presenter and has hosted major athletics championships in the UK, Europe and America as well as the inaugural Invictus Games – when Prince Harry personally thanked her for helping to make the event such as huge success. Katharine was also in Rio for the Paralympic Games as a commentator for Channel 4.
This month she is off to Monaco to be the host presenter at the annual IAAF Gala Awards, which recognise the world’s best athletes. “In March, I will be the infield host commentator at the World Indoor Athletics Championships at Arena Birmingham – the first time the event has returned to the city for 15 years,” adds Katharine.
Unsurprisingly, time is precious in the busy Merry household. “But I still do the school run with my son and daughter,” she says. “I tend to be away with my work in blocks of five or 10 days so I can generally fit stuff in. Summer is mad though, I only have one or two weeks free.”
Katharine is a keen Aston Villa supporter – unlike her Coventry City supporting parents. “They were born and bred in Coventry,” says Katharine, “but I became a Villa fan as a youngsters because I really fancied Gary Shaw…”