Come Early And Join The Eltringhams
By Paul O’Shea
Pausing at the top of the steps, looking down into the stadium, you’ll hear the hush, as if you had walked into the rear of a church. It’s early on the first day of a major track and field championship when trials are on offer, and only dustings of fans are sprinkled among the seats.
This morning, though there are few observers, the intensity, the importance of the athletes’ assignments will be no less critical than if they had advanced to the next round or the one following. You’ll watch middle distance contestants push just enough to advance. You’ll assess the young triple jumper who gives her all in a first international competition. You’ll catch the discus thrower’s remorse at an effort just short of qualifying for the final.
Later, these early tests may provide admittance to the exclusive chambers of the event’s call room. They also introduce us to the devout core of the sport, the dedicated men and women who witness track and field competitions.
Our sports pages are stuffed with stories about the results, the athletes, the controversies. But what about the fans who watch those who run, jump and throw. What are their stories? How did they become passionate about this sport? Why do they clear their calendars months, sometimes several years in advance for the elite meets?
This is the narrative of one couple who define the term fan, buff, devotee, enthusiast, arguably “zealot.” They watch and record in a contemplative fashion, with the reserve and respect garnered from myriad competitions.
You won’t see track fans in team gear, unlike the raucous hordes populating high-revenue professional sports. Few bury their heads in the latest mobile devices, oblivious to the contest that first drew them to the arena. Beverages lean toward Diet Coke rather than Bud Light.
Track fans have an affinity for paying close attention to matters at hand. Most can juggle with aplomb a high jumper reaching for a PR, middle distance runners breaking for the curb, even Usain Bolt marching into the stadium with his supporting cast.
Perhaps you’ll be fortunate enough to sit with the Eltringhams, Tony and Sue, British-born American residents rich with memories amassed at high-end meetings. They’re armed with stories, leavened with wry humor. You’ll have immeasurably enriched your own experience.
|Sue and Tony Eltringham|
The Eltringhams have been following track and field since the storybook names of the l960s. In an earlier day, their luggage would have had more badges than a Nascar driver’s tunic (See under Nick Symmonds). Over the past decades they’ve attended the l972 Olympics and ten of the first 15 World Championships (together with their U.S. Trials). Among their souvenirs are memories of three British Commonwealth Games, a World Cup, a World Relays, and eleven Diamond and Golden League meetings. Much of their foreign travel has come as they’ve joined Track and Field News tours. One forthcoming T&FN outing will be to the 2017 World Championships in London.
Like a couple preparing to file a joint tax return, getting ready for a track meet involves groundwork. The Eltringhams read the websites, sample the blogs. They gather year-to-date performances. They bring a clipboard and scoring sheets for the decathlon and heptathlon as well as sheets to help them chart the makes and misses in field events. They tote the essential Track and Field News’ Big Gold Book, a spiral-bound source of metric conversion and decathlon and heptathlon tables. They carry well-seasoned seat cushions. “We still have ours from the 1994 Commonwealth Games, superior to those you get at Hayward Field. The right selection of clothing is pretty easy, unless you’re going to the UK,” they offer dryly.
But what Tony and Sue present, and surrounding seatmates soon sense, is their history with the sport and their appreciation of its uniqueness and value.
Tony was born in Yorkshire, England and educated in the public schools’ system after winning a scholarship to the county high school. There he became involved in athletics, ultimately competing as a quarter-miler in the All-England Schools championship. He matriculated at Cambridge University “to study Natural Sciences and obtain a Blue in the 440 yard hurdles, before I had even seen a hurdle in anger.” As a freshman he was pressed into service in wintry conditions against historic rival Oxford on the Iffley Road track, transformed earlier into sacred ground by Roger Bannister, and ran first on the four by four relay. “Fortunately, Wendell Motley, who won silver in the l964 Olympic 400, was our anchor. We won the race in a record time that still stands today.
“As a young man I kept scrapbooks for the l956 and l960 Olympics but didn’t see an international event until a meet at the White City stadium in l966 when I watched Tommie Smith beat my hero, Wendell, over 440 yards, setting a British all-comers record. I had stayed with Wendell the previous night in his new London apartment, aware that he and his wife had been moving down from Cambridge all week and certainly had done no training. He went on to win the Commonwealth title and then retired.”
Looking back at his post-high school running, Tony says, “One fun aspect of UK Club athletics was the ability to mix with well-known stars, as we represented our clubs in relays and unfamiliar events. John Cooper, Tokyo silver medalist in the 400-meter hurdles was my nemesis. Over two years no matter what lead Notts AC had over Birchfield Harriers at the end of three legs, I was destined to lose it by around the 220 yard mark, with a cinder spray on the front of my vest to prove he did it.”
Tony and Sue met in a Cambridge physics lecture in his first year and her second. She had changed subjects from math, and he stipulates that her “half-blue scarf” attracted him. They were married in 1970.
Following graduation Tony began his business career in Zambia with Anglo American, moved to the USA to eventually join Magma Copper in Tucson where he was director of research and development, adding director of smelting and refining to his responsibilities. Over a 40-plus year career he worked on four continents and after retiring from BHP Billiton in 2009, continues to consult worldwide, working on operational problems throughout the mining industry, and teaching critical thinking as an additional service.
“Sue and I have resided in California for almost twenty years, though I lived in Australia, Texas and Chile up to 2009, travelling extensively. Sue stayed at our home in Walnut Creek. Both of our daughters were born in Zambia, educated in the United States and graduated as chemical engineers.”
While working in Zambia Tony coached and competed for a local athletics club.
“Our elder child was due to be born in mid-August 1973,” Tony remembers. “I had been coaching two Zambian athletes after work and agreed to run for the local athletics club in the 400 meters and relay. One of the athletes was a 15-year old Olympian sprinter, and the other a sprinter-long jump specialist who went on to run a leg in the 1600-meter relay in Moscow in l980.”
The Zambian national championships were on the 25th of August, so despite Sue’s imminent delivery date, “I drove to Lusaka and competed on that day, winning the 400 meter hurdles and a national title, not having seen a hurdle in five years. The time was only three-tenths of a second slower than my previous best. Forty-five minutes later, I came third in the 400. Sandie, our daughter was born at 7 o’clock in the evening of the 31st.”
“Tony was there for the birth, then tore off to the boat club to load boats for a regatta about fifty miles away,” Sue remembers. “He rowed the next two days!
While Tony has a life long passion for Athletics (the international designation for track and field), “the one thing I’ve learned is that the satisfaction gained from rowing in a crew cannot be equaled in any other sport in which I have competed. The sense of togetherness cannot be matched in the sports I understand.”
Sue endorses this sense of unity. “When all eight of the crew are perfectly in sync, the boat lifts and ‘sings.’ This was told to me by all our early coaches but it took a while to experience. In fact, over thirteen years of rowing it happened exactly three times, but it was a wonderful feeling.”
It took Sue a bit more time to enter the athletic kingdom. She was she claims, “spectacularly unsuccessful on the sporting front” at Chelmsford County High School for Girls. It wasn’t until l963 that she was introduced to track and field when she and her Chelmsford mates thought they would be going to watch gymnastics but instead, looked on as America’s John Pennell just missed breaking the world pole vault record of 4.94 meters (16 feet, two-and-a-half inches) held by a Finn. She proudly points to her own initiation to the sport, well before meeting her future husband, “actually before he saw an international event.”
Born in Cheshire, England, she also went on to Cambridge where she studied Maths, then Natural Sciences. Because incoming students were strongly encouraged to participate in a sport, she eventually chose rowing and found a lifetime endeavor. Awarded Blues for rowing for Cambridge in four successive victories against Oxford, after graduating she was a member of the nation’s premier rowing club.
Following university, where she received undergraduate and graduate degrees (as did Tony), her early adult years involved working as a metallurgist, while at the same time maintaining a deep interest in rowing. She competed through all the seasons the Eltringhams were in Zambia, even negotiating the “bump” associated with the birth of two girls. She also taught Tony to row. When the couple came to the United States she later became a tax preparer, and continues with the profession today, “as long as it doesn’t get in the way of track and field.”
As you’d expect they have their special memories. Of the hundreds of remarkable performances they’ve witnessed, when asked their favorite, Sue fondly recalls Mary Peters of Great Britain winning the pentathlon in the l972 Munich Olympic Games. She defeated the favorite, Heide Rosendahl of the host country, by ten points, setting a world record. Peters was facing death threats because she was a Protestant from Belfast, and it was the time of violence in Northern Ireland.
Tony’s peak memory was Kip Keino’s steeplechase win at the same Games. Not expected to make the final, and in only his fourth race at the distance, the Kenyan won in Olympic record time. Twenty-three other competitors had superior times going into the competition. The Eltringhams’ favorite events are the multis—decathlon and heptathlon for Sue, while Tony’s include the 400 and its hurdle sibling, 800 and the four by four relay.
There were other performances to remember, including one with an unusual conclusion.
“In 1971 we were at the East African championships in Lusaka,” Tony remembers. “The meet had more delays than it could afford, including a pause while Sue and I, from the stands, had to make understood from the crowd that the men’s high hurdles had been incorrectly spaced, requiring a re-run and further delay.
“The last race of the day was the men’s 10,000 and sunset was fast approaching. In Zambia, at a latitude of 11 degrees south, the sun drops like a stone in the last fifteen minutes of daylight. The meet organizers were forced to marshal vehicles at each end of the straight but it was barely enough lighting.
Worse was to follow when the lap counter lost count or flipped two lap cards at once.
“With two laps left the bell rang and most of the leading group took off in a last lap sprint, except Naftali Temu who apparently had the correct count (three years earlier he’d won the Olympic 10,000). Almost everyone finished based on the bell. Temu proceeded correctly to run the ‘extra’ lap and claim victory. We left without any clarification on what had happened and nothing was mentioned in the local newspaper about the fiasco. Forty-five years later the official results still politely claim, ‘race void.’
“Both Sue and I thought the l984 U.S Olympic trials were exceptional in that we were sitting surrounded by famous athletes so that our children could obtain autographs from medal winners from different decades. We were three seats down from Bill and Mary Toomey. In 1994, forty years after their famous “Miracle Mile” encounter in the Empire and Commonwealth Games in Vancouver, we sat behind Roger Bannister and John Landy at the same event in Victoria, B.C. They went out on the field together to present awards to the 1,500-meter medalists. They also signed an artist’s impression of the famous picture of Landy looking the wrong way, which hangs in our home.”
Five decades on the world of track and field has changed dramatically. The men’s 1,500-meter world record has fallen by fifteen seconds, and we see high jump attempts over eight feet.
Addressing the expanding virus of doping violations by nations and individuals, and corruption in the international governing structure, Tony believes that “trying to test athletes around the world all the time is going to be very expensive, far more expensive than most other sports because track and field is the most international of the individual sports.”
Track and field also faces an enormous burden in trying to develop a wider audience, attract sponsors, and provide at least a middle-class income for its professional providers. There is a lone billionaire oligarch in American track and field’s pantheon, and the international governance issues at the sport’s top have emerged as criminal and ethical misbehavior.
For generations to come, track and field fans will march into stadiums, line cross country trails, shout support as marathoners stride by. This is our sport, and an intimacy fans share with the athletes. There is no better way to enjoy these events than with congregants such as the Eltringhams. Catch them early before the crowd starts filing in.
----------------------------------Paul O’Shea is a lifelong participant in the world of track and field, as competitor, coach, journalist and traveler to national and international events. After retiring from a career in corporate communications, he coached a high school girls’ cross country team and was a long-time contributor to Cross Country Journal and Athletics, the Canadian publication. He now writes for Once Upon a Time in the Vest from his home in northern Virginia, and can be reached at Poshea17@aol.com.