As anticipation starts to build for the London Olympics, the world’s greatest showcase of track and field athletics, now seems a good time to review the state of health of UK Jewish athletics.
Last month’s Maccabiah Games provided a telling indicator. It showcased the talents of two bright prospects — Richard Goodman, 16, of Stanmore, who won two golds and a bronze in the junior middle-distance events, and Jennifer Simmons, 18, of Manchester, who won gold in the senior 400m hurdles and bronze in the 400m flat.
However, the makeup of the British team yielded some less encouraging statistics: of the 12 track and field athletes, only two were seniors and only one was a field event specialist rather than a runner. Apart from Simmons, the only senior competitor was Jo Ankier, a junior gold medalist from 1997 who has since enjoyed a successful international career in the 3,000m steeplechase and who won two bronze medals at distance events this time.
There is a consensus amongst long-time observers of the sport that Jews are not participating in athletics at senior level to the extent that they did in the past. The golden era of Jewish athletics was probably the 1960s, when there were several Jewish senior internationals, including Olympic bronze medalist Dave Segal and the first Jewish sub-four-minute miler, Ray Roseman.
Moving into the 1980s, James Espir was a senior international middle-distance runner and his training companions Daniel Felsenstein and Jeff Kaye were virtually of international standard.
Today, there are two known Jewish internationals, Ankier and 400m runner Phil Taylor, whilst distance runners Nathaniel Lane and David Peters and pole vaulter James Grant have reached high standards in club and county athletics. However, it is inescapable that there are far fewer senior Jewish athletes competing now than in the past. A sign of the times is that, due to dwindling participation, the Maccabi National Championships are no longer held.
Ankier sees this from a perspective of having trained extensively in America. “There, the collegiate system and the availability of athletics scholarships mean that many more college students continue their athletics.
“In England, most young athletes stop competing once they leave school because the demands of training are too great and they have other priorities such as building a career.”
JCC Games gold medallist Hadley Winthrop is even more emphatic that the decline in Jewish athletics simply reflects national and international trends. “The sport is not marketed in this country and nobody knows where the athletics tracks are,” he said. “Students would rather spend their time networking on Facebook. They see athletics as a chore and a punishment and say ‘Why would I want to run round in circles?’”
There is certainly more organised Jewish athletics at junior and school level. Robin Fish, chair of this year’s Maccabiah athletics team, trains a group of young Jewish athletes at the Bannister Stadium, Harrow, although he is unable to supervise technical field events. Each year, a group of Jewish youngsters travel to America for the JCC Maccabi Games. But Fish sees too many young athletes dropping out of the sport too quickly. “To participate takes a degree of commitment, not just from the young athlete, but also from his parents, who, for example, have the job of driving him to and from the training sessions. A parent will tend to encourage his children in his own favourite sport, and this is more often football than athletics. But athletics has an event for everyone, whatever their body shape, and I have often seen a youngster’s confidence transformed by finding an event that he or she enjoys and is good at. Schools also have an important role, and should make sure that no talent goes unnoticed or unnurtured.”
In recent years, Maccabi have organised a one-day athletics competition between King Solomon High, JFS, Hasmonean and Immanuel schools. Hasmonean in particular prepares well for this event. Pupils report that for half of the summer term, the physical education curriculum concentrates on athletics. Each pupil chooses, in addition to track events, three field events in which to participate at the annual school sports. The best performers in each discipline train up further in preparation for the Maccabi day. Perhaps twice a year Hasmonean pupils take part in a moderate distance run of around two kilometres.
Richard Goodman reports that likewise, at JFS, all pupils compete in the school sports. Less encouragingly however, it is quite possible to graduate from JFS without ever having tried a distance run. Goodman discovered his talent at age 14, by running, and winning, the Brent Youth cross-country title. “But we had never run long distance at the school, and if I hadn’t expressed an interest, I would never have been in the race.”
There seems to be a clear conclusion. Athletics can boost the fitness, confidence and self image of our young people, and show them abilities that they did not know they possessed. Schools should offer every pupil the chance to try each athletic discipline on a regular basis, because if they do not, talent will go undiscovered. Schools and parents should encourage promising athletes to try out at their local athletics club. With greater participation will come greater success, and hopefully more Jewish athletes in the GB team at Olympic Games in the future.