Games: The Two Codes Two

Peter Hoffmann was a very good runner indeed who represented Scotland and Great Britain with distinction.   He also knew his way around Scottish athletics and, training as he did at Meadowbank, he met and mixed with the professionals who also trained there.   I asked him for his thougts on the professional/amateur interface and his response is printed here in its entirety.

Brian, thanks for asking for my thoughts on the connections or links between amateur and professional athletics.

First of all I’m out of touch with both codes but from afar in 2019 it would seem we’re in a happier place where athletes can now compete together.

In arriving at this new open era and culture of glasnost many of the seeds for change were sown back in the 1970s and nurtured at Edinburgh’s Meadowbank Sports Centre.

I suspect too that the harbingers for change occurred at the grassroots level rather than in the more rarefied echelons and boardrooms of athletics officialdom.

Back in the 1970s some of the barriers were being broken down and there was a lessening of a silo mentality between the two codes.    I sometimes trained with the Pros at Meadowbank.

With some exceptions the main difference between the two codes was that in amateur athletics,  participants started at the same line or stagger and ran the same distance; whereas a handicapping system was at the core or heart of professional running.  And whilst you could make a case for the former being the more pure format there’s actually a very strong case for the latter being superior for both the athletes and as a spectacle for the public.

But in reflecting on the two codes I wonder if there was (is?) also a paradox at the heart of professional athletics compared to its sister sport.

In principle the sport is based on an approach (which interestingly partly overcomes some of society’s reservations and doubts about competition) on the notion that every competitor should in theory be in with a fair chance of winning or being there or thereabouts on the line – together at the finishing tape.

And yet we know that in practice this hasn’t always happened resulting in an interesting corollary to this which made the code generally different to its sister sport.

Whilst on the physio’s bench I heard many amusingly nefarious stories from the legendary and inimitable rubber, Denis Davidson, and his tales of athletes not trying throughout the season as a strategy to outfox the handicapper with a view to improving their marks and therefore their race chances with the schools disguising their charges’ true worth in order to make handsome monies from betting coups at the likes of the Powderhall Sprint on New Year’s Day.

I’ve enjoyed following the Memoirs of Professional Athletics Facebook page, making one or two occasional contributions. But at the outset I should say that I have no deep knowledge of the code but neither am I ignorant of it, with more than just a passing interface, interest and knowledge of the sport.

My interface was limited to a relatively small period of time between the years 1971 and 1978 at Meadowbank Sports Centre including not just athletes but also with coaches; rubbers (physios) and one or two bookmakers too.   I only ever attended one or two games – a couple down at Peebles but like many amateur friends we always attended the annual ‘Powderhall Meeting’ at Meadowbank over New Year.

I’m in the slightly unusual position of being able to not just make observations from the view in winter but can access the view in spring too where back in the day as a teenager and young man I recorded occasional impressions, reflections and thoughts as well as specific training details including sessions with some Pro athletes.

In the early 1970s Jimmy Gray and 3:57 miler Adrian Weatherhead regularly trained together. 

These were often brutal sessions, usually involving 8 x 400 metres (1 minute recovery) in sub 60 seconds with Adrian and Jimmy knocking spots off each other.

Adrian had the utmost regard for Jimmy and is of the view that if Jimmy had similar opportunities then Jimmy would have been a sub 4 minute miler too. And don’t forget Jimmy was training after a full day’s work as a brickie.   A young Paul Forbes sometimes joined in these sessions and was left reeling.

In 1971/1972 two athletes from the great divide who had a mutual respect for each other were George McNeil and David Jenkins.

I believe that if the former been able to compete at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich he would have won at least the silver medal in the 100 metres against the great Valery Borzov: and similarly if Jenkins had focused on training for the 200 metres (I believe he ran the wrong event (400 metres) in Munich) it would have been between him and Borzov too, especially over four rounds of competition. I recall how earlier in the year David turned up at the 1972 American Championships and finished second in the 200 metres event whilst in August at Meadowbank he ran 20.3 seconds a few weeks before travelling out to Germany.

David had the highest respect for George and they occasionally did a few sessions together.

In 1975 I think McNeil was past his peak but he was still an astonishingly good athlete.

From my journals:

5th April, 1975 ‘My final season as a junior augurs well as shown by today’s double session. In the morning I did some pure sprints with George McNeil.   He’s quite phenomenal.   I’m sprinting really well just now.  Earlier in February I won the Scottish 50 metres title and in today’s session I was running 10.5 speed. I’ve been bettering Drew McMaster and others in training and races and I was really pleased with today’s session.  So that’s the context. Well, George was taking 2 metres off me over 30 metres. Two metres! It was incredible to witness and be part of the session…’

Morning: ‘…4 x 30 metres in 3.7/3.8 seconds; George (McNeil) was taking 2 metres off me and I was flying! 2 x 4 x 30m with running starts all in 2.8/2.9 secs; all runs with an easy walk back recovery…’

Lunchtime: 500 metres Dave Jenkins 63.6 seconds; Hoffmann 64.0 secs; Roger Jenkins 65.5 secs; 400m Hoffmann 49.8 secs; Dave 50.0 secs; Roger was 20 metres back; 300m Hoffmann 35.0 secs; Dave 35.1 secs; Roger 35.3 secs

9th April 1975 ‘…Considering I’ve picked up yet another cold I ran a good session with Roger Jenkins and George McNeil…’

4 x 300 metres (20 minutes recovery)

(1) Roger Jenkins 35.4 seconds; George McNeil 35.8 secs; Hoffmann 35.9 secs (2) Jenkins 35.5 secs; Hoffmann 35.5 secs (3) Hoffmann 34.8 secs; Jenkins 35.0 secs (4) Hoffmann 34.4 secs (200m 22.0 secs); Jenkins 35.4 secs

21st April, 1975 The Edinburgh Holiday ‘…I wandered up to Meadowbank at lunchtime and ran a good session with a very powerful group of athletes – George McNeil; Roger Jenkins and Graham Malcolm…’

Afternoon (1.30 p.m.): ‘…6 x 50 metres flat out; George McNeil was first on each run, but I was a strong second ahead of Roger Jenkins and Graham Malcolm – pleasing as they are 10.5 seconds guys…’

Afternoon (2.00 p.m.): 2 x 4 x 200m (90 seconds recovery) all in 24 secs; very relaxed, easily handling Roger

21st May, 1975 ‘…After lunch I popped up to Meadowbank; I was running well against George McNeil – 4 x 50 metres; I was given a 2 metres start; 6 x 50m this time starting level with George; standing starts; very encouraging on the second set – felt I was flying!…’

I also sometimes trained with Jimmy Smith who was an outstanding sprinter too. Jimmy was intending to compete in a different event over the longer effort of 400 metres at the 3M Pro Track and Field so asked if he could join in with Bill Walker’s squad.

26th May 1975 ‘…I ran another good session with the Pro, Jimmy Smith, who’s preparing to compete in the 3M Pro Track and Field Stars circus which is coming to Meadowbank. I like Jimmy – he’s a lovely bloke; I like his coach too, old Alf Nicol who’s a real character…’

3 x 2 x 200 metres (30 seconds recovery; 10-15 minutes between sets) (1) 21.7/25.2 secs (2) 22.2/26.0 secs (3) 23.1/25.1 secs

16th June 1975 ‘…380 metres time-trial 1. Hoffmann 44 seconds; 2. Jimmy Smith (Pro) – two pleasing runs in not the best of conditions…’

18th June, 1975 ‘…Although I’m still a Junior athlete I’m heading off to East Germany tomorrow with the British senior team for the first time. In the afternoon I did some speed-work with Les Piggott and Scott Brodie; Piggot is an interesting and enigmatic individual. He’s quiet but confident and self-assured with definite views on the world.   Later on I met Alison at Meadowbank to watch the 3M PRO meeting.  It was an interesting experience and the spectacle was presented with flair and razzmatazz compared to the amateur fayre, but many of the great athletes on parade are past their best.   Ben Jipcho ran well over two miles; George McNeil was a close up third to the top Americans but was running below his best; I’ve been training recently with Jimmy Smith and helping him out but was disappointed with his run in the quarter…’

Afternoon: ‘…60; 80; 60; 80 metres (3-10 minutes’ recovery) followed by 6 x 50m with Les Piggot and Scot Brodie…’

7th July 1975 ‘…After playing an hour’s football at Gullane yesterday my legs above the knees are shattered; that’ll teach me to show off; old habits die hard. Come the evening the soreness had worn off a little so I trained with Roger and George McNeil…’

4 x 150 metres (7 minutes recovery) 15 seconds

Training with George and Les in quick succession and proximity gave me an insight into both of them and despite my great admiration for Les being a double-Olympian I have no doubt who was the better sprinter and athlete.

European Junior 400m

Reflecting on the concept of an interface here are some quick thoughts: I wonder if ironically there was sometimes a greater preparedness and open culture for the two codes to train together in direct comparison to e.g. separate schools of professional athletes but this of course is understandable particularly with regard to handicapping and the betting dimension; there are numerous examples of the two codes working alongside each other – just think of John Robson a great international athlete who came out of the professional scene and background coached by John Lauder from Kelso; Dave Campbell who whilst predominantly a coach to professional athletes also helped some amateurs too – one of his innovations was handicapping training repetitions over e.g. 300 metres; then there was Dave Gibson and his right-hand man David Taylor; the former was a measured, shrewd coach and a very pleasant man usually to be found smoking a Dunhill cigarette whilst casting a beady eye on what was going on in the oval – as a youngster it was from him I first came across the intriguing line ‘It’s the exception that proves the rule’; I always enjoyed a quick chat with him but never knew anything about his hinterland until I came across his fascinating obituary decades later regretting not knowing much about his background at the time – unsurprisingly his was a rich hinterland – if David said something complimentary about me I would think about it and live off his words for a good week or so afterwards such was the respect I had for him; and like many of the old schools he had the skill to bring athletes to peak condition, something which many of those from the amateur code would have benefited from – as the old saw goes, money talks; I know David Jenkins had a great respect for David too and of course he went on to mentor many amateur champions, most famously Dougie Walker, the European 200 metres champion; a completely different character, but nevertheless a real one was Alf Nicol and his son Ross who was a solid runner who often joined Adrian Weatherhead and me in the winter of 77/78 at weekends either on the track for 8 x 300 metres or 4 x 600 metres and afterwards on 6 mile recovery runs around Craigintinny Golf Course; the rubber Denis Davidson who although firmly rooted in the professional scene was a great bridge between the two disciplines as he rubbed not only professional athletes but also amateurs too including David and Roger Jenkins – Denis was very friendly with Roger and he also regularly provided treatment to Paul Forbes and me too; for a while Wilson Young brought a cool detachment and class to the sport working effectively with athletes from both codes including the amateurs Drew McMaster and Allan Wells; I liked Wilson’s style – similar to David Gibson he was attired in a smart suit, shirt and tie compared to many of the amateur coaches who often wore tracksuits – as a youngster this cemented their difference and for me added to their gravitas but in Wilson’s case provided a stylish light touch; I also note in my journals how during the winter of 1977/78 I enjoyed a coffee at Meadowbank with both Young and the great amateur throws coach Stewart Togher finding their exchange on training theory quite fascinating; back in the day knowledge came slowly – I recall old Bob Pringle along with others having a chat and a coffee in the Meadowbank cafeteria – I wasn’t discourteous but probably thought Bob a little old fashioned in his ideas; but today because of the Memoirs site I’m much more informed about Bob’s rich history and of course I now realise I should have been more assiduous and gleaned as much as I could from his experience and knowledge…another example of youth being wasted on the young (Proverbs 22:15 ‘Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child…’); but Bob helped out many amateurs too including Owen Quinn; then there’s the legendary Jimmy Bryce who helped Linsey Macdonald to an Olympic medal; I recall sometimes speaking to the excellent Bert Oliver and his dad on Sundays during their pre-season training; and of course many of David Gibson’s athletes – Freddy Bell who was an extraordinary and extrovert guy and also David Valentine – David was perhaps the nearest Pro at the time to me in his range of distances with his extraordinary success in winning over four classic New Year distances albeit running much slower performances to me particularly over 400-1000 metres; then there was Scott Brodie and Drew Hislop, two young champion sprinters who both gave up promising amateur careers having represented Scotland to transfer to the professional scene which at the time caused a small sensation; and then come New Year large groups of us used to go along to watch and be an integral part of the scene including Paul Forbes; Bill Walker etc. and of being impressed by the likes of Roy Herron or enjoying Pat Mulgrew’s victory and because of the connection with Denis we felt we were able to vicariously enjoy a small part of his success; I recall one or two of the bookmakers including the extraordinary Pilmar Smith who had links with the amateur side too; on one occasion I went round to Pilmar’s home on a Sunday in July 1978 to watch a tape of my abysmal tactics from the day before when finishing a close second to Sebastian Coe at the UK Championships; a last example of an interface was when the legendary Jim Bradley came across to the United Kingdom having travelled from Australia: Bill Walker arranged for Bradley to come along to cast his eye over our squad: when I arrived in the Meadowbank Café in a pair of jeans all of 5 foot 10 inches and 143 lbs I don’t think I cut a particularly impressive figure, however I’ll never forget Jim’s comment to me after I’d warmed up and taken my tracksuit off to start the training session – he said – ‘Well, you strip BIG!’; when I reflect on his contribution to the amateur code I think one of the things he brought to the world of sprinting was going back to first principles and the key importance of having a strong core (stomach); legs and arms and a philosophy grounded in biomechanics with an important focus on an efficient running style; in bearing legacy to this philosophy are the many relatively ordinary athletes who after a year or two training with schools often found up to ten yards in their running over 110 metres – really great stuff, which some of the shrewder amateur coaches and athletes tapped in to; and of how the new Meadowbank Sports Centre helped to facilitate and foster that interface too because the new centre was much more than just a sports facility but also a social hub and clubhouse bringing many people – athletes and coaches together forming good relationships and an exchange of ideas bringing out the best from both codes.

After half a lifetime isn’t it wonderful to see the great strides that have been made to bring the two sports much closer with athletes now training and being able to compete together.

And from the view in winter I’m still a fan of the handicapping system even if occasionally the principle doesn’t always equate to the practice!’

Thanks, Peter: excellent content, beautifully expressed.