The 149th staging of the New Year Sprint took place over the last weekend of 2017, with the final on New Year's Day at Musselburgh racecourse. Originally run in 1870 at Edinburgh's Powderhall Stadium – its 'home' for the initial 100 years of its existence – it was known as the 'Powderhall Sprint' and was the jewel in the crown of what was till some 30 years ago exclusively professional sprinting. Since then the event has been open to all, the 'Berlin Wall' that previously existed between the professional and amateur codes of the sport having been dismantled.
During that sporting 'apartheid', amateur authorities tended to look down their noses at professional athletics, considering it contaminated with filthy lucre and dodgy betting deals which fell foul of their lofty Corinthian ideals. According it the adjective 'professional' was actually a bit of a misnomer as none of the athletes were full-time or able to earn a livelihood from it. As prizes were in cash rather than the clocks, cutlery sets and the like competed for by amateurs, the term 'professional' was applied. Despite some amateurs' attitudes to the 'pros', what remained undeniable was that the 'professionals' did produce some outstanding sprinters in pursuit of Powderhall success.
A noted example of an athlete who crossed the great divide was Les Piggot of Garscube Harriers. He had a stellar amateur sprinting career, twice an Olympian in 1968 and 1972, twice finalist in Commonwealth Games – 100m in 1970 and 74 – several times Scottish champion, 53 times a British international and occasional captain of the British team. After the Mexico Olympics in 1968, he took the rather risky step of turning to the 'professionals' to improve his performance, at a time when a rule prohibited amateurs from even training with 'pros'. There was one particularly good precedent in his favour – Eric Liddell – who almost 50 years previously trained at Powderhall under a professional coach, Tom McKerchar. It was the late Crawford Fairbrother, the famous Scottish and British high jump champion, who took Piggot on a trip to Powderhall to meet top professional trainer, Jim Bradley.
Between 1963 and 1971 Bradley produced five winners of the Powderhall Sprint – Ricky Dunbar, David Deas, Tommy Dickson, George McNeill and Wilson Young – and throughout his career numerous other class sprinters. In keeping with the air of mystique around professional running, Bradley was not his real name but his 'nom de plume' as an athlete himself, his own name being Jim Stott. After initial pleasantries, Piggot was somewhat surprised to be told by him: 'You run poorly.'
He recalled: 'Bearing in mind that at this time I would say I was among Britain's top three sprinters not long back from the Mexico Olympics, I was not expecting that! He said he had studied my running action on TV and that I was only a "legs runner," that my arms did nothing to assist me but instead swayed across my torso. His belief was that the arms led the legs and had to be built up to do so more effectively, mainly by use of the boxer's speedball. He said if I was to be trained by him he would put about four yards on me but added that would be subject to two conditions. First, that I would not turn "pro" myself as he wanted to demonstrate that his methods could also bring success to top amateurs. Second, that I would do no running whatsoever of any kind for the first four months with him, so I could forget my 'poor' running technique. Instead I would spend that time doing gym work only, especially speedball and an exercise circuit using bodyweight resistance as he didn't believe in weights.'
Use of the speedball underpinned Bradley's methods, requiring his athletes to do six 'three minute rounds' with a minute rest in between. Piggot started training with his 'school', alongside runners such as future 120 yards world record holder George McNeill, Wilson Young and another amateur better known as a rugby winger, Gil Borthwick, of Heriot's and London Scottish.
The gym work took place in a small hut Bradley had rigged up for the purpose at Saughton Enclosure in Edinburgh where Piggot's technique was adapted to the trainer's demands with its emphasis on rhythm and strength. Frequent lengthy deep 'rubs' were another important part of the programme, usually done by Bob Pringle, Bradley's colleague. Piggot found his training companions amenable and supportive as he began to realise how much they regretted not being eligible to run for Scotland because of their 'pro' status.
The emphasis on track training was quality, not quantity, with no session exceeding 25 minutes. All running was done from marks to ensure maximum competitiveness and at no time did Piggot run further than 120 yards. Bend running was not allowed and on occasions balaclavas had to be worn if onlookers trying to pick up betting pointers were present. All was done to Bradley's highly demanding and disciplined standards, which were not to be breached. His preparation was extremely thorough and his methods had proved so successful that Piggot had total confidence in him.
On occasion he undertook special 'preps' before important races. During this time Bradley would personally cook the best cuts of steak for him which he had sourced through Bob Pringle's connections at Edinburgh meat market. That had to be eaten with chips cooked in a special oil – Bradley didn't rate boiled potatoes. Only Jamaican coffee was to be drunk after a meal and for 10 days before the race Piggot had to drink a concoction of sherry, whisked egg, milk and sugar each night.
This was a world apart from Piggot's amateur training with its conventional methods and lengthy repetitive sessions. Gradually Bradley's coaching began to pay off for him as his times improved. Some amateurs were displeased at his involvement with those 'from the other side,' including David Jenkins and former national coach John Anderson, who raised the breach of the strict amateur rules with officialdom. As a result Piggot was interviewed prior to the 1970 Commonwealth Games by a top official, Willie Carmichael, who gently reminded him of his obligations as an amateur international.
By the time Bradley left for Australia in the early 1970s Piggot's best 100m time under his coaching had improved from 10.6s to 10.3s, a UK all-comers record, equivalent to a gain of three yards. Piggot developed a healthy respect for the 'pros'. In 1970 McNeill ran 120 yards in 11.14s – world-class sprinting. Allan Wells, who won Olympic gold in 1980 at 100m, owed much of his success to adopting 'pro' training methods. In Piggot's opinion, McNeill would probably have beaten Wells, all things being equal. Bradley had delivered what he had promised Piggot and although some amateurs thought 'professionals' a lesser species, there is no doubt that Bradley was in a class of his own as a coach.
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