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Poly History – Harriers Athletic Club
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The Polytechnic Harriers have played a major role in the destiny of world athletics.
The club was entrusted with organising the opening and closing ceremonies for the 1908 Olympic Games at the newly-built White City Stadium in London, which were lauded by the athletes and media alike. Athletes became honorary members of the Polytechnic and, in the absence of an Olympic village, used the organisation’s Regent Street headquarters for training and lodging.
There was also a “rehearsal” held at Chiswick – as described by The Times – when members of the Poly competed against the athletes in a variety of events.
The Harriers hosted the first marathon to be held in this country when, in preparation for the Games, they held a trial event from Windsor Castle to Wembley Park – although the distance was only 23 miles. They then oversaw the race itself from Windsor to White City, while the cycling club accompanied the competitors.
The event was changed from 25 miles to 26 to enable it to begin at the royal residence; then a catalogue of issues, including complaints over cobblestones and the route to the finish line inside the stadium, added another 385 yards – making up the distance as we know it today.
One of the most famous incidents in sporting history took place at the end of that race when leading Italian Dorando Pietri entered the mammoth stadium and collapsed on his lap around the track; Polytechnic secretary Jack Andrew took the exhausted man’s arm and helped him across the line – resulting in his disqualification.
“I did what I was ordered to and if similar circumstances arose again, I would do the same,” he said afterwards. Peitri was awarded a special silver-gilded cup by Queen Alexandra in honour of his achievement.
Worldwide ‘marathon fever’ following this stunning race – won by American Johnny Hayes – led to the famous annual Polytechnic Marathon, which has been run more times than any other over the correct distance and seen more world records broken than any other marathon in the world, including the famous sub-two hours, 20 minutes run by Jim Peters in 1953. King George and Queen Elizabeth II started each race in the grounds of Windsor.
The Harriers were again involved in the organisation of the ’48 Games and their gold-standard race was used as the official trial for selection to the British team.
Unfortunately, due to later lack of interest in the shadow of richer marathons around the world and increasing traffic around Chiswick – where the event had traditionally finished since the building of the Chiswick Stadium, located behind the current leisure centre and gymnasium, in 1938 – the final ‘Poly’, as it was known, was held in 1996.
The club, whose inaugural meeting was in 1883 while the first major open meeting was held in conjunction with the cycling club five years later, has provided several Olympic champions and dozens of world records as well as a multitude of national champions.
In the first London Games the Poly won medals in walking and the 400-metre hurdles, while in Stockholm in 1912 there were further medals in the 200 and 4×400; the club had to wait until Antwerp in 1920 to win a first gold – Albert Hill doing the middle-distance double of 800 and 1500 for Britain.
In Rome in 1928 Lord Burghley won the Olympic title in the 400 hurdles before Arthur Wint secured his place in folklore in the forties and fifties.
The Jamaican won gold in the 440 yards at the second London Games in ’48 and silver in the 880 yards alongside other medals won by Poly athletes. However he had been denied in the 440 relay after coming down with cramp on the final leg. In the Summer Games in Helsinki four years later he laid that ghost to rest with victory alongside another member of the club, Leslie Laing.
The Chiswick Stadium, which held 10,000 with 1,000 in the grandstand, lost its lustre by the seventies as the cinder tracks of old were replaced by all-weather surfaces. The Harriers left Chiswick to merge with Kingston Athletic Club, moving to Surrey.
Some remained and founded West 4 Harriers, which helped host the ‘Poly’ until its final edition. Stalwarts of that club continue to run the course each year to keep the tradition alive.