Athletics writer Neil Allen, who watched Bannister break mile record, dies at 86


NEIL Allen, one of the finest of British athletics and boxing writers in the 1950s and 60s has died, aged 86.

Allen was witness to many of sport’s greatest occasions in a writing career which spanned half a century, from the first sub-four minute mile in 1954 to Muhammad Ali’s Thriller in Manila and Rumble in the Jungle.

Athletics though was his first love. He was a schoolboy spectator at Wembley Stadium for the 1948 Olympic Games and joined Woodford Green Athletic Club in 1950, “an undistinguished middle distance runner”, as he described himself to me.

After a spell on his local newspaper, the Stratford Express, he became editorial assistant to the twins Norris and Ross McWhirter at their publication, Athletics World. It was in that capacity that he was at Iffley Road in Oxford on May 6, 1954, when Roger Bannister became the first to run the mile in under four minutes and that work from which he graduated to The Times in 1955, aged just 23.

Indeed, the following year when The Times sent him to Melbourne to cover the first of his 14 Olympic Games he was the youngest journalist from any country to be given press accreditation.

Allen knew his subject, loved his subjects and was accepted at every level of athletics internationally as one of their own

The rivalry of The Times’ Allen and the Guardian’s John Rodda in their joint specialities produced some of the most splendid writing on those sports published in the national press, writing that, as I can confirm, was an inspiration to the next generation.

Allen knew his subject, loved his subjects and was accepted at every level of athletics internationally as one of their own. But he was foremost a journalist, as he proved when he transformed himself into a news reporter at the Munich Olympics at the massacre of the Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists.

He was a founder member of the British Athletics Writers Association in 1963 and at the end of that decade was elected president of the Athletics Commission of the AIPS.

His career took a very different turn after the death of J.L.Manning when he was asked by the London Evening Standard to become a columnist. Suddenly he was interviewing celebrities as disparate as Margaret Thatcher and John McEnroe.

His last Olympic Games was the Winter Games in Lillehammer in 1994 when we shared a log cabin in the woods with me and Jeff Powell. Approached only by steps cut in the compacted snow, Neil’s fear of a slip was such that he chose to leave each morning by sliding down the slope on his backside.

After 14 days of this his ski trousers had worn a hole but he was to have no further need because the Standard chose in 1995 to make him an unwilling retiree. “I’d always wanted to go out after a Summer Olympics,” he told me.

Throughout his career he contributed regularly to magazines World Sports and Country Life, and continued in his retirement to write occasionally for L’Equipe and the New York Times.

He leaves a wife, Helen, whom he met when she was working as honorary physiotherapist to British Olympic teams, and three sons, Matthew and James, by his first wife Sally, and Christopher.


Thursday 10th October (11.45am) at West Norwood Crematorium, Norwood Road, West Norwood. London. SE27 9JU
There is a car park.  Nearest station is West Norwood (short walk away) – with frequent trains from both London Bridge & Victoria (via Tulse Hill). Bus routes 2, 68, 196, 315, 322, 432 & 468 pass nearby.