Awards lunch at Roux lapped up by athletics writers

By Matthew Brown, BAWA

It was, said chairman Simon Turnbull, one of the greatest gatherings of athletics writers seen for years. “I don’t know what the collective noun for a gaggle of athletics writers should be,” he said. “A rabble? A shower? A cliché, perhaps?

BAWA founder member Neil Allen : "We've got to keep fighting". Picture courtesy of London Marathon Ltd

“Actually, looking at the people here today, I’d have to say it’s a pride. This really is an overwhelming turn-out when you consider where we were a few months ago.”

Numbering nearly 70 in total, BAWA members, friends, dignitaries, athletes past and present, writers current and former, commentators and coaches collected on Friday in the plush surroundings of marathon chef Michel Roux’s new restaurant at Parliament Square for a luscious lunch to celebrate the Association’s 48th annual awards.

Only three months earlier, when BAWA’s plans to hold one more glitzy, end of season, November dinner do collapsed, the committee was left wondering how to pull together a suitable event to mark the athletics heroes of 2010.

“We seriously feared we’d be meeting in a greasy spoon in Glasgow hours before the first indoor meeting of the year,” said Turnbull. “So to get to this point with so many people here is wonderful.”

Thanks to invaluable support from the Virgin London Marathon – not least media chief Nicola Okey (“If they’d had you in Delhi, the Commonwealth Games would have been fine,” joked Turnbull) – the event turned out to be just the kind of occasion BAWA members had asked for at the Association’s AGM back in July.

Founder members and stalwarts of the Association came together with current correspondents and the recently freelanced to honour BAWA’s athletes of the year, Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis, and its junior award winners, Jack Meredith and Jodie Williams (read winners’ announcement here), and to reveal the 2010 recipient of the Ron Pickering Memorial Award for services to athletics, Mike Heath MBE, chairman of the British Association of Track and Field Leagues.

Among the crowd were some of the biggest bylines of British athletics writing over the last 50 years, names such as Mel Watman, Neil Allen, Neil Wilson, Peter Matthews, Colin Hart, Bob Harris, Doug Gillon and Alan Hubbard.

“It’s a real reminder of what a great tradition we have in this Association,” said Turnbull. “Over the years some of the real giants of British sportswriting have been BAWA members – Cliff Temple, John Rodda, Pat Collins – and it’s great to have so many of you who have won SJA awards here with us today.

“It’s also great to have Anna Kessel and Rick Broadbent, who were shortlisted for awards last year.”

Turnbull also singled out Spain-based freelancer Phil Minshull for his “fantastic effort” in making it all the way from Madrid.

Chef and restaurant owner Michel Roux addresses the athletics writers. Picture courtesy of the London Marathon Ltd

Alongside them stood senior figures from the world of British athletics – LOCOG chief Lord Coe, FastTrack chairman Alan Pascoe, London Marathon race director Dave Bedford, and UK Athletics’ chairman and chief executive, Ed Warner and Neils de Vos.

With so many old friends (and former foes!) together, the gags came thick and fast, not least from Bedford who jokingly thanked Help the Aged for sponsoring a table of anciens athletics writers. “This does have a bit of the Antiques Roadshow feel about it,” he said. “But seriously, the London Marathon is delighted to support this new-style BAWA event.”

Founder member Neil Allen was delighted to be there too as he recalled BAWA’s earliest days when Watman, himself, Jim Coote and others sat down at White City to set up “this very informal club”.

“The athletics writers’ association was an extraordinary conception,” he said. “But we grew in strength as these young, keen writers came on board, the likes of John Rodda, Neil Wilson and Bob Harris. It’s wonderful to still be here, but we’ve got to keep fighting.”

It wasn’t all laughs and look-backs, though, as Turnbull conducted the formal side of the proceedings, presenting the 2010 awards. Unfortunately, none of the winning athletes could be there, prevented by training, competition and school commitments.

However, there were some eminently suitable stand-ins who collected the honours on their behalf.

Super-agent Ricky Simms picked up Farah’s male athlete of the year trophy.

Coach Toni Minichiello took the female trophy back to Ennis’ home where it has been since the end of 2009.

European and Commonwealth champion Andy Turner accepted the junior male athlete of the year award on behalf of fellow high hurdler, Meredith.

And coach Mike McFarlane was handed the junior female prize for his young sprinter, Williams.

One award winner was there in person, however. A shocked and delighted Mike Heath received the Ron Pickering award from veteran broadcaster Stuart Storey. Storey described Heath’s service over the years to British athletics, especially his work alongside Pickering at Haringey athletics club, and his roles with the British athletics leagues and on the board of England Athletics.

“Our sport of athletics at the grassroots owes him a great deal,” said Storey.

“I’ve never won an award for taking someone to lunch before,” joked Heath, who had accompanied Ron’s widow Jean to the event with no inkling that he would be a star of the show.

“I have spent 50 years in athletics and this is a great honour. It is entirely undeserved for someone who has merely been very good at being a one-eyed man in the land of the blind.”

By the end of the day there were quite a few one-eyed men staggering out of Roux at Parliament Square but none so blind that they couldn’t see this event as a highly successful start to a new era for the British athletics writers’ awards.

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