John Rodda

John Rodda, for more than 36 years the athletics and boxing correspondent at The Guardian and the doyen of those covering sports politics and the Olympics, died on Tuesday after a long illness. He was 78. Steven Downes recounts some of Rodda’s life and career

John Rodda’s sports reporting career had begun, by the light of a Swan Vesta match, covering Olympic cycling from Herne Hill Stadium for his local newspaper, the South London Press, when a teenager in 1948.

Rodda was always a newspaperman. Evacuated, aged 9, from his Beckenham home to Marlow, Northampton and Leicester, Rodda attended seven different schools before joining the SLP aged 15.

Rodda began working for the then Manchester Guardian in 1950, where he came under the influence of its athletics correspondent, Larry Montague, whom he succeeded in 1959. From Rome in 1960 to Barcelona in 1992, Rodda attended every summer Games, and several winter ones, too, becoming an influential figure with colleagues ringside and trackside around the world.

In 1961, he was a founder member of the British Athletics Writers’ Association and he would go on to become its secretary and chairman. He was also a long-time stalwart of the Boxing Writers.

His news reporting abilities saw Rodda witness the student massacre in Mexico City ahead of the 1968 Games – and almost pay with his own life.

As students, lecturers and trade unionists protested in the Square of the Three Cultures, Rodda joined some of their leaders in an overlooking balcony – and was forced to dive to the ground when the Mexican junta’s armed police opened fire.

“The carnage went on for five hours before the Mexican secret police – with a gun in the right hand and a white glove on the other to mark their identity – sorted the foreigners from the Mexicans on our balcony and I was released from the horror,” Rodda recalled nearly 40 years later.

It was Rodda’s dogged work, in the days after the massacre, spending time with doctors at the city’s hospitals, that proved that the Mexican government’s estimate of 35 dead after the shootings was a horrible, deliberate under-estimate: it was the Guardian that revealed that at least 267 people were killed and 1,200 hurt.

At the infamous Munich Olympics four years later, Rodda’s nose for a story saw him make strong efforts to gain access to the athletes’ village after the terrorist attack on the Israeli team.

In his apartment in the press village alongside the athletes’ accommodation in Munich, Rodda donned a tracksuit and placed his accreditation pass prominently. Rodda calculated, correctly, that despite the presence of German guards, he might pass for an international athlete out for a training run. What he did not expect was to appear in a photograph in some English dailies the following morning, captioned to the effect of: “Athlete goes out on training run despite the emergency”.

Rodda’s boxing work ought not be overlooked, since it saw him cover many of the biggest fights of the 1970s, including Muhammad Ali’s “Rumble in the Jungle”.

Rodda’s knack of acquiring tremendously well-placed contacts would serve him very well through the next 25 years, as he was at the forefront of covering the ever-growing scourge of anabolic steroids and other banned drugs in sport.

He even developed a sort of confidential catchphrase for those days when he was working on an overnight exclusive, tapping his nose just by his half-moon spectacles and saying, gnomically, “The Bulgarians are at it”.

The master was still able to deliver exclusives, right up to his final major championships, the European athletics in Helsinki in 1994, when Rodda broke the story that sprinter Solomon Wariso had failed a drugs test.

Rodda not only covered the demise of “shamateurism”, but he also played a part in its eventual end, helping the British fixer, Andy Norman, to write the speech which would sway international athletics officials to opt for professionalism.

Rodda’s ability to earn the respect of those he wrote about was demonstrated when, towards the end of his track career Steve Ovett – a runner who never disguised his disdain for most reporters – chose Rodda to co-author his biography. Tonight, from his home in Australia, Ovett said of Rodda, “It’s very sad news. John was well respected and had many friends.

“I just remember, when we were working on the book, he would look over his reading glasses at me and chuckle at the rubbish I was coming up with.”

Ovett’s great rival on the track, Sebastian Coe, led the tributes paid to Rodda in a report in the Guardian, speaking of his “great sadness” that Rodda would not be around in three years’ time to see the 2012 London Olympics. “The thing about John was that he absolutely loved athletics,” said Lord Coe, the chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games. “He had an absolute passion for it. We also shared a love of boxing – he was a great boxing writer, too – and we shared many great conversations about the two sports.

“He was also very influential on the International Olympic Committee, very close to Lord Killanin, and he was one of the people who opened that world up to me. I was the first athlete to address the IOC and he was very helpful to me in that.”

Rodda’s friendship with Michael Killanin, the Eton-educated Irish peer and Daily Mail journalist who became president of the IOC in 1972, saw them produce between them three editions of a definitive history of the Olympic Games in which the contributors included Philip Noel-Baker, Harold Abrahams and even the Duke of Edinburgh.

The association with Killanin provided the Guardian man with unparalleled access to the inner workings of the Olympic movement. It also saw Rodda spend 18 years working on behalf of his media colleagues by serving on the Olympic press commission, usually arguing the case for more press seats, better value hotel accommodation and improved facilities, hard work which helped immensely get our press facilities to the standard that they are today.

A long advocate of London offering to stage the Games again – rather than the doomed British bids from Manchester and Birmingham – Rodda was influential in his advice to Lord Coe and his team before the IOC’s vote in Singapore four years ago:

“The most important aspect of the bidding committee’s work will relate to human interaction. Facilities, ability and security are important issues but eventually the members’ personal preferences will decide the winning bid…

“Every IOC member should be told between now and the vote: ‘The Queen will hold a banquet at Buckingham Palace for the IOC just before the Games begin. No she will not be on holiday and yes the government has arranged it.’ Be clear about a couple of points: the IOC is still a private self-perpetuating club and though bribery is out, persuasion is not.”

Or, as he often put it less formally, “What’s important is where the IOC member’s wife wants to spend her summer holiday.”

Rodda’s work was always a “must-read”. After I’d acquired the first edition of his Killanin Olympic book, it was John Arlott, David Lacey and Rodda who were the three very good reasons that I began reading The Guardian on my way to school and which, ultimately, made me want to get into sports journalism.

And despite the apparent hauteur of “The Doyen” (as Rodda was dubbed by The Sun’s Colin Hart), who would often conduct himself at more tense press conferences as if he were a QC for the prosecution, Rodda was always helpful, friendly and wise. Clearly, even the then SWA agreed in that judgment, because in 1988, Rodda won the Sports News Reporter of the Year award.

A year before he retired in 1995, Rodda and his second wife, Yveline, together with their young daughter Lucy, moved to Trull, near Taunton, where John soon found himself filling his summer afternoons on the bowling greens or serving on the Parish council, until ill-health began to take its toll.

He had hoped, for instance, to travel back to south London and visit Blackheath Harriers for the occasion two years ago of the memorial service of one of his own sporting heroes, Sydney Wooderson. Alas, in the end, he could not manage the journey from the west country.

That did not stop him working, though: even last year, when asked for his own recollections of the last London Olympics for the SJA’s 60th anniversary series, Rodda was happy to oblige. It was, as far as I can establish, the last published piece he wrote.

It will be sad that John Rodda, one of the last press box veterans of the 1948 Games, will not be around to witness London 2012. Perhaps, as a reminder to us all, LOCOG can name the media centre in Hackney “The Rodda Rooms”, after the Londoner who – as Rodda once wrote of Killanin – “shed a little light” on the Olympics in the second half of the 20th century.

John Clinton Rodda, born Beckenham, Kent, Nov 6, 1930; died Taunton, Somerset, Mar 3, 2009. He is survived by his wife, Yveline, their daughter, Lucy, and his five children from his first marriage to Alice, and his 11 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

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