Rodda: Track writing’s man for all eras

By Steven Downes
As we all filed through the elegant portico into the entrance of Wren’s St Bride’s, it was reminiscent of the opening scene from Chariots of Fire, that almost sepia-tinted celebration of some of the glories of Olympism, and some of the Olympics’ less-than-glorious aspects, too.

Chariots was released in 1981, as the running boom began in Britain and when the country’s athletes bestrode the tracks of the world like latterday Titans.

The film opens at the memorial service for Harold Abrahams (which had been held at another Wren church, St Clement Danes), and Thursday’s memorial service for John Rodda, held in the journalists’ church off Fleet Street, would recall both the 1924 Olympic 100 metres champion and the more recent golden decade of British athletics.

The congregation heard not only of Rodda’s outstanding reporting skills, but had a message from Seb Coe that told his belief that were it not for some influential columns in the Guardian, he may have been denied his historic feat of two Olympic golds at 1,500 metres.

As well as John’s large collection of children and grandchildren, all lovingly corralled by his widow Yveline, among those assembled in St Bride’s were other parallels with the Abrahams memorial all those years ago. Gathered here were old colleagues from Rodda’s newspaper, a peer of the realm representing the BOA (Colin Moynihan), past Olympic competitors (Jean Pickering) and figures from athletics clubs, as well as track writers.

John Samuel, Rodda’s sports editor for a lengthy spell during the writer’s 36 years at The Guardian, was there, as was David Miller, his old rival for stories in the Olympic corridors of power.

Sydney Hulls, the former athletics and boxing man at the Express, was there with chums Alan Hubbard and Colin Hart. Hulls is possibly the oldest surviving original member from the formation of what was then the Sports Writers’ Association, having joined in 1948, a year or so before Rodda did.

“Good to see you here, Sydney.”

“You don’t realise how good it is to be here,” said the sharp-as-a-pin octogenarian, having recently recovered from serious illness.

The choir sang Vaughan Williams and Handel gloriously, and the addresses gave full tribute to Rodda’s work and sheer humanity.

Rodda’s life and career managed to bridge between the Chariots of Fire generation and the Coe-Ovett era that was to eclipse it. And there was never any doubt whose side Rodda was on.

John Goodbody hinted at Rodda’s disapproval that among his early athletics correspondent rivals were Abrahams and Jack Crump, when both were still active officials within the sport. “John’s attitude was not to respect officials,” Goodbody said, “but to always suspect them.”

Rodda’s former Guardian editor, Peter Preston, paid tribute to his reporter’s world scoop in Mexico City in 1968, when he found himself in the midst of an army massacre of students and union officials.

And while Lord Coe was away on Olympic business, his written tribute, read by Nick Mason, made clear his admiration for Rodda.

John “had a good political nose and was an assiduous student of history,” Coe said. “It was that combination coupled with an abiding love of sport that kept him at the forefront of his profession for significantly longer than most.”

And it was before the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics that Rodda helped Coe to make history. “His status in the sport was so unquestioned — drawn through a lifetime of watching elite competitors with all their vulnerabilities — that his strongly and cogently argued case for my inclusion was crucially enough to flick the tiller of opinion in my direction.

“I think that without his intervention I might never have been able to successfully defend my Olympic title,” Coe said. “For that, I am forever grateful.”

It was an apt tribute for a service of thanksgiving for the life of John Rodda.

For the SJA’s obituary for John Rodda, click here

Click here for The Guardian‘s Rodda obituary

Click here for more recent articles on journalism, sport and sports journalism

Join the SJA today – click here for details and membership application form