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Assembly line runner who churned out titles

TRACKS were cinders at best, and often grass, in 1959.

The Mini and the Barbie doll made their debut that year, and HIV claimed its first fatality. Sending a letter cost the equivalent of one pence today, and brown envelopes and under-the-table payments for athletes were unknown to Maurice Herriott when he won the first of eight AAA steeplechase titles.

The sport was strictly amateur and Herriott, who left school at 15, trained during his lunch hour at the BSA factory where he worked on a motorbike assembly line, escaping a life down the pit at Cannock, where his father spent all his days.

Herriott won Olympic and Commonwealth silver in the 3000 metres steeplechase and was a household name for almost a decade; he lowered the UK record six times (twice in the 1964 Olympic Games). He briefly held the Olympic record, breaking it in his heat, only to have it beaten in the next. He was the then youngest middle-distance runner to represent Britain at 18, became GB team captain and won 10 times in 12 successive appearance in a UK vest. He was twice honoured as British Athletics Writers' Association Athlete of the Year in a seven-year unbeaten reign as AAA champion to 1967.

The first of his BAWA awards was the inaugural one in 1963, and Herriott (73 this month) was among the guests at BAWA's 50th anniversary yesterday in London.

When he lined up against Gaston Roelants at the 1964 Olympics, the Belgian was world record-holder with 8:29.6, in the middle of an 45-race unbeaten streak. Roelants held a 50-metre lead at the bell, but Herriott had closed to barely 10 at the line, running his best ever time, 8:32.4. The eight-year-old world best is now more than 14 seconds inside the UK best.

"I had tea in the athletes' village with Roelants afterwards," recalls Herriott. "I knew I had to break you in the middle, because I was aware of your finish,' he told me. He gave me his vest and said: 'Have a look at the front, because you never saw it in a race!' I was honoured; I've still got it."

Herriott failed to progress from the heats at the next Olympics, one of many victims of Mexico's altitude. Dr Roger Bannister was "frothing with anger" – his words – after 80 oarsmen collapsed, and seethed over the fate of endurance athletes, despite his warnings to the Olympic movement.

"It nearly killed Ron Clarke and it nearly killed me," said Herriott. "They had to get me back down very quickly to sea-level at Acapulco. I remember nothing from the start. The hurdles were a blur. I can't remember a single one. When I finally came round, I asked about all the bandages on my ankles and knees. It was where I had clouted the hurdles, and that wasn't [like] me. I trained over hurdles every day, but hadn't the strength to lift my body to clear them."

His technique had helped him become world age-group record holder: the first 18-year-old to go under nine minutes. "My coach, Tom Heeley, was ahead of his time. He'd a full-time job, like me, but built me a water jump barrier and tried to have me clear it completely, like the Kenyans do today. But it was cinders, and I didn't have the nerve to trust it in a race, when you could not see what was underneath."

In Herriott's era, the sport was the personal fiefdom of Jack Crump (AAA secretary) and 1924 Olympic 100m champion Harold Abrahams (AAA treasurer). While defending the amateur ethos, Crump was not above accepting appearance fees on behalf of athletes without passing it on, while Abrahams earned fees for media work.

"I never made any money from athletics," said Herriott. "After a GB v Sweden match where I'd broken the British and all-comers' record, and beaten Bengt Persson, a promoter asked if I'd go to Sweden and put my reputation on the line against their champion. I was happy to, but Crump and Abrahams said I would be a professional if I went, and refused to let me go."

Yet they paid for Herriott's honeymoon. "I was getting married on a Saturday and they wanted me to run for Britain in Paris the next day. So I had Saturday night with my bride – stayed with my parents – it was unbelievable, but typical of athletics in those days.

"They flew us to Paris the next morning. Marina was the first wife to accompany a British athlete to a match, but she was whisked away on arrival and I didn't see her until after the race, which I won. Afterwards, they paid for a fortnight honeymoon in Paris.

"The biggest prize I ever won was an electric fire and wooden surround. Ron Hill [the marathon runner] was opening the track at Bolton, and said I could pick my prize if I ran. We'd just got married and I asked for an electric fire. Ron got it delivered before I even raced. I was terrified. You didn't break the rules. Crump and Abrahams were fierce about the rules."

He was once carpeted by the authorities, after a complaint from the Women's AAA secretary, Marea Hartman. "I was the first athlete to run in silk shorts. A neighbour in Birmingham was a seamstress and made a special pair with red, white, and blue stripes. Marea said they were indecent, because the shorts would get wet in the water jump. I had to go up before the British Board, and take the shorts. When they found they were lined, they apologised and said I could wear them."

Herriott moved to Port Erin with his Manx wife when BSA folded and worked as an engineer on a trawler. "The only boat I'd been on before was the ferry to the Isle of Man but I spent 15 years on that trawler, and another 14 or 15 running a paper recycling factory. I loved every minute of both."

Unlike Roelants, who set a world masters record for the 'chase which lasted for 27 years, Herriott never contested veteran athletics, but took to coaching. Now president of his local club, he admits: "This is a very rare trip off the island, for me."

Many of the greatest names in the history of British athletics were reunited at yesterday's lunch, sponsored by the Virgin London Marathon. Interviewing Herriott for the first time was a particular personal pleasure. I was an aspiring schoolboy steeplechaser when he was in his prime, and he inspired me to modest success which nudged me towards becoming a  sports journalist.

Mo Farah, the double Olympic champion, was named the latest of Herriott's successors yesterday, while Jessica Ennis is BAWA female athlete of the year, a role filled in 1963 by sprinter Dorothy Hyman. Junior athletes of the year are Adam Gemili and Katarina Johnson-Thomson, while Dave Weir won the award for Outstanding Achievement by a Paralympian. Yamile Aldama, fifth in the Olympic triple jump nine days before her fortieth birthday, won the Inspiration Award.

Weir, the quadruple 2012 gold medallist, will on the podium again tonight in Glasgow, presenting the awards at the scottishathletics annual dinner.

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