Tom Richmond: Setting pace for a healthy nation as politicians stumble

Brendan Foster was the inspiration behind the Great North Run.
Brendan Foster was the inspiration behind the Great North Run.
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THE hurdles that legendary runner-turned-commentator Brendan Foster had to overcome when setting up the original Great North Run illustrated the best and worst of Britain.

On announcing plans for a ‘fun run’ between Newcastle and South Shields 36 years ago, he wrote a letter to the local chief constable. “I wonder if we could enlist the co-operation of the police in order to manage the traffic and possibly close some roads,” he requested.

The mealy-mouthed reply remains framed in the office of the former world record holder. “It is not my policy to encourage sponsored events on the highway,” it said unhelpfully.

Reflecting on a lifetime in athletics which will culminate with his final commentary stint for the BBC at the World Athletics Championships in London this weekend, Foster – to this day – does not know whether official permission was forthcoming or not.

What the proud Geordie does know, however, is that more than one million competitors have now completed the 
half marathon, including the stretch across the Tyne Bridge to the stirring strains of Newcastle United’s adopted anthem Local Hero, as runners of all shapes, sizes and speeds embraced this now annual race, many raising priceless funds for charity.

One million people. One million stories and no less a figure than Lord Sebastian Coe – the head of world athletics and adopted son of Sheffield – hailing Foster for making “a seismic contribution” to the health and fitness of the nation.

Why does this matter?

Foster’s ‘can do’ example contrasts with Theresa May’s ‘can’t do’ government which appears to be rapidly running out of ideas – no pun intended – because Downing Street aides have become so paranoid about the intentions of aspiring Tory leaders that deputy chief whip Julian Smith, the Skipton MP, has reportedly asked backbenchers to spy on those who might be stepping out of line.

If this is how Britain is going to be managed until the next election in 2022 or when the government disintegrates, whichever comes sooner, it does not bode at all well for the future – whether it be the implementation of Brexit or its response to issues such as obesity and pollution that are fundamental not just to the wellbeing of the nation, but the day-to-day sustainability of the NHS.

No one in the Tory party, from the Prime Minister to those unelected political aides who become too power crazy for the country’s good, should have a monopoly on good ideas. If the Conservatives are to find their feet following the June election farce, they need to welcome the input of all.

Take health and the cash-strapped the NHS. Though a legacy of the 2012 Olympics in London is record numbers of people running and cycling, the disparities are striking – the fit are getting fitter while the fat are becoming fatter to put it bluntly.

Yet, while the country’s over-dependence on motor vehicles is literally choking some communities as Ministers announce plans to eradicate new petrol and diesel-powered vehicles from 2040, they won’t say how Britain will generate sufficient power to operate electric cars.

And, to compound matters, Professor Frank Kelly – who advises the Government on environmental health matters – has said that “fewer cars, not just cleaner cars” holds the key to purer air as he called for vehicles to be banned from big cities. He added: “We need to give people more and easier options to get about without necessarily owning a car and using it for short journeys.”

What is the answer?

There’s a case to be made, given 
the prevalence of satellite technology, to tax motorists for every journey undertaken. It might stop those unnecessary trips to the shops which previous generations used to make by foot. We can’t afford to become a nation of namby-pambies. A bit of rain won’t hurt you. It’s only water.

There’s an even stronger case for greater investment in public transport – two words that Ministers seem embarrassed to utter. If investment in trains and buses kept pace with population, families might not be so dependent on the car in the daily race against the clock.

And there’s a compelling case for Theresa May to harness the energy and enthusiasm of inspirational individuals like Brendan Foster, the man who put the fun into running as the then chemistry teacher chased world records in the 1970s before becoming the ‘voice of athletics’.

Looking at how the Great North Run continues to change lives for the better, is it feasible to have car-free days in city centres to see if they encourage more people to walk, run or cycle to work or use public transport? And what about community sports clubs devoted to the proverbial ‘slow coaches’ rather than those irksome individuals obsessed with recording a personal best every time they don their running shoes or cycling lycra?

If Britain is to become healthier, there needs to be far-reaching changes when it comes to the lifestyles of people of all ages. I, for one, would be far more receptive if this debate was being led by Brendan Foster, a role model who has led from the front, rather than those politicians tripping over themselves in the race to become Prime Minister. Do you agree?

tom.richmond@ypn.co.uk

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