Posted: December 13, 2003
Athletics: 'The Springbank International Road Races: A Brief History'
The following is an essay written for a Canadian Sport History course at the University of Western Ontario. I'd like to thank the many people who helped me with my research - unfortunately there was not enough room to include everything sent my way - as well as Guy Schultz and Dr. Don Morrow for their suggestions on improving the paper.
'Greatest Race I've Ever Seen'
On the afternoon of Sunday September 27th, 1970 an estimated crowd of 3,000 people gathered at a park in London, Ontario to watch various runners compete in four road races as well as an induction ceremony. This was only the 3rd edition of the annual Springbank Road Race event, and the first year that 'International' was added to the race title. Many of the spectators that were present were not quite sure of what to expect. The events started at 1:00 pm and by 4:56pm every single person in the park was in awe at what they witnessed. The spectators saw legendary runners Robert Rankine (record 7 victories at Around the Bay race in Hamilton) and 1906 Olympic Marathon Champion Billy Sherring inducted to the Canadian Road Runners Hall of Fame. Fans also got to see the superb Frank Shorter prevail over a great field in the Men's Open 4 ½ mile. But all other events were overshadowed by the 12-mile race, which featured an epic duel between the top marathoners in the world for 1969 and 1970: Ron Hill (world marathon champion, commonwealth marathon champion in 2:09:27) and Canadian Jerome Drayton (world ten mile record holder, Canadian marathon record holder). Neither runner could break the other and they shared strides the entire way with Hill winning in a phenomenal sprint finish, crushing the course record by almost 3 minutes.(1) No less an authority then 'Mr. Marathon' Jock Semple, co-race director of the famous Boston marathon for over 30 years, described it as "the greatest two man duel I have seen in my life"(2) and the "greatest race I've ever seen."(3)
For those that competed in or followed the Springbank road races, it is quite clear that they were very special. Sherry Watts of the London Pacers claims that:
Springbank was a microcosm of everything going on in running at the time. Under the table payments to elites, no money for the women, etc. It also was one of the original masters age group races and was part of the beginnings of the masters' track and field movement.(4)
Looking at the races as a 'microcosm' for the development of international road racing is too large a scope for this paper, though it would be quite interesting. Instead, it is the purpose of this paper to demonstrate that the success of the Springbank Road Races, circa 1968-1985, was central to the development of the London running community and brought considerable attention and prominence to the city of London. These two aspects are illustrated by examining the community involvement - spectators, businesses, and athletes - in the races, as well as the reverence with which all levels of runners, organizers, and dignitaries treated the races.
Successful from the Outset
The Springbank Road Races were remarkably successful from the very beginning: big names, fast results, and no rain to spoil the events until 1973. Amby Burfoot helped get the ball rolling by accepting his invitation to the very first event, and winning in fine form. A quick look through the following results shows prominent names such as Jerome Drayton, Grant McLaren, Ron Hill, Frank Shorter, Jack Bacheler, Bruce Kidd, Kenny Moore, Hal Higdon, Karel Lismount, Neil Cusack, Jeff Galloway, Jerry Kooymans, Miruts Yifter, Jon Anderson, Dick Buerkle, Bill Rodgers, Alberto Salazar, Nick Rose, Peter Butler, and on and on, ad infinitum. Olympic medallists, Canadian and world record holders, high school standouts - they all came to Springbank because it was THE place to race. Bernie Conway, the IAAF and AIMS International Measurement Administrator for the Americas, remembers it well:
At that time in Ontario there was the Around the Bay Road Race in Hamilton (it is older than Boston's Marathon), there was the Alvinston to Watford 10 mile Road Race…and there was Springbank. Springbank was the most prestigious of these races and actively sought runners to come to these races.(5)
Dennis Kalichuk, who kept the Springbank races alive in a non-international format after 1985, explains the races early success:
The races became noteworthy continent wide because they were one of the first to start 'inviting' top runners from around the world. This was before they started commanding big dollars just to show up to races, and paying their expenses and putting them up was often all it took. The races were also unique at the time, I believe, because of the separate events for ages and genders.(5)
The London running community recognized the importance of these races and got involved in many different ways, welcoming domestic and foreign competitors with open arms. As Kalichuk referred to above, many runners were billeted in London homes, such as that of the Obokata family.(7,8 )
Local businesses were also very keen on being involved in such a prominent event. For many years, the Holiday Inn would display a sign at their front entrance saying "A hearty welcome Springbank road racers" and they would pay for a full-page ad in the race booklets with a photo of the sign and their nearby locations.9 The Holiday Inn was not the only businesses to realize the benefits of being involved in the Springbank races. After the success of the first year - in which Amby Burfoot' appearance garnered much attention - there were 18 different advertisements in the 1969 race booklet. Following the success of the aforementioned 1970 event, the 1971 event (which saw Moore break Hill' course record in the 12-mile), and the 1972 event (which included recent 1972 Olympic marathon gold and silver medallists Shorter and Lismount, as well as Hill) it became clear that Springbank was truly special. Appropriately, local and international business owners 'came running' and the 1973 race booklet saw the number of advertisements soar up to 47. Ads in the 1973 booklet included such organizations as Puma, Shell, Bank of Montreal, The London Pacers, Runners World, and Labatt's, which was also a title sponsor for a few years, paying extra money to be included in the race name.10 Birks Jewellers were the proud suppliers of the race trophies, while Byron Swayze Travel Service Ltd. and London React were to be the official travel agents and Communications Experts of the races, respectively.
While the business interest brought attention to the races, the high profile athletes attracted the media attention. Camera crews and reporters were noticeable at the races, despite the fact that road running was not amongst the popular North American sports.(11,12 )
Running is not a Popular, Spectator Sport
It appears as though someone forgot to tell Springbank founder, race director, and announcer Dave Prokop that running is not a popular, spectator sport. When asked by Kenny Moore in 1972 how the races were so successful "in spite of considerable expense, negligible income, and relative indifference in his community" Prokop modestly replied "We're simply a handful of people who try to do things a little better than average."13 After the 1973 event drew an estimated 3,000 spectators, race organizers had to ask the fans to spread out along the course so that everyone could see the race; they continued this plea each year afterwards, while the numbers swelled to crowds of 5,000 after 1975.
Along with all these spectators and elite athletes, the races also drew large numbers of local athletes in an era described as the 'running boom'. The 'boom' refers to the large increase in participation in running events that resulted from such events as Springbank and major city marathons. The 1968 event had 92 finishers between 4 events, while 1973 saw over 600 runners start between 5 events (first year that the Ladies' 4 ½ mile was added), and by the late 1970s the numbers were up in the 1,000s. It is believed that Springbank was the first major road race event to combine mass participation with elite runners, a feat that other races later emulated and can now be seen worldwide.(14)
To truly appreciate the degree to which Springbank promoted and brought positive attention to the city of London, one needs to look no further then the testimonials of the athletes that competed here. Bernie Conway writes that:
Many runners including Bill Rogers and Frank Shorter even today will stop and talk with fondness to runners they see wearing a Springbank T-shirt. I know because I have heard several runners tell me this happened to them. I remember Nick Rose flew from England to be at this race and several runners from Canada's East Coast drove to get to these races as well.(15)
The races were very successful at drawing international athletes not just once, but year after year. Shorter would travel from Florida, Hill flew over from England, and even the high schoolers traveled great distances to compete: two-time winner Jack Dufresne came down from North Bay, while 1974 winner Nil Lavallee hailed from Timmins, and the great Alberto Salazar made the trip from Massachusetts in 1975 to crush the course record.
Race walker Sherry Watts recalls working with Andy Palmer, a Sports Psychologist from Atlanta, and remembers the reverence with which he associated Springbank:
…when I mentioned training in Springbank Park he stopped me and said 'the Springbank'? He had never raced here but he was on the Florida Track club team with Shorter and Galloway and Parker etc. and he talked about it almost as though it was hallowed ground. And of course, Parker mentions it in his novel 'Once a Runner'.(16)
Springbank was so well respected that the Canadian Road Race Hall of Fame Induction ceremonies became a regular fixture within the annual race schedule. It was also the site for the Canadian Road Race Championships in 1985 - and again since then - but that, unfortunately, was the last year it was run as an 'International' event.
Another example of the manner in which Springbank boosted the reputation of the city involved the attention the races drew from political figures. Year after year the race booklets included greetings from both the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister (PM) of Canada - almost invariably Pierre Trudeau. Mayor Herb J. McClure called the races "an important part of London's growing reputation for producing and attracting fine athletes"17 and "one of London's most important yearly sports attractions."18 Mayors such as Al Gleeson were very proud to host such an event in the city, while Mayor Jane Bigelow remarked on how the event brought "honour to the City of London."19 But the decline of the event is also quite visible in these comments. In the last few years of the 'International' event, the Mayor and PM were recycling old greetings, while the 1985 race booklet no longer contained a greeting from the PM, foreshadowing the events impending demise.
The End of the 'International'
On the afternoon of Sunday September 22nd, 1985, several hundred competitors toed the start line of the Springbank International for the final time. The 18th edition of what had once been a spectacle of world-class road racing was now somewhat mundane. Looking back at the start lists almost two decades later, a local athlete may very well pass over respectable Canadian athletes such as Steve Boyd and Janet Dick (now Takahashi) and focus on the as-of-yet untapped talent in the Elementary and High School races, which included Drew Macaulay and Zeljko Sabol, among others. But even the Canadian talent in this 'International' event was lacking. For reasons beyond the scope of this paper, the event that had once been a front-runner in the development of the road racing community was now being left behind. Keeping a lesser version of the race alive, Dennis Kalichuk became the new race director for 1986. In a recent interview, he said
When I read an article saying the races were folding, I contacted the race organizer and asked if they would mind if I tried to carry the event on. We both agreed the 'international' part of the name should be dropped. That was one of the reasons they were folding - the races really weren't an 'international' draw anymore and I don't think they wanted to go 'backward' with the event.(20)
What was Springbank? What did it mean to the running community? It was a remarkable, pioneering event that brought great pride and respect to London thanks to the fact that it was very 'well run' - both by organizers and athletes. The 1981 race booklet offered this adept description:
Springbank, what is it? Is it a series of road races. Is it the first event in North America to invite both citizen and elite athlete to participate. Is it known throughout North America and much of the world for the excellence of its events. Is it known as the event which has over the years seen five world marathon champions during their championship year and over four Olympians take part in its races. Is it known primarily for its beautiful setting, the finest anywhere. Is it known as the place where Jock Semple of Boston Marathon fame witnessed 'the greatest two man duel I have seen in my life'. Is it a group of dedicated people who are now staging the fourteenth renewal. Is it a City, its businesses, particularly John Labatt Ltd., and its citizens who have supported it with their encouragement and their funds. Is it an event dedicated to promoting fitness and health, the byword of our modern society. Is it the event that started the trend which has resulted in an explosion of similar events over this continent. It is ALL of these things.(21)
From the inaugural 1968 event that started Springbank on the right (Bur)foot, through to 1985, the Springbank International Road Races were an integral part of the Road Racing community at local, national, and international levels. They were instrumental in the growth and development of the London running community, and brought considerable repute to the city. The plethora of world-class athletes aroused great interest in the event from spectators, participants, volunteers, and media, with business interest soon to follow. Races such as that described by Semple as 'the greatest race I've ever seen' became the stuff of legend; when combined with the superb organization of the event and its picturesque venue, it is no wonder that former elite competitors still refer to Springbank as though it were 'hallowed ground'.
There are a great many issues surrounding Springbank; so many, in fact, that this paper merely begins to touch upon the subject. Further research in this area would be a very valuable asset not only for the history of road racing, but also for the many runners who missed seeing the greats in action. The Springbank race organizers did much more then increase the number of Londoners that ran; they created something very special that continues to inspire runners to this day.(22 )
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