News - 20.11.2009

An athletics snapshot of GATESHEAD

Across the Tyne Bridge from the city of Newcastle lies the town of Gateshead whose international sporting profile rests largely on the shoulders of its compact athletics stadium. Despite its reputation for poor weather, Gateshead has brought colour to the cheeks of British athletics in a variety of ways, most recently in the shape of the British Grand Prix.

Here is the track where, in 2003, Yelena Isinbayeva set her first World record (4.82) in her long-running saga of women’s Pole Vault improvement. And here was where Asafa Powell equalled the men’s 100m World record of 9.77 in 2006.

Here, too, was where a £100,000 jackpot head-to-head between Olympic 100m champions past and present, Carl Lewis and Linford Christie, took place in 1993. Here was the training home of World record breaking triple jumper Jonathan Edwards. And here was the scene of Britain’s fondest team triumphs - two European Cups hosted at Gateshead, two home wins for the men’s team

Yet, despite all this, nothing lingers in the memory quite as fondly as the local hero story of Brendan Foster. In his home town, the then sport and recreation manager for Gateshead Council, smashed Emiel Puttemans’ World record for 3000m, clocking 7:35.2. The 1976 Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist, Foster remained a local hero well into the 21st Century as founder and continuing face of the Great North Run.

Although membership of the Diamond League puts Gateshead on an equal footing with the London Grand Prix, at Crystal Palace, it is still considered Britain’s No.2 grand prix fixture. Historically in Britain, Crystal Palace has attracted better line-ups, performances, weather, attendances (17,500 v 11,800 capacity) and media coverage.

For those reasons it seems odd that Gateshead should be branded as the British Grand Prix but the title has had a nomadic existence – finding homes in London, Sheffield and Gateshead at various times – and Crystal Palace chose to adopt the London Grand Prix identity in 2003.

However, it is Gateshead rather than Crystal Palace that has a place in history as the first venue to host the European Cup twice (1989 and 2000). The original Gateshead Youth Stadium was opened in 1955 and, as floodlights, grandstand, and tartan track were added it grew into Gateshead International Stadium.

Gateshead was where the legend of Isinbayeva began. Aged 21, the Russian cleared 4.82 to replace American Stacy Dragila as World record holder. So unexpected was the moment that, as the last event to finish, only 1,000 of the 10,000 spectators had stayed behind to watch.

Isinbayeva has set two of the five World records seen at Gateshead, the second at 4.87 in 2004, although she was not the first woman’s pole vaulter to set a new standard on the track. Daniela Bartova, of the Czech Republic, broke the World record with 4.14 in 1995.

Christie’s victory over Lewis in 1993 proved more hype than substance as the Briton won in 10.03 while the middle distance events have produced thrilling near misses on World records, notably the valiant attempt by another local hero, Jarrow’s Steve Cram, at 1000m in 1985. Chasing compatriot Sebastian Coe’s mark of 2:12.18, the weather hampered Cram as he recorded 2:12.88. In 1998 Morocco’s Hicham El Guerrouj  clocked 4:48.36 for 2000m, just outside the World record 4:47.88 held by Algeria’s Noureddine Morceli.

Under its recent identity as the British Grand Prix, highlights at Gateshead, going into the Diamond League era, have included not only Powell’s 9.77 in 2006 but his 9.87 in torrential rain in 2008 and, again in adverse weather, the stadium records set by American Dwight Phillips in the Long Jump (8.39) and by the Czech Republic’s Barbora Spotakova in the women’s Javelin Throw (65.57) in 2009.

David Powell for the IDL