The elegant Lancashire lass whose World record paved the way for Sally Gunnell

Sandra Dyson had just set a World record and told “Athletics Weekly” that “if anyone wishes to organise another 400 metres hurdles – late in the season, of course – I would be delighted to run”. The Coca Cola international meeting at Crystal Palace in September of that year of 1971 would have provided an ideal showcase, and an experimental hurdles event for women was indeed held that night, but this was curiously at 110 metres hurdles. Instead, a month later the first 400 metres hurdles race for women in Britain took place in obscurity at the same stadium with little or no advance publicity and Dyson, who was a member of the Bury & Radcliffe club, won again but in a slower time.

To be strictly accurate, Sandra Dyson’s 61.1 in the German capital of Bonn on 15 May 1971 remains no more than a World best performance because the event was not to be recognised for official purposes until 1974 and would not be held at the Olympic Games until another 10 years after that. Actually, this was not as slow a progress as it might seem because as late as 1968 the longest hurdles race for women at the Games was still only at 80 metres. That winning time in Bonn may sound unimpressive these days – though it would still have ranked 27th in Britain 45 years later in 2016! – but in the process Dyson, who had set a British record for 200 metres hurdles of 27.3 the year before, beat a very capable athlete, Gisela Ellenberger (later Klein),.who would win indoor European Championships silver and bronze medals at 800 metres in 1974 and 1976.

The circumstances of this pioneering venture in Bonn are intriguing, but there was no hint in “Athletics Weekly” in the weeks beforehand that it was due to take place. The Women’s AAA had received an invitation from the German athletics authorities to take part in two days of experiments to assess the potential of either a 300 metres hurdles or a 400 metres hurdles for women, and Sandra Dyson had been accompanied to Bonn by Ken Oakley, the WAAA coaching secretary. The 200 metres hurdles was fairly well established as a supplementary event to the 100 metres hurdles which had recently replaced the 80 metres hurdles, and there were 12 different countries represented in the top 40 of the previous year’s World rankings at that half-lap event.

“AW” had carried a detailed article in April concerned with the 200 metres hurdles, written by Ken Oakley, and in it he had considered the various proposals for standardisation of the spacing of the hurdles which had been submitted to the IAAF the previous year.. One of the salient points made by him was that the 200 metres hurdles “would not merely replicate the 100 metres hurdles race i.e. ideally a different athlete should win the longer event”. This, of course, is a recommendation which in retrospect could be applied even more aptly to 400 metres hurdles, and it would seem that the 200 hurdles had not found particular favour with competitors, at least in Britain. When asked whether she preferred the 200 hurdles or the 400 hurdles, Sandra Dyson said, “I don’t really mind which distance I run, but as no one but me seems happy with the 200 metres I’ll take them on over 400 metres!”. .

Reference to the feasibility or otherwise of 400 metres hurdles races for women had been made around the same time in the Spring 1971 issue of the newsletter, “NUTS Notes” (which can be viewed in its entirety on the NUTS website, www.nuts.org;uk). The writer in this instance was Peter Pozzoli, who was then Britain’s leading authority on the history and statistics of women’s athletics, but he very much preferred the idea of a 300 metres hurdles, and stated unequivocally, “Men reckon the 400 metres hurdles is the killer of the track. I do not suggest women should run it. But if women aged from 13 to 40 have run marathons without dying, I feel sure that they could run a 300 metres hurdles”.

Unfortunately, Pozzoli’s prediction was not borne out by the happenings in Bonn because Sandra Dyson said of the 300 metres hurdles held there that “it proved to be a complete fiasco, as nobody found a workable stride pattern either in training or during the race”. The technical observers in Bonn were obviously in general agreement as that experience seemed to mark the beginning and the end for the event in international terms, though it has survived to this day in the Under-17 age-group at the English Schools’ Championships and to some extent in high-school competition in the USA. If the 200 metres hurdles was ever thought of as a major Games addition, it was a passing fancy because the IAAF was to no longer recognise it for record purposes after 1971, and the WAAA dropped it from their championships from 1973 onwards, bringing in the 400 hurdles instead.

The example set by the enterprising WAAA was quickly followed by the national authorities in Poland and the USA, The next year Australia, Canada and Sweden added the 400 hurdles for women to their national Championships, all of them surprisingly ahead of West Germany (1975), the USSR (1976) and East Germany (1977).

So far as the experimental 400 hurdles race in Bonn was concerned, Dyson and her coach at the Bury & Radcliffe club in Lancashire, Brian Fox, helpfully provided “Athletics Weekly” with a full account. “I was obviously thrilled to win”, Dyson wrote, “but I was rather disappointed with the time. I think with a lot of effort I could do inside 58 seconds, but this was my first ever run over the full distance. It sounds terrible, but I was more preoccupied with my stride pattern than with running fast!” In the race later that year at Crystal Palace she did 61.4, and it would be a further two years before any other British woman broke 61 seconds, though there was already an improved World best performance as Libuše Macounová, of Czechoslovakia, had run 60.6 in Prague on 29 September. She was of comparable standard to Dyson as a flat 400 metres runner, having set a personal best of 54.5 earlier that month.

A Yugoslav, Mirjana Kovačev, who was living in Germany but oddly does not appear to have any suitable credentials as a hurdler or 400 metres runner, had also been invited by the German authorities to join Ellenberger and three others in the experimental trials and the 400 hurdles race, while local sports students raced at 300 hurdles, and it all came about at very short notice, as Dyson explained: “The amount of time available to experiment and try and establish the best stride pattern was very limited, 10 days; This meant that nothing very ambitious could be tried, and there was a tendency to err on the safe side with stride lengths and deciding where fatigue would set in and ‘chopping’ would have to start”. At a slightly-built 1.64m (5ft 4½in) tall, Dyson did not possess the obvious physique for the event, but a photograph of the Bonn race shows her clearing a hurdle in the home straight in fine form

The six runners occupied the outer lanes on the all-weather surface, with Dyson in lane seven, and she described her race as follows: “From the start the running went smoothly until hurdle six was approached, when I found myself too close and had to ‘chop’. This unsettled me, and quite unnecessarily I ‘chopped’ from 17 strides to 19 for the rest of the race, which slowed me down considerably after going through 200 metres in 28 seconds”; Ellenberger was 2nd and Kovačev 3rd, both in 62.0, with Ellen Beermann 4th in 62.6, Heidi Gerhard 5th in 65.0 and Obeck (first name not known) 6th in 65.3. It was very warm weather and raining hard throughout the race, and the whole two-day affair was conducted in something of a laboratory situation. The hurdles races were preceded the day before by a supervised series of time-trials at 60 metres, hurdling practice and gymnasium exercises, including chinning a bar, press-ups and a circuit run”. Presumably, somewhere on a bookshelf or a computer screen in Bonn there still exists an academic paper recording all the gathered data from these efforts.

In terms of basic speed, Ellenberger and Gerhard were somewhat faster than Dyson, both having run 53.7 for 400 metres flat, but Dyson had come from a very successful indoor season in which she had represented Great Britain against East Germany and France in that event, and she had even figured in a relay win over the formidable East Germans on their home boards. The week after the Bonn race she reduced her flat 400 best to 55.0.

Born in Bury on 8 February 1944, she lived in Cheshire and worked as a wages clerk for Imperial Chemical Industries, but she had joined the Bury & Radcliffe club because she also liked to run cross-country. She was to progress at 800 metres to 2:07.8 in 1972, ranking 11th in Britain, but injuries hampered her training and she never did achieve the sub-58 hurdles time she cherished, or even improve on her original 61.1, in her occasional outings through to 1978. Mrs Jean Simpson MBE, who has been an official for Bury & Radcliffe AC and then Bury AC for more than 50 years, remembers Sandra Dyson as being “a very smart lady who had elegance and poise on the track”.

Bob Phillips

 

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