Opinion: Are we witnessing the sad demise of athletics in Harlow? (and why we should all be concerned)

Athletics / Thu 3rd Mar 2022 at 07:19am

Opinion Piece

Michael Casey

TWO weeks ago, over 2,000 Year 7 and 8 students from across Essex took part in the Essex Schools Track and Field Championships.

Apart from three runners from St Nicholas’ in Old Harlow, there was not a single runner from Harlow.

There were runners from West Essex schools such as West Hatch, Davenant and Debden High.

There were runners from Southend, Basildon, Chelmsford, Colchester, Saffron Walden, Upmoinster etc.

This is becoming a habit. There were no Year 10,11,12 and 13 runners in January’s event.

There were no Harlow runners in the Essex Schools Track and Field Champs in May 2021.

Harlow had a proud tradition in Track and Field and especially middle and long distance. From World Under 15 Age record holder, Richard Green to Olympic 800 metre finalist in 2012, Andrew Osagie.

It had a proud tradition of excellence but the reality seems to be that if Harlow secondary schools did manage to field teams then they would be trailing in last.

But this is not a memory lane piece. The past is another cross country. They do things differently there.

What is most concerning is that this reporter is finding it hard someone who is upset or angry about this.

One person who is, is the Head of Pemberley Academy, Neil Coster. Mr Coster was a fine runner in his day, winning the Essex Clubs 3000 metre championships. He told YH that when he saw the number of runners (2000) and not a single Harlow runner, he was both shocked and angry.

Mr Coster’s school does what it can. Football teams, the daily mile etc. He wants to see change.

There is also great for work done by Church Langley Primary Deputy Head David Stacey as part of the Harlow School Sports Partnership. Every week, we receive press reports of pupils playing a whole array of sports from touch rugby to a number of new and dynamic sports.

But this is not just a piece on sports participation and sporting excellence. This is a public health issue. Harlow has the highest incidence of morbid obesity amongst Year 6 pupils in the east of England.

We would not submit this observation to the British Medical Association but just look out of your window at 8.30 most weekday mornings and you will see far too many overweight children waddling to school.

There is a public health crisis in front of us that will have long term consequences for the NHS. Which probably wont be there when they hit 40.

Are the students doing other sports?

One PE teacher said, a lot of his pupils want to be footballers. However, not a single Harlow footballer was selected to play for the Essex Under 14, Under 15 and Under 16s in a recent tournament.

There is still plenty of sport going on in Harlow and children do get encouragement. For example, a Year 7 student at St Mark’s shows promise at Netball. Her teacher encourages her to join Tegate who train down at Mark Hall. She joins Tegate and is flourishing, not only as a sportswomen but as a person.

We also know that this scenario has been replicated down at Harlow Rugby Club. You see young people flocking down there nearly every day of the week.

However, if you go to watch an away match with Tegate, the one thing you will notice is the flood of Chelsea tractors taking the children to and from the game. It makes you wonder if children’s sport has become middle class and exclusive.

That takes us back to the cross country. Yes, there were schools all over Essex but there were also no schools from Thurrock. A very similar area to Harlow. Are we seeing the socio-economic inequalities of health being played out in cross country.

So who can help.? This is far from a dog at PE teachers. Far from it. Perhaps w emend to be asking the politician what they can do.

Harlow MP Robert Halfon happens to be the chair of the education committee in the House of Commons. He has a huge amount of influence.

Every day he is in countless media platforms, telling us how important it is that children remain in school, of a mental health crisis.

We put it to Mr Halfon that he needs to solve the athletics crisis. He needs to get the government to put its had in its pocket and invest. We will be discussing this with him further.

We are also aware that there are highly paid people at Harlow Council who are allegedly charged with promoting sport. Someone needs to hold them to account.

The irony is that there are a number of running organisations in the town. Harlow Running and Tri Club, Innovation Multisport, Parkrunand Beyond, Harlow Wheelchair Racers.

There is also the Saturday morning parkrun. A free 5k run around town park.

Plus the Junior Parkrun on a Sunday.

The vast majority who participate are middle aged. Very very few young people.

There is Harlow Athletics Club. It is a pale shadow of what it used to be. It was hit hard in 2018 by the deaths of top coaches Chris Clark and Nat Fisher.

What they need is help.

We would like to think that representatives across the board could get together as part of a working group and try and solve this problem. Because,, you are either part of the problem or part of the solution.

This reporter first stepped out onto a track in July 1971. Fifty one years later, he can still be found lumbering at the back of a park run. But he will always be grateful to athletics for giving him a particular set of life skills. It may just be doggedness but he is still here..being dogged.

In conclusion, this is part of public health emergency in Harlow that we all need to own. Please don’t say kids these days as there are thousands and thousands in Essex and the UK taking part in sport.

We need to be more ambitious and angry about this but convert that anger into a positive force for good.

But this is a marathon and not a sprint and every long journey begins with a single step.

Michael Casey. March 2022.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

18 Comments for Opinion: Are we witnessing the sad demise of athletics in Harlow? (and why we should all be concerned):

Neil Warner-Baker
2022-03-03 08:08:41

As a life long resident of this town,, i have seen the demise of sport in our town. The thriving amateur football clubs, The Swimmings pool, our sports center and field track, the cycle Velodrome, the playschemes and school sports fields. All gone, just a memory...And they call it progress..

2022-03-03 08:57:19

The closure of the old Sports centre and the move of the track and athletics facilities to Mark Hall School commenced the rapid decline in the Harlow's athletics. Mark Hall has never adhered to the agreement fairly regarding access to the facilities and failure to maintain the track has left it in an unusable state.

2022-03-03 09:57:38

Harlow has lost so much of it's vibrant sporting tradition, there was once a running track, velodrome, football stadium and very a affordable sports centre in the centre of town. We had the largest amateur football league in Europe. What happened the land was sold for housing, the Recreational Trust ploughed it's funds into a luxury LeisureZone that most families simply cannot afford to use. Sport was at the heart of the town. On top of which the number of Council officers that supported this healthy lifestyles philosophy were cut dramatically and there's long been only one guy battling on with a totally inadequate budget. Sports make a community and much of the community has gone. There are organisations being successful Changing Lives, Harlow Rock School, various Youth Football and gym clubs but they are stymied by a desperate lack of funding and centres. We urgently need Community, Youth and Community Centres to improve the quality of life and healthy lifestyles. The additional benefits that result include reducing antisocial behaviour and criminal activity. It's similar elsewhere and the education system dictated by the government must take much of the blame but that's no excuse. Meanwhile a great thanks to all the volunteers who turn out in their spare time and the teachers who run the after school clubs to keep sports alive in the town.

Kim Oconnor
2022-03-03 10:41:48

Agree with all those comments. Harlow lost sports centre, football field,ect ect. The Harlow swimming pool was Olympic size, used to have famous swimmers coming here. All gone, because councils only see profit in build build build for unaffordable housing. Its sad.

2022-03-03 11:16:55

Having been involved in Athletics with HAC back in the early 70"sand Sport most of my life in Harlow yes we did have amazing committed athletic coaches whom gave their time unpaid and voluntarily..we we all grew up with a disciplined competitive spirit Today anyone involved in Sport in any Sport centre everything is at a cost nothing subsidised so yes maybe Sport is now only for the middle class as you have suggested! What Harlow needs is good committed coaches schools need to be more active and offer more competition between other schools...sport brings people together the benefits our huge for the child the adolescent the Senior so much of life is learnt from Sport whether it be running athletics boxing trampolining etc etc Discipline...Resilience..team spirit.. competitiveness..trust even ...Local authorities such as Harlow need to do much more as so much of Sport like athletics in Harlow has been left behind ...they need to be more diverse create a foundation of Sport dedicated to outside Sports in and around Harlow they need good coaches to be enticed back or entice new blood . I think Mark Hall could work but the right coaches schools informed talks on Athletics the benefits ..create a place where the young athlete wants to train feels its his or her second home ..it was mine for years ..then maybe it will have a chance of resurrecting itself to its former glory othetwise it will be left to die !

2022-03-03 11:48:45

Really disappointing comment from Veronica above; the coaches in Harlow are all volunteers and do it for the love of the sport. To say they are not to a standard she expects, or not "good quality" is an absolute insult and she should be ashamed of herself.

2022-03-03 12:32:43

To busy playing games on the X Box.

Pauline Davis
2022-03-03 13:55:03

Harlow arhletics offer good coaching facilities at Mark Hall and the staff are dedicated to those wishing to run. Schools need to promote running and encourage their pupils to participate.

The A414 Side-Kick
2022-03-03 15:29:43

Excellent article! 👏🏻👏🏻 Is one of the issues the plethora of sports they now cover in schools, in relation to the relatively narrow range of sports that we had? My boys' cousins always perform well at the cross country over in Dunmow... is there weak commitment to practising it in the Harlow schools, presently? It is pretty unpopular for unfit unhealthy children and there are a higher proportion of them here. As far as the middle class, it is still being served well with a very high level of Junior Tennis & first rate facilities at Laton Bush, Penguins is still turning out Championship winning swimmers with the former Champion swimmers voluntarily coaching them, albeit struggling with a 25m pool, I know the Leisure Zone has a strong swimming offering as well. Both Cricket Clubs plus the Rugby club have vibrant colt sections and fabulously lottery enhanced facilities everywhere. There is a school sports premium now, that was missing 15 (?) years ago... they did away with dedicated sports teachers in primary schools, the form teachers were taking the PE sessions! Still this was a national issue not just Harlow. Its good of you to highlight the parallel with Thurrock... I hope Robert Halfon will look into the issues of the barriers to participation in sport for disadvantaged children, although I know pastorally the schools in Harlow prioritise ensuring neglected children are not perpetually hungry, let alone getting them access to sports. The primary schools have been putting on impressive amounts of free afterschool sports clubs. After lockdown more value should be placed on the access to sport the primary schools ARE providing as they ear out was catastrophic for many children health. It must be remembered nobody can force children to turn up to the after school classes. Stay at home mothers and fathers have become nearly extinct and child minders not providing "soccermum service" could be the largest factor in the decrease in uptake in school sports in relatively disadvantaged areas.

2022-03-03 16:04:12

There is much good going on but the scale is far too small. There's a lack of investment: volunteers can do so much but need the facilities and full time dedicated people from administration to coaching to break through. Also a change in philosophy why depend on teachers and volunteers why not have youth services, clubs and coaches working in schools? Also what's on offer is so limited our vision is also really lacking eg gymnastics club 200 members 200 waiting list, no ice rink, no ski slope, only 1 skateboard park, few outdoor gyms if any. Why hasn't each secondary school it's own community swimming pool and dance studio? In the olden days of the GLC in a bog standard Comprehensive school sport on offer to us even included horse riding lessons and ice skating. Also come to think of it the music and cultural offer was far better than school children get these days, very very low cost access to Concerts and performances at the Royal Festival Hall with top world class performers. Unthinkable now, so much for progress.

2022-03-03 22:49:17

Well, if this article was intended to ignite a passion in promoting athletics in Harlow, all I can say is that the headline, on its very own has had a damaging impact. The very tone of the article is accusatory and the responsibility of the demise of athletics, whether intentionally, or inadvertently, seems to have been placed at Harlow Athletics Club door. I wonder if you genuinely appreciate how many hours every single volunteer coach puts in to trying to support the young athletes in Harlow? Hours are spent at training sessions each week, before you add in the time given up freely at weekends to support young people in competitions. And yet in the guise of trying to promote athletics and engender a ‘change in attitude’ you appear to have knocked the very people who are doing their utmost to promote and support it. Harlow is producing athletes and some good quality ones that are competing at a national level. Where was this acknowledgement? The purpose of your article was truly well-intended, but I think more thought needed to go into considering how to promote those people - all of them - who are working towards the very goals that you are driving for rather than knocking them down.

2022-03-04 18:02:17

If there is a running club where is it ? My son is super fast been waiting for after school clubs to start up they stopped them because of the pandemic

Bert puttocks
2022-03-04 20:57:41

I regularly see young people running in Harlow, albeit with the police in pursuit

Robyn Bond
2022-03-06 07:59:09

This article has made me really angry because the author has clearly not bothered to do his research. Harlow Athletics Club has the most dedicated group of VOLUNTEER coaches who give up evenings and weekends to coach young athletes who are out training no matter the weather. To the person “K” who asked, “If there is an athletics club, where is it?”.. a quick Google search of “Athletics club near me” would be a obvious start. And to the author, comments like “waddling to school”… really? *shakes head* You have also said “…there is Harlow Athletics Club… What they need is help”. Too right! Great load of help this badly written article is to them though!

2022-03-06 10:19:00

Low cost affordable houses (which aren't) or athletics tracks and football pitches?.....money will always be the deciding factor. Surprised we still have a Golf Course in the town tbh.

John oakes
2022-03-10 10:53:29

I thought the leisure zone offers deals for families on low incomes. My family used the council leisure card which reduced the amount paid for swimming. I some cases I think you can email the Harlow advice centre to see what is available for saving money in sports activities depending on your situation. As previously mentioned I also believe COVID has had an impact on some children's sport activities unfortunately.. hopefully this will improve soon.

2022-03-26 11:39:42

Hi Michael, I just say I am disappointed by your skewed view on what Harlow Athletics do for the community. I suggest you actually go to the training sessions to see the amazing work these volunteers do for these children every week, wind, rain or shine. Athletics is not all about competing and winning. Children also want to participate and be part of something that can help improve their health and well being. Something that is a main focus at the moment since COVID-19. My daughter loves going and has completely changed since joining in a really positive way. Her confidence and self esteem has grown tenfold. Something that any young child needs when developing. We should focus more on why so many parents have a lack of interest, support or contribution to their child's interest and development in any sport. The parents at the Athletics club are a testament to everyone, setting an example to other parents of their commitment and support to their children and to the local club. We should love and nurture this club and promote it in a positive way rather than shoot it down. That is the way to bring attention to the Athletics club in a way that would attract more would be athletes.

Dreams can come true
2022-12-31 02:43:17

Harlow produced many famous athletes, in the day, across the board from track swimming rugby and soccer… Maybe these past sports personalities could go to the schools and talk about the sport they chose and how it affected their lives from committing to the sport of their choice and the accolades that came with it… Give back to these local heroes, who may have been forgotten by some but not the older generation, who can help jump start the young ones into following their dreams….. After all a great story instills the emotion to want to do something one enjoys …..

Leave a Comment Below:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *