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Award-winning London Heathside are on the right track

London Heathside's Sarah Swinhoe. Pic: Dieter Perry London Heathside's Sarah Swinhoe. Pic: Dieter Perry

Ben Grounds
Thursday, December 19, 2013
8:44 AM

‘If we can build it, people will come.’ North London has its very own tale of spirit and strife akin to the American cult fantasy-drama ‘Field of Dreams’.

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The film depicts Kevin Costner as a hard-up novice farmer who converts his cornfield into a baseball arena – and Jerry Odlin’s vision for London Heathside AC remains similarly undiminished.

The Heathside chairman is on the brink of securing the necessary funds for improvements to the athletics track and changing-room facilities at the club’s Finsbury Park base.

That would cap a remarkable year for Heathside, who gained recognition in May as the UK Athletics club of the month, and were last week named club of the year by Athletics Weekly magazine.

“If we can bring the facilities up to standard, we’d be in a position to attract further athletes and coaches alike,” Odlin told the Gazette.

“We’d be able to then offer extra support to local schools running their own athletics events, and this can only be good for the sport.”

Conversion into a state-of-the-art athletics facility would represent a dream fulfilled for Odlin, after Haringey Council threatened to close the track in 2011.

The Heathside chairman formed a company alongside fellow Finsbury Park tenants London Blitz (American Football) and Dynamics Sports Academy, which took over the management of the track and tennis courts.

The first step of Odlin’s vision is for a complete refurbishment of the track, the infield, and the floodlights. The second goal of the project, which would cost in excess of £750,000, is to modernise the concrete changing-rooms.

“We made a bid for the contract from Haringey Council, but were only able to do this through running it completely with volunteers,” Odlin said.

“Taking over a council-run facility and doing so exclusively with volunteers is not an easy task, but that is the state of play now.”

“At present, we are putting our foot on the accelerator and trying to raise as much money as we can. At this moment, it’s been run-down for over a period of 25 years.

“We tick a lot of boxes as an inner-city club serving some areas of the country that are not particularly well-off.”

With other venues in Hampstead and Hornsey, the club – whose membership has risen to 550 – are part of the North London Athletics Network, which also includes Highgate Harriers and Shaftesbury Barnet.

The trio pool their coaching resources to bring together the region’s best pole-vaulters, long-jumpers and hurdlers under one roof for regular training sessions – a system that Odlin believes will benefit British athletics immeasurably.

“It is a way of maximising your coaching stock,” he added. “It’s a bit like pooling the best players of Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham together to ensure they’re competing against each other all the time. This helps them to improve.”

“We’ve attracted a lot of new runners and we are doing it without a proper clubhouse, being scattered around different areas of north London. The service we offer is extremely good considering we have one arm tied behind our back.”

One of the immutable rules of athletics is that certain clubs will always be articulated in terms of their most famous athlete – just ask any of those British track and field Olympians who weren’t Jessica Ennis-Hall or Mo Farah.

Lloyd Cowan, who coaches 400m world champion Christine Ohuruogu, was once a member of Heathside, and Odlin has high hopes of cult status for two of the club’s current athletes in particular.

“We’ve consistently had people who have ranked in the top 30 of their particular event,” said Odlin.

“At Under-17 level, Lily Beckford is doing really well, ranked No 7 in the UK at 400m. At the other end of the scale, Sarah Swinhoe is No 4 at long-distance running for the Over-40s.”

Over two million people in the country are now registered as taking part in athletics at least 30 minutes a week, but Odlin believes the sport needs further investment in facilities if the younger generation are to be drawn into emulating the likes of Ohuruogu and Cowan.

“We saw a massive surge [in participation] – particularly the young ones, in the run-up to the Olympics and afterwards,” said the Heathside chairman.

“What we haven’t seen, and what every club wants – whether it be rugby, football or athletics – is to see a good quantity of people between the ages of 14 and 20 coming through. This is still not happening, despite the Olympics.”

Odlin’s passion for the sport knows no bounds, and, as long as his designs for the Finsbury Park track do not suffer a false start, one suspects further accolades will come heading in his direction.

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