BLAENAU Gwent MP Nick Smith has called for an overhaul of how Government recognises local sporting heroes in a bid to inspire future generations to stay fit and active.
The focus of Mr Smith’s campaign is Blaenau Gwent’s marathon hero Steve Jones, an athlete who Mr Smith says sorely lacks the recognition he deserves.
Tredegar’s Steve Jones – who held the British Marathon Record for 33 years until it was broken by Mo Farah earlier this year – was discussed during a debate secured by Nick Smith MP this week.
As Mr Smith told Westminster Hall during the debate, Mr Jones – a self-trained sporting hero who began running competitively while serving as a Royal Air Force technician – shook the world in 1984 when he won the Chicago marathon.
Mr Jones went on to rack up first place marathon finishes in London in 1985, in New York in 1988 and in Toronto in 1992 among other sporting achievements.
In Blaenau Gwent Mr Jones is the subject of a campaign by Parc Bryn Bach Running Club member Lee Aherne to raise funds for a statue of the athlete.
Mr Smith said: “The key issue is this: we have this great man, who accomplished incredible things and inspires people to follow in his footsteps, but he is simply nowhere near as widely recognised as he should be.
“Steve’s achievements are a great source of pride for many in Blaenau Gwent, but he is barely known outside our borough.”
Mr Smith said he believes that the best way to inspire local people is to harness the achievements of people like Steve Jones – who at 63 now coaches in Colorado.
Mr Smith said he would like to see the criteria for the official UK Government honours system re-assessed to make sure people like Steve Jones are not overlooked.
Mr Smith added that he also wanted to see more credit given to people who achieve success in sport at a local level, pointing towards Australia’s Local Sports Stars scheme as an example of a similar incentive.
The Blaenau Gwent MP added: “Thirdly, we need to encourage links between our local sporting heroes and key public health initiatives.
“We can all be inspired by the examples that such sports people have set—but when we see others reaching the pinnacle in any field, if they are from our home town, the thought ‘that could be me’ strikes home a bit harder.”
Mr Smith has said he will now be writing to the Welsh Government, the Cabinet Office and Welsh Athletics to seek proper recognition of Mr Jones’ substantial contribution to sport.
The unusual thing about Steve is that he is a world-class, record-breaking athlete who hardly anyone knows about. He is one of the most successful long-distance runners ever produced in our country. Despite his multiple achievements, however, many people know little about this British athletics hero. So I will start telling them today.
Steve is a Blaenau Gwent-made and self-trained sporting hero. The son of a steelworker, he grew up in Ebbw Vale. Steve had been a cross-country runner, but it was while he was a technician with the Royal Air Force that he really began running competitively. He pulled himself up by his bootstraps and he reminds me of what Michael Parkinson has just said about George Best—namely, that while Best was the greatest player he has ever seen:
“He did not arrive as the complete player; he made himself one.”
Steve made himself the complete runner.
Training in what spare time he had, Steve began working his way up and competing, all the while serving his country full-time. After a ligament injury put his leg in a cast, Steve soldiered on, saying later:
“If anybody says I can’t do it, I end up doing it…I don’t like to be told that.”
That was an understatement. The tragic death of Steve’s dad in 1978 had a major impact on his career. His dad had been extremely proud of his achievements and, after his dad’s death, Steve wanted to push himself even further, and to be the best.
Steve burst into the top tier of world athletics in 1984 by completing the Chicago marathon in just over two hours, beating a reigning Olympic champion in the process. He set a British marathon record that stood for 33 years, until it was broken just this April by Sir Mo Farah.
In the years following Chicago and after receiving generous sponsorship from Reebok, Steve racked up further first-place marathon finishes in London in 1985, in New York in 1988 and in Toronto in 1992. Taken together, his achievements add up to a remarkable contribution to British athletics.
Now 63, Steve works as a running coach in Colorado, supporting athletes from across the world. In Blaenau Gwent, his legacy is seen every weekend in our local parkrun and other initiatives that Tredegar’s Parc Bryn Bach Running Club uses to encourage new runners; I am a newish member of the club. It has also been leading the charge for proper recognition for Steve. A local dynamo, Lee Aherne, has launched a campaign to build a statue of Steve, which has already raised more than £2,000.
The key issue is this: we have this great man, who accomplished incredible things and inspires people to follow in his footsteps, but he is simply nowhere near as widely recognised as he should be. Steve’s achievements are a great source of pride for many in Blaenau Gwent, but he is barely known outside our borough.
There have been other positive steps in Blaenau Gwent, such as installing plaques for some of our other sporting heroes, notably Spurs football legend Ron Burgess. Over the next few months, I will write to the Welsh Government, the Cabinet Office and Welsh Athletics to seek proper recognition of Steve’s substantial contribution to sport.
However, I also want to look at one of the best ways to do justice to the record of local sporting heroes—harnessing their achievements to improve public health. Groups such as the Blaenau Gwent Sole Sisters and the Parc Bryn Bach Running Club already do a great job with the Couch to 5k programme and parkrun, which are coming on in leaps and bounds. However, I think that Steve getting the recognition he deserves would inspire even more people to participate.
What do I think the Government could do more of? First, it is important to assess the criteria for the official UK Government honours system, to make sure that people such as Steve are not overlooked. Understandably, many honours are awarded to people who have recently won a major competition, and some are awarded to athletes who are still competing, which is great. However, it is also important to recognise those who have made a sizeable contribution during their career—local heroes, whose good will keeps on giving.
Secondly, successes in local sport need to be given due credit. There is space for awards for services to sport at the devolved or local level, with a project similar to Australia’s Local Sports Stars scheme, which seems to be a tremendous initiative.
Thirdly, we need to encourage links between our local sporting heroes and key public health initiatives. Local sporting heroes know the areas they come from and their communities, so they are ideally placed to continue encouraging others.
Some Welsh athletics stars came to our parkrun recently to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the NHS and they went down a storm—the response was absolutely fantastic—so I ask the Government to consider engaging local sporting heroes as part of the childhood obesity plan’s local partnerships, which are in train. I will suggest a similar approach in my discussions with the Welsh Government and my own local authority.
Great sporting achievements of any era show us what is possible, whether they are Steve’s marathon records, Mark Colbourne’s Paralympic cycling achievements or Mike Ruddock’s delivery of a grand slam as Wales rugby coach—we can all be inspired by the examples that such sports people have set—but when we see others reaching the pinnacle in any field, if they are from our home town, the thought “that could be me” strikes home a bit harder.
I hope everyone here has learnt a little more about Steve, his achievements and how he continues to make a great contribution to Blaenau Gwent, and I bet that other people here today have their own sporting heroes to celebrate. Finally, I would like to hear other suggestions on how we could build on the good work that these local sportsmen and women have done.