Bob Smith: Tributes to a true hero of grassroots athletics

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Bob Smith: Tributes to a true hero of grassroots athletics


We were greatly saddened to hear of the passing of Bob Smith yesterday, a true hero of grassroots athletics. We spoke to Bob, team manager of Newham and Essex Beagles, ahead of the National 12 Stage Road Relay back in April. The relays are ‘a way of life,’ he said. Athletics was, in many ways, Bob’s life. You only have to glimpse the tributes and remembrances flooding in to begin to see his commitment to the sport and positive impact he had on so many people over the last half-century. Bob was a truly good guy.

Instead of attempting to write something that would do Bob justice, we thought it would be a more fitting tribute to share some words from someone who has known and worked with Bob in one form or another for the past 30 years. Tony Shiret remembers Bob Smith

I’ve known Bob for around 30 years. He was in the team when I was team manager in the late-eighties. He was a high jumper and was pretty average from what I remember, I think 1.90m at his best. But I remember him being a really nice guy and always turning out for the competitions.

Over the years, he became more involved in team management and, from the mid-90s onwards, was the dominant winter team manager for the Beagles.

When he first started taking on the winter team, we were pretty crap at cross country to be honest. We had a few guys, a few stars, like Graham Fell and Colin Reitz – but we had nothing else.

But we started to get interested in cross country and established ourselves as a competition provider for people running in small clubs that couldn’t necessarily field a full team. Stuart Major, who is now a coach at South London Harriers, joined us and ran for us for 15 years. We started to build the team around people like him and Kairn Stone from Devon.

The big team at the time, though, was Belgrave Harriers. They were the dominant force and won everything. Bob and I decided to position Newham as an alternative to Belgrave. He went to all the meetings and competitions, and knew who everyone was, who was training where, what we had to offer in terms of better competition and to whom. He had a very detailed knowledge of the sport, down to the lowest level. He knew everyone. His knowledge was unmatched.

We soon started to get competitive with Belgrave in the major competitions, winning South of England titles and running them close in national competitions. When we won the Southern Cross Country title in the early-2000s, it was the first time we’d done it in 100 years.

Newham and Essex Beagles was originally just Essex Beagles. We had won the Southern in the late-1890s and early-1900s – you can see it on the trophy. We’re one of the only clubs to have won the event in three different centuries – and Bob played a huge part in making that and all our cross country and road relay success happen.

Bob was also involved in some of our key “hires” during the 2000s, including Mo Farah. We’ve been able to attract the likes of Keith Gerrard, John Beattie, Dave Mitchinson, Andy Robinson, Steve Hepples, Kevin Skinner, Mark Warmby, Mike East and Moumin Geele over the years because of the success of the team and the way we did things, most of which was down to Bob. He ran the team and won everything. My memory is not as good as Bob’s was. To win what we did need was a huge amount of talented runners only some of whom are mentioned here.

Bob, myself and Rowan Griffiths have run the teams during Newham and Essex Beagles’ success on the country and the track over the years, although we are also grateful to our other team managers and our women’s track team has also been very successful and produced many excellent athletes.

It was a golden period for the club at the end of the 2000s. I think we won pretty much everything there was to win. The club still holds the record for the 6 stage road relays at Sutton Coldfield, a competition Bob was particularly fond of.

At the other end of the spectrum – London 2012 – it’s fair to say that four of the six British medals came from the Beagles – Christine Ohuruogu, Mo and Robbie Grabarz. Greg Rutherford even ran for us in a 4x100m relay once at the British League but got disqualified. Behind it all was Bob. The club’s success was down in large part to the enthusiasm and continuity he brought to the team. His dad also coached another great Beagles star, Iwan Thomas, who has said kind things about Bob today.

The period before and after London 2012 was when Bob was at his peak. I was the Chair of England Athletics London Council and got to work with Bob, who was manager of athletics in London since 2008.

We worked closely together and achieved many things, the biggest achievement being the RUN! participation programme. We put together the business plan around it and so on, but it all came from Bob and his ideas. We took £600,000 of funding from the Greater London Authority, local councils, England Athletics, and took athletics to 200,000 youngsters across London.

We ended up in 15 London boroughs. He used his vast knowledge of the sport and was involved in individual negotiations with the Boroughs, making things happen – doing what he did best. He brought excellent managers onto his team – some of the best people I have worked with in the sport, like Rhian Horlock, Tim Howells, Nathalie Kavanagh-Clarke and Coral Nourrice.

Bob was at his absolute peak, though, in 2012, putting activators in 15 London boroughs, delivering the sport to 200,000 youngsters – all while team managing and winning everything at Newham and Essex Beagles.

Even though he’s been ill for the last couple of years, the way the sport has organised itself recently made it more difficult for Bob to do what he was doing. The Beagles team has stayed roughly the same as it was in 2012 too. London 2012 really was a golden period for Bob.

On a personal level, Bob was a very enthusiastic and loyal guy. He did things in the interest of the sport and sure as heck wanted to win – but not at all costs. You never felt Bob was in the sport for personal gain, he had integrity.

And another thing, nobody was ever too small for him to pay attention to. He gave as much consideration to somebody that broke into the top-200 for the first time in a Met League as he did to those winning national championships.

Athletics was his life, not in the sense that he wanted to be head of this or that, but in doing things right. He was a top bloke, pretty stubborn at times, but a proper athletics bloke. Just look at the comments today – Bob was a top, top bloke.

Many clubs have somebody like Bob that works out of a pure love of the sport. We were lucky to have Bob on our side.

Tony Shiret


Main feature image comes from Ben Pochee, friend and rival team manager of Highgate Harriers. 

Ben recalls the story behind the picture and his friendship with Bob: 

‘I took this pic at the National Road Relays in Sutton Park a few years ago. Bob and myself were savouring our usual pre-race mickey taking/poker-faced team discussions, when I spotted one club (Salford, I think) had brought their Beagle dog to the race. It was too good an opportunity to miss and, without much persuading Bob agreed to let me take his pic stroking the dog – even though he knew all too well that I would use at some later date for more mickey-taking.

‘Bob meant so much to so many people, but, for me, he was a wonderful person whose club passion helped legitimise my own, from cross country, 12 Stage Relays and to Night of the 10,000m PBs, where he continually encouraged me. I will miss Bob, his laughter, his wit, stat wisdom – and my sore neck from looking up at him.

‘But equally, I’ll celebrate every time Highgate pinch a point off the Beagles at the Met League because I’ll hear his voice booming again.’