From the Archives: When Villa Park staged the "Olympic Games"
Olympic fever is currently gripping the country as London gets set to host the 2012 Games - but did you know Villa Park was once the epicentre of world athletics.
No, not when legend Michael Johnson met up with Gabby Agbonlahor for a seminar on sprinting back in 2008.
For a few heady days in July 1881, Villa Park - or Aston Lower Grounds as it was known then - was the venue for the Amateur Athletics Association's second annual championships.
Nowadays the appearance of athletes from across the pond in Birmingham would hardly raise an eyebrow outside the sporting world.
But in 1881, as chronicled in Simon Inglis's brilliantly informative book 'Villa Park 100 Years', the participation of two world famous USA runners - Lawrence Myers and E.E Merrill - was sufficient to move some scribes to bill the championships as the Olympian Games.
Remember, of course, that the first, true, modern Olympics did not take place until 1896.
Nor did it escape attention that when the inaugural championships had been held the previous year in Little Bridge, London, only British athletes had entered and there had been a paltry attendance.
So it was, during that balmy summer of 1881, that Birmingham became temporarily obsessed with the visiting USA runners - their prowess, their habits, their travels plans and, most of all, how they would acquit themselves against the two great English runners of that age - Walter George and William Snook, both of whom, were members of Moseley Harriers.
However, those among the inner-circle of athletics in the region started to question whether the Lower Grounds - which of course contained the wonderful Meadow - would be up to the task of hosting such a prestige event.
To mess up this great tournament would cast a terrible blight on the city.
Another concern was that the venue had an unsavoury reputation for attracting unruly betting rings.
For this reason a faction campaigned for the championships to be held at the more respectable headquarters of the Birmingham Athletics Club in Portland Road.
In the end, though, the trustees of the Portland Road ground refused permission for the championships to be staged there so the Lower Grounds won by default.
But subsequent events perhaps showed the faction had a point.
Only a week before the championships, Moseley Harriers staged their annual meeting at the Lower Grounds and were delighted when both Myers and Merrill agreed to travel up from London and make the occasion their first ever appearance on English soil.
No doubt the new management at the Lower Grounds were excited too. A double dose of USA fever was bound to yield a midsummer bonanza at the turnstiles.
Sure enough, an excitable crowd of 12,000 packed the Meadow for the Moseley meeting, anxious to find out what all the fuss was about.
But just as the faction had warned, Aston proved to be no place for the faint-hearted.
Halfway through the afternoon, the judges controversially disqualified a favourite from the area, H Wyatt from Nottingham, during the course of the one-mile walking event. That should have left the field clear for Merrill to win comfortably except that the incensed crowd - many of whom no doubt stood to lose bets on the outcome - blocked the track and forced the poor American to rush for cover in the dressing tent.
There he joined his trembling compatriot, Myers, while outside, according to one report, baying youths disdainfully invited the pair to come out fighting with their knives and pistols.
Of course, they did no such thing.
As the Midland Athlete reported: "They beat a hasty retreat from the scene and repaired to London by the next train, utterly amazed and bewildered to understand why the 'Brums' had so disgraced themselves."
Myers later said he had never encountered such a frightening mob.
But a week later both were back in Birmingham and the championships were held without even a hint of trouble.
Policeman did line the track but in the event, the two USA aces were cheered heartily by the 10,000 crowd.
The Lower Grounds looked splendid for the occasion. The gardens had been spruced up, the lawns trimmed up and a bright scarlet awning was draped across the stand on Trinity Road.
It was wonderful programme of athletics with the Irish brothers, Patrick and Maurice Davin, setting records in the high jump, long jump, shot and hammer and the enigmatic American Myers from Manhattan showing in the 440 yards why he had won virtually every race in previous championships in both the USA and Canada.
He was so far ahead of his main rival - the towering Old Etonian William Page Phillips - that before crossing the line Myers turned back and goaded his opponent into catching him up.
Even then he beat the English 440 yard record of 50.4 by a full 1.8 seconds, only to be told that his achievement would not count because of the slight gradient of the Aston track.
The only real disappointment was the poor form of the two Brummie favourites, George and Snook.
The event provided such feats, such characters, such a pageant of sporting excellence.
And yet barely five years later the Meadow was lost. It all but disappeared under the bricks, mortar and cobbled stones of three new streets, Nelson, Jardine and Endicott Roads, leaving not a single remembrance of the deeds once performed by Dr Grace, George Ramsay, 'The Demon' Spofforth, Lon Myers, George and Snook, Buffalo Bill and the flying Professor Baldwin.
But more of him next week!
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