By Tony James
He’s run over 80,000 miles in the course of a glittering international career and has two dodgy knees and the prospect of a knee replacement to prove it.
But when you’ve been a world record holder, old habits die hard and Dave Moorcroft strides down a London street towards his office with the drive and enthusiasm of a man half his age.
An ultra energetic 63, the man who was a key figure in the golden era of British middle distance running shows no sign of slowing down or losing his appetite for finding challenges in everything he does.
An international runner until the late 1980s, he became boss of UK Athletics, worked as a BBC and Channel 4 television and radio athletics commentator, became chief executive of a £20 million sports foundation, ran a sports consultancy and chaired a worldwide network of personal fitness training services.
Join in charity
But Moorcroft’s main motive had always been to put something back into sport – which he loves and still misses – and today he’s certainly doing that. In 2012 he became director of sport for the Join In Trust, a charity for local sports volunteering, which now has over 80,000 volunteers in every level of sport.
“Almost all grass roots clubs and sports groups rely on volunteers and seven out of 10 need more people to help out,” Moorcroft says. “Sport as we know it wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for volunteers and every extra one makes a huge difference.
“Our communities win by enabling people to find ways to play sport and live more active, healthier lives and volunteers care about their local areas. Often to them, building up community spirit is just as important as the actual sport.”
Now at the sharp end of all Join In activities, Moorcroft works with the network of local volunteer leaders and community sports clubs, is involved in grass roots projects and manages the relationships between organisations and volunteers.
“Everyone involved in Join In is a joy to work with,” Moorcroft says. “For me, at the end of my professional career, it’s a massive bonus. Just walking into the office you can feel the energy and creativity. It’s fantastic the work they do and the way they connect with other people.
“If I can’t run any more, I love to encourage more people to start running and discover the joy it brought me,” says the man who held the British 5,000 metre record for 28 years and has the MBE and OBE for services to sport.
“There was a great impetus to become involved in sport after the 2012 London Olympics and interest is building up again in the run-up to the Rio games this summer. And that means we’ll need even more volunteers.”
Moorcroft hasn’t run for six months, but hasn’t given up all hope of one day putting on his running shoes again: “I still keep very active and keep myself fit. I’m out on the bike a lot, but my knees are not in very good shape. I guess that’s the price you pay for having been a runner.
“But I don’t regret a single step I’ve run because they were all necessary to break a world record and win medals,” says the man who was running close to four-minute miles when he was in his forties.
He says that in his golden years there was a lack of awareness about the long-term effect on joints and injury prevention was virtually unheard of. Diet was pretty rudimentary too – Moorcroft remembered that he had a burger and chips for lunch before his world record run.
How it began
So how did it all start? “I began running when I was 11 at secondary school in Coventry,” Moorcroft recalls. “We were sent on a run because it was too wet for football. Everyone else moaned about it, but I really enjoyed it. My dad took me to a local club, the Coventry Godiva Harriers, and I’ve been a member ever since.” He’s currently the club president.
Moorcroft adds: “My dad wasn’t really a runner and we didn’t have a history of producing sports people in our family, but for me the switch was flicked at 11 and there was no doubt in my mind what I wanted to do.”
Moorcroft was a double AAA junior champion in 1971 and after running for Britain as a junior made his senior international debut in 1973 and competed in his first Olympics, in Montreal, in 1976.
Breaking the world record
The year 1982 made Moorcroft a sporting legend. He won his second gold at a Commonwealth Games, then came the Bislett Games in Oslo and the 5,000 metre race that would change his life.
It wasn’t meant to be a world record attempt and there were no pace makers. Moorcroft’s wildest hope was that he might beat the British record held by his friend and rival Brendan Foster.
He has remembered: “But as soon as the race started, I just felt free and thought: ‘I’ve got to get to the front.’ For pretty much 10 laps it didn’t hurt. I was running in a way I’d never run before, with absolute freedom and complete control.
“I had no idea how fast I was going or what the lap times were. I just knew I’d left the rest of the field behind. I kept waiting for it to hurt. I was relatively inexperienced at 5,000 metres and although there was a big clock I couldn’t compute the time.”
Only on the last lap did Moorcroft realise he was going to break the record and his time of
13:00.41 – 5.79 seconds faster – stood for three years. He celebrated with his family with fish and chips and champagne.
The same year Moorcroft created a European and British 3,000 metres record. But when Mo Farah finally exceeded his British 5,000 metres record, Moorcroft, with characteristic generosity, said he was proud of Mo, adding: “I’ve known him since he was a youngster and I’d held it far too long.”
Moorcroft competed in his third and final Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984. But injury struck once again and he came in last in the 5,000 metres. He battled back to fitness and his final national title came at 3,000 metres in 1989. Then in 1993, at the age of 40, he smashed the British veterans’ record for the mile, running 4:02.53 in Belfast.
Some observers of the sporting scene think that Moorcroft actually played an even greater role in British athletics off the track than he did on it. In 1997 he joined the British Athletic Federation as chief executive, only to find that the organisation was in a perilous financial situation and two weeks later went into administration.
Later he admitted he wouldn’t have taken the job if he had known what the immediate future held.
Appointed chief executive of its successor, UK Athletics, Moorcroft led a dramatic turnaround through sponsorship, broadcasting and public funds. He stayed at the helm for 10 years and when he finally left UK Athletics had a yearly turnover of £18 million and a £50 million sponsorship agreement.
Today Moorcroft, married with two children, has warm memories of a long and distinguished running and business career, but not surprisingly one day stands out: “For one moment in time in 1982 I was faster than anyone else in history, including some of my heroes.”
Not many people can say that.