“Ping pong is coming home. Athletics is coming home. Sport is coming home.” Boris Johnson has always flamboyantly promoted the coming London Olympic Games’ “massive sporting legacy”, yet Oxford is certainly not short of legacies herself – the boat race is a key fixture of the nation’s sporting calendar, rugby varsity fills out at least the bottom half of Twickenham every year and it is where Roger Bannister broke the historic 4-minute mile barrier.
The end of Hilary term sees another of Oxford’s sporting legacies come around – though it is open to elite athlete and fun runner alike. Teddy Hall Relays, taking place on 7th March at the Roger Bannister Track, offers the opportunity for the college rower (just in case their legs weren’t hurting enough after Torpids) or jolly jogger to take part in one of the biggest sporting events in the Oxford calendar – with over 800 people taking part in last year’s event.
Like so many Oxford traditions, the origins of the Teddy Hall Relays are not entirely clear. Extensive research by the Oxford University Cross Country Club’s ‘Old Gits’ confirms that the event has been around for ‘quite a while,’ but nobody knows exactly how long. The best estimate places the first race ‘some time’ in the late-1950s or early-1960s, though thanks to Malcolm Warburton (Merton & OUAC Secretary 1969), we know that it was a well-established event by the 1966-67 season. From the beginning, it was a St. Edmund Hall venture, a college with a distinguished sporting tradition, though for the first 25 years or more the Teddy Hall Relays was organized by its students and was a low-key affair, mostly attracting college teams from within Oxford University, sometimes with a few teams from local clubs or other universities.
The event changed substantially in 1988 when OUCCC teamed up with Teddy Hall to create a new relay race from two existing fixtures: the Teddy Hall Relays and the final race of OUCCC’s college league. The Teddy Hall name was retained, because it sounded good, and because the college had a large dining hall that could be used for the post-race tea. The event became the final race in OUCCC’s college league series, and there was a surge in the number of Oxford college teams, due to a new participation-biased scoring system, or perhaps to prizes generously donated by Morrell’s Brewery. In one year the event grew four-fold to around 120 teams. The overall winner in 1988 was a team from RAF Brize Norton, and the first college team was Worcester, which fielded eight teams to secure the college league title.
Today the Teddy Hall Relays is an established part of the student running calendar, the fifth race in the University Relays Series, attracting entries from university teams across the country and many teams from athletics clubs, services, and the local residents. In 2009 the event was a focal point of Sir Roger Bannister’s 80th birthday celebrations, whilst saw 2011 more than 800 athletes participate. 2012 sees the introduction of electronic timing and relay batons, in order to cope with the ever increasing numbers, adding a new dynamic to the event – whilst also ensuring that results will be available within 30 minutes of the race. Taking in all of Christ Church Meadow and running along the Isis towpath, the new 4.4 mile route enjoys some of the best sights Oxford has to offer.
The event has come some way from its humble origins. Yet one of the joys of athletics is, in its innate simplicity, that anyone can imagine what it would be like to emulate the feats of the greatest athletes. With each leg of the Teddy Hall Relays starting and ending on the Iffley Road track, each runner can conceive of what it would take to circle that track four times in as many minutes – still out of reach for the vast majority today. The 2012 race will be started by Oxford’s own Hannah England, who herself has gone some way from competing in the event as a teenager to winning the silver medal in the 1500m at the 2011 World Championships in Daegu. Not only contributing to Oxford’s sporting legacy, Teddy Hall’s influence over the years has extended to those who can cement London’s sporting legacy, by winning an Olympic medal – and in a sport that is far more gutsy than Boris’ wiff waff.
This year’s Teddy Hall Relays take place at the Roger Bannister Track, 1:30pm on 7th March. Further details about the event and entry forms can be found at http://ouccc.objectis.net/competitions/teddy-hall-relays