Charlie Spedding – Olympian

 

Charlie Spedding is the only British medallist in an Olympic Marathon in the last 56 years. In 1984 he
had won in London and Houston before taking bronze in LA. He then came second in London in ’85,
third in Chicago in ’86, and sixth at the Seoul Olympics.

I began our telephone chat with football, hoping for a brief, matey exchange, the ice-breaker for men
across the globe. I anticipated friendly abuse, badinage and mutual reminiscence of desperate
disappointment tinged with occasional triumph.

He was a fan, he admitted, but of Sunderland. Under pressure he confessed to holding a season ticket.
The Black Cats, six times top division champions, record gate 75,000, FA Cup winners in 1973, are now
stuck in League One and it’s no laughing matter, not for Charlie anyway.

I got to what I hoped was the point. Why, given his astonishing achievements and his unique place in
our athletic history, had I never heard of him?

The answer, when it came, managed to be hesitant and decisive, certain and not sure, a statement of
the obvious spoken with warmth, designed to help me understand.

‘Because I didn’t win gold’.

Charlie Spedding

I protested. It’s true he didn’t earn the profile of Daley Thompson and Seb Coe, our only men to
triumph in LA, but he remains a high sporting achiever and, in his era, we didn’t have many. Even now,
only three Britons have run his distance faster.

Why, for example, is he not a frequent guest on television, a pundit? He acknowledged that Radio 5
Live did employ him as a summariser for twenty years when the London Marathon was contested.
But, he adds, that was only one day a year.

I wanted Charlie’s take on Sir Mo Farah, one of those who have run faster than him. I mentioned the
Panorama broadcast in January which stopped an inch short of accusing Mo of being a cheat.

‘What he did’, said Charlie, who had seen the programme, ‘was to have a series of injections which he
claims were not illegal but which were obviously performance enhancing. His coach – Alberto Salazar
– had a reputation for going to the absolute limits of legality’.

But Salazar has been banned for cheating, not for exploiting limits, and had operated under a cloud
of suspicion for many years. Under these circumstances, why has Mo gone quiet? Wouldn’t innocence
make itself noisy?

Charlie said that rumours circulate about all successful athletes. ‘Runners who keep on winning at the
highest level are always treated with suspicion, whether they are doing anything wrong or not. Lasse
Viren won Olympic 5K and 10k in 1972 and 1976. He never failed a drug test … but people still think
he cheated’.

Charlie coming in third, behind Treacy at the LA Olympic Games

As a child Charlie had been fascinated by the bottles and potions in his father’s chemist shop and
resolved to study Pharmacy. This became a vocation – interrupted by his sporting career. In due
course he began to wonder why so many people took so many pills but never got better.

In 2010 he approached ex-teammate Coe, who he describes as a friend, with a plan. Using London
2012 as an accelerant, and noting that there were nearly a million obese schoolchildren in Britain, he
proposed a nationwide competition in which every school would measure, in a series of short tests,
the levels of fitness in all pupils. The tests would be repeated at intervals and league tables established
based on the extent of improvement. Finally a winning school would be declared. They would receive
a gold medal and participate in the opening ceremony. Two other schools would get silver and bronze
but the point was that everyone would win; kids would be fitter throughout Britain. Overweight
children, according to Spedding, are the diabetics of the future.

Sebastian Coe was an astonishing sportsman. He owes some of his fame to his rivalry with Steve
Ovett, to whose Rolling Stone Coe played the Beatle. In 1980, they took a gold medal each and the
country was rapt. His other talent was building a career for himself. Baron Coe, as he now is, was
selected as parliamentary candidate for Falmouth in 1992, and represented the constituency for 5
years. In 2007 he was appointed vice-president of the IAAF, was re-elected in 2011 and, in 2015, was
made president. Meanwhile, he headed the bid for London 2012 and became chairman of the London
Organising Committee. He had earlier been elected Pro-Chancellor at Loughborough University, and
is a member of their governing body. Chairman of the British Olympic Association, he was given a
Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBCs Sports Personality of the Year in 2012.

Seb, it is safe to say, doesn’t annoy people he identifies as important. He met Charlie to discuss the
plan. There were smiles and encouragement. It was never rejected, just not followed up. I suggested
that our education system had for years been competition-averse and had as policy removed the
word ‘failure’ from the lexicon. Spedding and I agreed that success is not possible without the
prospect of the opposite.

Charlie never sounds angry or frustrated but I think he is. ‘The latest Government figures say 20% of
children are obese and 33% of primary school children are obese or overweight. These numbers
continue to increase. Policy is to encourage everybody to take more exercise and eat a “healthy diet”.
Clearly, this policy does not work. My book Stop Feeding Us Lies was written because these policies do
not work. The type of food we eat alters the hormonal response to that food. Carbohydrates increase
Insulin, which stores energy as fat and prevents the release of energy from fat stores. Exercise does
not cause weight loss in the presence of high insulin levels, because we take the energy for exercise
from the glycogen stores and never touch our fat stores’.

There are eighteen chapters in his book, published last year and overlooked by the mainstream media.
He points out, in the light of criticism he has received, that just two concern meat. ‘Our species
evolved… because our ancestors ate the meat and fat of the animals they caught. We did not evolve to
eat meat; we evolved because we ate meat. Animal foods are the most nutrient-dense foods we can
consume … We are carnivorous people; we are not herbivores.’

An autobiography, From Last to First, had been published in 2011.

On Twitter he notes, puzzled, that the nation was recently banned from sunbathing and thus deprived
of vitamin D, which boosts the immune system. He has produced a graph which demonstrates that
healthy people are more likely to die from a lightning strike than they are from the virus.

Charlie is a sportsman whose feats are under-celebrated, an expert whose advice is largely unheeded and
a writer whose books remain unreviewed. Vegans regularly abuse him on social media.

You’re 68 and ignored by the people who matter, I said. Why not spare yourself the hassle and give
up?

He knew the answer but it needed a preface. He described his training regime. ‘I would run twice a
day six days a week, five miles in the morning and ten at night, and do a twenty mile run on the
seventh day’.  He went on to describe the mindset required to pursue such a programme for years
on end.

All was explained respectfully, as to someone who didn’t know. I got out of breath listening. At the
end of the preamble came the reply. I knew what it was going to be.

‘I don’t give up’.

A simple fact, quietly put, absolutely not a boast, said gently, almost with a smile, almost asking for
understanding. I heard the unpushed resolution in the voice and remembered I was talking to an
Olympian.

And a Sunderland fan. A rough bunch, worse than Newcastle, always the cause of trouble down our
place.

I wanted to be cheeky and suggest that, surely, the autobiography should have been entitled From
Last to 
Third, but something stopped me. Both the books are available on Amazon. Charlie is on
Facebook, can be followed on Twitter – @speddingcharlie – and his blog is here
https://stopfeedinguslies.com/

This is a four minute edit of the final stages of the Los Angeles Marathon
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klzKwLQP4NE

Charlie is careful with his words but very generous. Open and reserved. An eager correspondent, but
not on Sundays.

I’ll be reading the books.