Brendan Foster, the familiar face and voice of British distance running for almost four decades, celebrates his 70th birthday today.
Born in the small North East town of Hebburn on January 12th, 1948, Foster would become a national hero when he won Britain’s only track and field medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
As a boy, he attended St Joseph’s RC Grammar School in Hebburn before moving on to the University of Sussex and then completing teacher training at Carnegie College of Physical Education, now part of the City of Leeds and Carnegie College. His first job was back at his old school in Hebburn, as a chemistry teacher, but he was already involved in running, which would soon become a full-time obsession.
As a member of the renowned Gateshead Harriers, he showed early promise as a distance runner and was soon earning a name for himself at regional then national events. In 1973, at the age of 25, he broke the world record for two miles running in an event at Crystal Palace, crossing the line in eight minutes 13 seconds. The following year he won a silver medal in the 5,000 metres at the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand, then won gold over the same distance at the European Championships in Rome, beating Olympic champion Lasse Virén.
Also in 1974, Foster set a new world record over 3,000 metres running on home turf at Gateshead International Stadium and cheered on by the crowd. It no doubt helped him end the year by winning the prestigious BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
Although he lost out on the 10,000 metres gold medal to old rival Lasse Virén at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, Foster’s bronze was the highlight of an otherwise disappointing games for the UK athletics squad. Virén, the Flying Finn, also won the 5,000 metres and even though Foster finished fifth, he was only 1.4 seconds behind the winner. His popularity was officially recognised when he was awarded an MBE.
In 1978 Foster won gold in the 10,000 metres at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada, and also established his personal best time of 27:30:03 over the same distance running at Crystal Palace. With age starting to creep up on him, Foster ran his final major race in the 10,000 metres final at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, finishing in 11th well behind the winner, Miruts Yifter, of Ethiopia.
Retiring from competition, he became a popular addition to the BBC sports commentary team, where his experience and wealth of knowledge gave viewers a new insight into distance running. His passion for the sport also shone through and he would become increasingly animated as races reached their climax, especially when British runners were in contention. Foster’s Geordie accent was soon inextricably linked with authoritative and enlightening commentary on athletics.
In 1977 he had also helped organise the Gateshead Fun Run, a pioneering event built on the growing popularity of ‘jogging’ and running for fitness and enjoyment rather than competition. Its success inspired Foster to found the Great North Run, an annual half-marathon from Newcastle to South Shields. First run in 1981, it was an instant hit and became the UK’s biggest running event and one of the biggest half-marathon’s in the world. In 2014 it became the first ever International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) event to have been run by more than a million people.
Foster has also been active in promoting sport in Ethiopia and other African nations, served as chancellor of Leeds Metropolitan University from 2005 to 2009 and was awarded the CBE in the 2008 New Year Honours list. In 2016 he was granted the Freedom of the City of Newcastle and last year was awarded the IAAF’s highest honour, the Golden Order of Merit, in recognition of his huge contribution to the advancement of athletics.
2017 also saw him hang up his commentator’s microphone for the last time, retiring from his distinguished 37-year career with the BBC at the close of the World Athletics Championships, held in London in August. As he celebrates his 70th birthday today, we join with athletics fans across the UK and the world in wishing Brendan Foster many happy returns.