Some of the biggest names in British athletics offer their respects to the iconic athlete and coach
Daley Thompson, Linford Christie, Fatima Whitbread and Dwain Chambers led off a host of former Olympians and elite athletes at a packed funeral service for iconic sprinter Mike McFarlane in east London on Thursday (July 7), Rob Draper reports.
There was standing room only at St Mark’s Rise, Dalston, close to the Hackney streets where McFarlane grew up, with around a thousand mourners crammed into the church.
Tony Jarrett, Dalton Grant, Donna Fraser, Julian Golding, Darren Braithwaite and Wendy Sly were among those paying tribute to the 1982 Commonwealth 200m champion, who died at the age of 63 in May and who had represented Team GB at 1980, 1984 and 1988 Olympics, winning a silver medal in the relay in Seoul with Christie, John Regis and Elliot Bunney.
A tribute from Regis was read at the service by McFarlane’s former training partner, Donovan Reid, who was a pallbearer with other former team-mates and one of several speakers highlighting not just McFarlane’s athletics achievements, but his commitment to wife Joanne and son Ryan.
The trailblazing sprinter also won European indoor gold medals over 60m, was also European Junior 200m champion in 1979, three times English Schools 200m champion, a Commonwealth bronze medallist over 100m in 1986 and relay medal winner at European and Commonwealth Games.
Team-mates Phillip Tapper and Vernon Bramble from his first club, Victoria Park Harriers, spoke about McFarlane’s schoolboy successes and the junior sprint relay record they set in 1976, which remains a club record for both junior and senior men: indeed, McFarlane still holds all the 100m and 200m club records for senior and junior men at the club.
Best known for his unprecedented dead heat gold medal, which he shared with Scotland’s Allan Wells, in the 1982 Commonwealth Games 200m in Brisbane, the judges unable to separate them despite the photo finish, McFarlane also came fifth in the 1984 Olympic 100m final, behind winner Carl Lewis and bronze medallist Ben Johnson, a final in which Reid came seventh.
“We weren’t meant to make the final, people thought we were just there to make up numbers, but we had other plans,” Reid told the congregation, relaying how the competitive drive of McFarlane, known as Mac to friends, had driven him to his Olympic, Commonwealth and European medals.
“Let me tell you a secret about Mac,” said Reid. “Mac didn’t like to train. But Mac didn’t like to lose,” he added, before relaying the pain of their winter training sessions running up the steps at Alexandra Palace in north London and dragging weights at Parliament Hill, overlooking London on Hampstead Heath.
Though the first black Briton representing Team GB on the track at the Olympics dates back to Harry Edward in 1920, McFarlane was part of the new wave of black British athletes emerging in the 1970s, his parents having been part of the Windrush generation emigrating from Jamaica in the 1950s. As such, his sprinting career was hugely significant in cultural terms, as a leading and visible black Briton on GB teams in an era when the idea of Britain as a multi-cultural country was still new for many Britons. “There weren’t many young black men travelling the world like we were, staying in the best hotels,” said Reid, reflecting on the impact McFarlane made.
The service heard how double Olympic champion Thompson and McFarlane had first met at a training camp as teenagers, a confrontation ensuing as McFarlane initially refused to admit that he knew who the slightly older and more-well-known Thompson was. After a brief stand-off, they subsequently became lifelong friends, competing at three Olympic Games together.
World Athletics President Seb Coe, the two-time Olympic 1500m champion, improved his speed preparing for his 1984 title by working with McFarlane’s sprint group, his decisive kick finish often attributed to those sessions. Lord Coe said: “I got to know Mac very well when I joined Haringey in 1983. Part of my training was to work out with the sprinters. It was that purple patch in the history of Haringey AC and of GB sprinters and it really honed my finishing speed. Mac and I used to room together and I roomed with him on the eve of my first ever world record in Oslo in 1979. He went on to have a distinguished career in the British team in arguably our most successful athletics era.
“But I think few of us thought he would become the world-class coach that he did. And this observation is made with some sadness. There is a lesson for us all going forward which is that natural coaching talent is not always packaged in readily recognisable boxes. It emerges from all backgrounds and it is not always suffused in academic study.
“Mac was a natural. He was forensically observant and had a gentleness and empathy that is a key requirement in balanced world-class coaching. He should have received greater recognition for his coaching achievements and was certainly underutilised in our national structures. He will be missed in many ways but primarily as one of the nicest people that I have ever come across in our sport.”
McFarlane did work as relay coach for UKA but in the rush to hire foreign coaches in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics, McFarlane’s considerable skills were largely ignored. As well as coaching, McFarlane held down a full-time job with the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme and received an OBE in 2001 for his services to athletics and youth work.
He then worked as a school mentor in south-east London and remained coaching, guiding 2020 Olympic finalist Jodie Williams in her early years. He was coaching Desiree Henry until last summer, with Alicia Regis, daughter of John and Jennifer Stoute, recently joining his group, a decision she made on the recommendation of her parents, a sign of how respected he was amongst Britain’s sprinting elite.
McFarlane was pivotal in the resurgence of British sprinting in the 1980s, which was kick started by Wells’ Olympic 100m gold in Moscow, with the Scottish contingent being bolstered by London sprinters such as McFarlane and Reid, who were coached by John Isaacs at Haringey AC (now Enfield and Haringey AC), the club McFarlane subsequently joined.
Their achievements paved the way for the likes of Christie and Regis, with whom he won his Olympic silver as part of the relay quartet at his last Olympics in 1988, with McFarlane, the consummate bend runner, handing over to Christie after running leg three.
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He was a world-class athletics coach, nurturing the careers of Chambers and Commonwealth champions, Tony Jarrett and Julian Golding. He coached Chambers to a bronze medal at the 1999 World Championships, where he ran 9.97. Chambers then finished fourth at the 2000 Olympics and 2001 World Championships, running 9.99, under McFarlane, before concluding that he needed to move away from McFarlane to the USA to win medals, which was when Chambers tested positive and banned for two years. Despite that coaching split, McFarlane always remained supportive when Chambers launched his comeback and was close to his family. Chambers joined Jarrett, Golding and Braithwaite, all coached by McFarlane, carrying his coffin at the burial service in Wanstead.
The hearse had a photo of McFarlane, whistle in mouth – his familiar guise as a coach at the track – and below it read his mantra of “Three minutes recovery …. No time to play today.”
Sly, now a director of UK Athletics, represented the governing body at the service, which saw mourners sing How Great Thou Art, Amazing Grace and Abide With Me. McFarlane is survived by wife Joanne, son Ryan, brother Barry and mother, Leonora.
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