A flaming travesty: Why was a British hero dubbed the Mighty Atom denied the ultimate accolade in 1948?

A flaming travesty: Why was a British hero – dubbed the Mighty
Atom – denied the ultimate accolade in 1948

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UPDATED:

21:56 GMT, 27 July 2012

To the British public after the Second World War, Sydney Wooderson was a hero.

A star of middle-distance running and world record holder for the mile, he was Seb Coe and Steve Ovett rolled into one, and as popular as David Beckham.

So it was generally assumed that at the London Games in 1948, Wooderson, 33, would carry the Olympic torch into Wembley Stadium at the opening ceremony and ignite the cauldron.

John Mark, who had failed to make the team, carries the torch

John Mark, who had failed to make the team, carries the torch

It would be nothing more than he deserved.

But the crowd who packed the stadium on 29 July were stunned to discover their hero, the 5ft 6in stick-thin and bespectacled Wooderson – nicknamed the Mighty Atom – had been replaced… by an Adonis.

Tall and rippling with muscles, golden-haired Cambridge student John Mark, a 440-yard runner who had failed to make the British team, was carrying the flame.

It later transpired that the 22-year-old had been picked to appeal to viewers around the world on cinema newsreels and on the fledgling TV service.

Sydney Wooderson was just as famous as David Beckham is today

Sydney Wooderson was just as famous as David Beckham is today

Wooderson’s biographer David Thurlow says it wasn’t only the crowd who were bemused. ‘On the morning of the opening ceremony The Times spoke for the nation when it announced Wooderson was their choice to be the torchbearer.

'Sydney arrived at Wembley fully expecting to be asked to carry the flame on its final lap around the stadium. He was upset to be told he wasn’t needed.’

Even the Queen was shocked at the choice. During the opening ceremony, attended by Princess Elizabeth, her mother remarked, ‘What a pity they didn’t get that dear little Sydney to do it.’

What Wooderson lacked in looks he more than made up for with immense reserves of strength and a turn of speed that he used to great effect.

He set the world mile record of 4min 6.4sec at London University’s Motspur Park track in August 1937, a record that stood for nearly five years. His 1938 record of 1min 49.2sec for the 880 yards stood for 17 years.

He held the world record at half-mile, too, and won European Championships in the 1500m and 5000m.

Then the war intervened. Poor eyesight ruled him out of active service, but he was a firefighter during the Blitz. In 1944 he spent several months in hospital with rheumatic fever. Doctors warned he might never run again.

A year later, however, he ran his fastest-ever mile in 4min 4.2sec and three years after that, in the Olympic year, he won the national 9-mile cross-country title.

Harold Abrahams – the hero of the movie Chariots Of Fire – was on the committee in 1948 that picked John Mark to light the flame. Abrahams revealed, ‘He looked like a Greek god. He fitted perfectly the image of an Adonis running a torch up Mount Olympus.’

After the Olympics, Mark became a rural GP in Liss, Hampshire. He died of a stroke in 1991, aged 66.

The Daily Mail’s legendary sports columnist Ian Wooldridge campaigned for Wooderson to be recognised and in 2000, more than half a century after the 1948 Olympics, the Mighty Atom finally received an MBE for services to athletics. Wooldridge wrote, ‘Recognition at last for Sydney, the jewel of the mile.’ Sydney Wooderson died in December 2006, in Wareham, Dorset, where he’d retired after a career as a solicitor.