It’s a wonderful sporting life
- Credit: Archant
In his youth, Bill Tancred was known as the boy who was always throwing things. He went on to become one of the greatest discus throwers Britain has ever produced. Sheena Grant went to meet him
BY THE age of 70 most people are slowing down, retiring or taking things a bit easier. But Professor Bill Tancred is not like most people.
For a start, he is a former international athlete, Commonwealth Games medallist and a double Olympian, who is still ranked as the greatest British discus thrower of all time for setting a record that remained unbroken for 23 years.
After his competitive career he went on to become a leading sports administrator and academic, holding key positions with a number of sports bodies and universities. He has published books and numerous articles on sport, health, fitness and sports management, presented papers at conferences and received significant research grant funding.
Since 2011 he has been director of sport and visiting professor of sports and exercise science at University Campus Suffolk.
“It was a great opportunity and I’m very pleased to be doing it,” he says of his role at UCS, where he has recently helped secure Olympic legacy funding from Sport England for a multi-purpose outdoor sports and activity area next to the James Hehir Building at the Ipswich waterfront campus.
The development, which will include multi-gym, netball, basketball and hockey facilities, will be for use by students, staff and the wider community.
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For Bill, it’s a particularly important legacy as it will promote many things he has championed throughout his career, such as the importance of exercise for children and healthy ageing.
“As a former double Olympian I’m thrilled the facility will also carry the London 2012 Inspire mark, celebrating the link to the Games,” he says. “The award will also help towards making Suffolk the most active county in England.”
It’s been a particularly busy time for Bill. Just this week he welcomed Olympic silver medallist and mile, 1500m and 2000m world record holder Steve Cram to Ipswich. The two swapped tales of sporting experiences at an “in conversation” motivational talk attended by UCS students, staff and visitors from schools across Suffolk.
In many ways his role at UCS completes the circle for Bill, who grew up in Ipswich and at nearby Felixstowe, where he became known as the boy who was always throwing things. He could throw stones further out to sea than anyone else and developed quite a reputation for not just the distance but the accuracy of his shots.
“At Felixstowe docks I could throw a stone to hit a tank which was well over a football pitch’s length away,” he remembers. “People couldn’t believe I could do it and many told me I could be a really good athlete. Any throwing event I just seemed to have a knack for.”
But what ensured his raw natural talent was channelled in the right direction was parental support, something Bill thinks is crucial to anyone who hopes to succeed in any sport.
“If you look at sports people who do well, they have all had parents who have been super-supportive,” he says. “Without support, so many people are lost. What I love to see is whole families cycling or exercising together: it is encouraging a healthy activity ethos.”
Bill’s own father encouraged and coached him, not always on sports fields and tracks but on roads and pieces of open grass, because that was often all that was available at the time.
“When we first moved to Ipswich from Felixstowe we used to use the Ransomes road and we would draw a little circle with chalk and practise as people were going to work,” he says. “The implement would land in three foot of grass and you would lose it, but my father would say it was good training for keeping you calm under pressure.”
It seemed to work. Bill was soon Suffolk champion for shot, discus, javelin and hammer. He did his O-levels at the old Civic College in Ipswich and went on to join the Army, where his talent for sport was further encouraged.
In 1964, at the age of 22, he made it into the British team, going on to compete in the 1968 and ’72 Olympics. He won bronze and silver medals at the Commonwealth Games in 1970 and ’74, and during his sporting career broke the UK discus record 19 times – with his 1974 throw of more than 64 metres remaining unbroken for 23 years. He was selected for the 1976 games, too, but couldn’t compete because of injury.
Looking back on those days, Bill can hardly believe the transformation there has been in sport over the intervening decades.
It was something that was brought powerfully home to him last year, during the London Olympics.
“When I competed, some of the places we went to would only be a quarter full. With the 2012 Olympics it was as if the whole country rediscovered their pride in being British. I would have loved to have competed in the London games with that support,” he says.
“It’s so professional nowadays with the sports science, lifestyle management and psychology. In my day you just turned up on the day and did your best. That’s been the transformation from the amateur days to the professional sportspeople we have now. There have been many gains but it does put extra pressure on athletes, particularly if the press build them up before an event. I’ve had a wonderful life and sport has been great to me, but I would still loved to have competed with things as they are now. Sport can deliver a lot of things if you work and persevere. But you only have that chance once, when you are young. It’s just a wonderful experience and life.”
It would be wrong to infer Bill has been some sort of onlooker as far as that transition in sports training is concerned. In fact, he’s been at the heart of moves to introduce a more hard-headed professionalism into British athletics over the last 20-plus years.
His first taste of sports coaching was in the Army, where he was a staff instructor in the Physical Training Corps, teaching the likes of Captain Mark Phillips and the Sultan of Brunei, among others.
After he finished competing, Bill decided to concentrate on a career in academia. As well as his Army training he had by then already gained a PE teaching certificate at Loughborough University and by the mid 1970s had worked as a teacher in Ipswich and lecturer and head of the PE department at a Nottingham college.
“People advised me that one day I would get too old to be a PE teacher and I took notice of that and got a masters degree at Loughborough,” he says. “I was then fortunate enough to get a scholarship to study in the US, where I did sports administration and management, which was just starting to get big in America at that time.”
Bill went on to become director of physical education and sports studies at the University of Sheffield and Professor of Sports Studies at Buckinghamshire New University.
“The experiences I had in the States and what I had learned at Loughborough stood me in great stead for what was happening in sports at that time and changed me so that I became more visionary and innovative,” he says.
He noticed what was happening in other countries, where an integrated sports science approach was being developed, involving many kinds of sports and health professionals.
“The Australian Sports Institute really inspired me and I recommended the government of the day set up an Institute of Sport, based in Sheffield, which they did,” he says. “I was invited to the World Student Games in 1991 in Sheffield and that was the catalyst to make me think we needed to do something to help us do as well as the Americans and the Australians. We were very much more amateur at that time.”
Bill got an MBE for services to athletics in 1992, something of which he remains proud. Twenty years on he is still serving sport as tirelessly as ever, through his work with UCS and a host of other organisations, including Suffolk Sport, of which he has been chairman for six years.
Inspiring the next generation is hugely important to him and to this end it is hoped to very soon offer sports scholarships for talented students to study and train at UCS.
The legacy cash for the new waterfront facilities builds on the theme.
“I hope that in a very small way it will help challenge the community to be more physically active and healthy,” he says. “It’s a great legacy to leave for the community and for UCS students.”
Bill’s days of hurling the discus extraordinary lengths may be over but he is still physically active every day: walking, cycling and even lifting weights.
Who was the man who finally broke his British discus record, I wonder.
“Bob Weir,” he says. “I sent him my congratulations. Records are there to be broken and mine lasted almost a quarter of a century, so it must have been a good one.”