Saturday, May 06, 2017

British Orienteering celebrates 50 Years!

On the 17 June this year it is exactly 50 years since the British Orienteering Federation came into being. The occasion is being marked by the cutting of a celebratory cake, production of a short film, and a special multi-page feature in British Orienteering’s member magazine Focus.

Organised orienteering started in Scotland in the early 1960s with the help in particular of the Swede Baron CA Lagerfelt from Stockholm. The Scottish Orienteering Association was founded on 24 June 1962, with the first Scottish Championships held on the same weekend at Craig a’ Barns (Dunkeld) as part of a ‘demonstration event’ by visiting Swedes. Over the following couple of years, growth of the sport in the south-east of Scotland was particularly strong.

In 1964 orienteering was featured in a 7-minute film on Scottish TV. The book ‘Know the Game: Orienteering’ was first published in 1965; it ran to several editions and, updated, was still on bookshop shelves in the early 1980s.

First steps in England

In England, the West Midlands Orienteering Association was set up on 13 October 1963 following a ‘practice race’ in the Wyre Forest. The first orienteering club in England was South Ribble OC in the north-west, in 1964. This followed closely on the first ‘proper’ o-event in England, held at Whitewell near Clitheroe in late 1963.

In the south of England, a group of well-known ex-athletes – Roger Bannister, Chris Brasher, John Disley, Martin Hyman, Gordon Pirie and Bruce Tulloh – started orienteering after attending a training course led by Disley, who had first taken part himself in Sweden. They soon found that speed and fitness alone didn’t bring success! Southern Navigators was the first southern club, formed in 1965.

Scots and English collaborate – but process is slow

The next big step was the formation of the English Orienteering Association in October 1965. The Scottish Orienteering Association’s suggestion to have a joint meeting in Edinburgh with the new English OA, to consider affiliation to the International Orienteering Federation (IOF), was welcomed. However, for one reason or another it was not held until March 1967, in conjunction with the 1966 Scottish Championships which had been deferred, from the autumn before, because of an outbreak of foot and mouth disease.

The joint meeting agreed on the need to form a British Orienteering Federation, because “it had been made abundantly clear that membership of the IOF could only be obtained through British membership”. A meeting of the English Orienteering Association in April 1967 recommended the change and agreed to the disbanding of the English Orienteering Association at the time British Orienteering Federation was formed.

First World Orienteering Championship participation in 1966

Enthusiasm for competing abroad was high, and the main goal was participation in the World Orienteering Championships. In May 1966 the IOF Council accepted both England and Scotland as temporary members, pending the formation of a British federation. The English Orienteering Association paid an IOF affiliation fee of 400 Swedish Crowns, and selected a team of ten athletes to take part in the World Orienteering Championship.

The team was astonished to find, on arrival at the venue in Finland, that the Relay team had to be selected from amongst the six participating in the Individual race, as opposed to being four additional athletes. It seems that a vital Bulletin giving this information failed to reach the team beforehand. After much representation it was accepted, on the basis of giving more runners some international experience, that the rule could be broken in the circumstances. However in the end, two of the team, Toby Norris and Chris James who were down to run third and fourth leg respectively, never got a competitive run because the team was timed out at the end of the second leg.

Within 50 miles of Kendal”

The ground was laid for the formation of the British Orienteering Federation. Tony Chapman and Chris Brasher, Chairmen of the Scottish and English Orienteering Associations respectively, began the invitation to the first British Orienteering Federation Championships and Annual General Meeting with the words: “This is the preliminary announcement and entry form for a championship, run by an organisation that does not exist. So let us explain.”

Intending participants were told that the Championships “will be held within 50 miles of the town of Kendal, Westmorland on Sunday 18 June 1967” and that “the inaugural meeting of the British Orienteering Federation will be held at 7.30 p.m. on Saturday 17 June 1967 at a venue within ten miles of the Championship area.” The Annual General Meeting venue, revealed just a week beforehand, proved to be in Barnard Castle, 45 miles from Kendal, with the Championships venue, Hamsterley Forest, the full 50 miles away. Such was the secrecy felt to be required at that time!

Early days of the British Orienteering Federation

The new Federation soon found its feet, led by Brasher and Disley. Whereas Brasher managed things, Disley was the technical and ‘field’ expert, and moderator of some of Brasher’s wilder ideas. “Brasher lit fires; Disley dampened them down,” as the obituary for Disley in the British newspaper The Guardian put it.

Brasher led the team that took part in the 1966 World Orienteering Championships, and was the Event Director for the World Orienteering Championships (WOC) in Scotland in 1976. His influence was immense in all aspects of orienteering’s development in its early days in the UK. Hugh Brasher, son of Chris Brasher, says: “My father loved orienteering; he called it like car rallying without a car, the best sport so far invented by man and the only sport that keeps you completely and utterly stretched both mentally and physically.”

Disley worked hard to develop course planning, mapping and training standards. Highly respected the world over, he was a member of the International Orienteering Federation Council from 1973 to 1984.

Through the 80s and 90s

Helped greatly by the publicity gained from WOC 1976, orienteering grew rapidly in the subsequent years, and became firmly established in all parts of the UK. In Scotland, helped by the ever-growing Scottish 6-Days event held every other year, but also in many other areas, the standards of competitors and competition increased immensely. Competitors such as Geoff Peck and Carol McNeill were showing the way, and it was in 1993 that Great Britain won its first World Orienteering Championship medals in Foot Orienteering, with a bronze for Yvette Baker (née Hague) and silver for the men’s relay team. Yvette went on to win two silver medals in 1995 and then the gold medal in Short Distance at the next World Orienteering Championships held on home soil, in 1999.

Great Britain also contributed much to IOF work, in Council, on various Committees and in other ways. Sue Harvey became the IOF Secretary General in 1983, working from home. She held this role until 1986. In 1988 she was elected as an IOF Vice President and then from 1994 to 2004 she was IOF President, and is now IOF Honorary President for Life.

Growth and development in the new century

British Orienteering Federation moved with the times: it is now known as British Orienteering and has changed its logo to a more modern design. Domestic championship events have grown in number as in the IOF, and urban orienteering has become a popular alternative to outings in forest and open terrain. The number of clubs has remained much the same for a long time now, and the average age of competitors is getting steadily higher, but a number of initiatives have been introduced to create new forms of competition and bring new people into the sport, and these are beginning to bear fruit.

More World Orienteering Championship medals have come Britain’s way, including Gold for Jamie Stevenson (Sprint, 2003), the Men’s Relay team in 2008, Dave Gittus in TrailO in 2006 and the TrailO team in 2004 and 2005. Most recently, in 2016, Emily Benham won two gold medals in the MTBO World Championships.

GBR staged the World TrailO Championships in Scotland in 2012 and then the World Orienteering Championships, for the third time, in 2015. Here the same assembly area as in 1976, a field in front of Darnaway Castle in NE Scotland, was used for the Middle and Relay races.

Brian Porteous became the second IOF President from Great Britain and held the office from 2012 to 2016, having been a member of IOF Council from 2004.

Looking forward

Over the last 20 years British Orienteering has benefited greatly from government and National Lottery funding, but unfortunately as with many other sports, British Orienteering has recently lost a lot of the financial support it has had from government agencies. British Orienteering has had to trim its cloth accordingly, and become more self-supporting. This is particularly affecting international preparation for the top athletes. Sponsorship too is proving extremely hard to come by. However, there are many positive signs too, and with several top athletes on the fringe of World Orienteering Championship medal standard, Great Britain orienteering moves into its next half-century in good shape.

Text: Clive Allen

[See the original article at Published with permission from the International Orienteering Federation]

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