We outline the career of Ian Stewart, one of Britain’s greatest and most successful distance runners, who celebrated his 72nd birthday this month
Ian Stewart is uniquely the only Briton to win a world cross-country title, a European and Commonwealth 5000m title, European indoor titles and an Olympic medal.
One of my earliest memories of watching televised distance races was seeing the 1969 European 5000m. Having just started my own running and racing career that very week, it made a huge impression on me.
He did not have the exuberance or flamboyance of front-running world record-breakers Dave Bedford and Brendan Foster, who contributed in the 1970s to a huge growth in the interest of athletics in Britain and capacity crowds at Crystal Palace which the likes of Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe continued.
However, for me initially it was Stewart who I most identified with and in putting together this list of his best races I was reminded just how great he was over the period from 1969 to 1978. His reputation of being a steely racer and fast finisher was deserved but it’s worth noting the quality of some of his relatively low-key road races or relays where he front ran at a brilliant pace.
On reflection now it seems so sad he retired months after clearly being in potentially world-beating form and he could have challenged for medals in the 10,000m at the 1978 Europeans and 1980 Olympics.
I would have also been interested to find out what his potential at the marathon was and, judging by his 10 miles best, it could have been exceptional.
His attitude to winning was always all encompassing. “First’s first and second is nowhere as far as I’m concerned. This country’s full of good losers. It’s bloody good winners we want.”
He was a stunning prospect as a young distance runner and though winning was not easy initially, he eventually became a bloody good one! He set his first British age best in 1965 as a 16-year-old with a 9:12.8 two miles and he followed that up with a 8:54.90 as well as a 13:59.6 three miles at the age of 17 in 1966.
As a 19-year-old in 1968 (a year he won the English Junior National) his times came down to 8:35.32 and 13:28.4 which were both European junior records as were his 3000m time of 8:01.2 and 5000m time of 13:53.30. He ended the year top of the world junior rankings at all four events.
The 3000m was from a win at Crystal Palace in the GB v Germany junior match. His two miles run (which only nine seniors bettered worldwide that year) came when he was fifth in a race won by Bernd Diessner in 8:31.4 just ahead of Ian McCafferty (8:31.8), whom he would frequently bump into over the next four years.
The three miles time was when he came a close third in the AAA race at Wolverhampton won by future Commonwealth 10,000m champion Lachie Stewart (13:28.4). He did go slightly faster at three miles during the 5000m where he was eighth in a race won by Mexico-bound Alan Blinston (13:40.6) and Allan Rushmer (13:41.2) who would both be outside 15 minutes in the altitude of the Olympic heats.
His domination that year over other world under-20s at two miles was eight seconds, three miles seven and 5000m nine!
He turned 20 early in 1969 and below are 30 of his best or most notable races as a senior athlete.
AW subscribers can find a more detailed breakdown of his career and his best 90 races in the AW Clubhouse here.
Cosford Two miles, February 1
1st 8:32.2 (European indoor record)
He took four seconds off of McCafferty’s European best as he moved to seventh all-time indoors.
European Indoor 3000m Games, Belgrade, March 9
1st 7:55.4 (UK indoor record)
The first kilometre was slow (2:45) but the pace picked up mid-race. The 1966 European 10,000 silver medallist Lacos Mecser shoved Stewart with just over 400m to go and he responded by bursting ahead and two metres clear at the bell, he won by five. Javier Alvarez was second (7:56.2).
Reading Night of Sport Mile, June 11
2nd 3:57.3 (PB)
The race was paced by AW correspondent Martin Duff to halfway (1:58.9) with Stewart ahead at the bell (2:59.4). McCafferty passed him with 200m to go and won in a Scottish record 3:56.8 with Stewart becoming Britain’s youngest sub-four-minute miler in setting a nine-second PB!
AAA 5000m, White City, August 2
1st 13:39.8 (PB)
After Dave Bedford had led the opening kilometre, Stewart ran a fast middle which saw off McCafferty but again made his final move 600m out and a 57.6 last lap gave him a three-second win over Blinston (13:42.6).
GB v USA 5000m, White City, August 13
2nd 13:36.4 (PB)
Was unable to live with Dick Taylor’s 60-second sixth lap and murderous 2:36 third kilometre as his team-mate won in a world lead and British record 13:29.0 to go fifth all-time. Stewart, though, went third all-time in the UK as he easily beat previous distance prodigy Gerry Lindgren and was a minute clear of new junior US star Steve Prefontaine, who would be much closer when the pair met in the Munich Olympics.
GB v France 1500m, White City, September 1
1st 3:39.12 (UK record)
In a pre-planned move, John Boulter set a furious pace (200m in 25.7, 400m in 55.6) and Jim Douglas maintained through 800m in 1:54.6. As agreed, Stewart was ahead at 1000m in 2:25.0 and 1200m in 2:56.2. Boulter went ahead on the last bend but Stewart used his 5000m strength in gritting out a 58.0 final lap to set a shock record and beat Douglas (3:39.9) and Boulter (3:41.3) who confirmed their Athens selections. Boulter ran a UK 1000m record (2:18.2) a few days later.
European Championships 5000m, Athens, September 19
At the age of 20, Stewart won comfortably against a field lacking real quality. He led through 2000m and 3000m (8:20.8) but then virtually stopped dead four laps out to ensure someone else took over. He regained the lead 600m out and began his finishing drive.
Soviet Rashid Sharafutdinov passed him 200m out but Stewart flashed back past at the start of the straight and won by seven metres from his rival (13:45.8) as Blinston (13:47.6) took third. His last 400m was 56.6 and last 800m 1:58.8. Future world record-holder Emile Puttemans was seventh.
GB v East Germany 3000m, Cosford, February 21
1st 7:55.6 (UK all-comers’ record)
Answered a late call to replace Ricky Wilde and in the middle of a hard training block eased round with a quicker second half to defeat Gerd Eisenberg (8:00.6).
Commonwealth Games 5000m, Edinburgh, July 25
1st 13:22.85 (European record)
This proved to be one of the greatest 5000m races in history. Nine of the first 11 had won or would go on to win Commonwealth medals and the first two went second and third in the world all-time. The race started slowly with a 70.8 opener before Taylor burst ahead with four laps averaging 64 seconds and then two in 63 and it was down to seven with only Stewart, McCafferty, Rushmer, Olympic 1500m champion Kip Keino and Clarke and Kenyan John Ng’eno able to withstand the ferocious pace.
The fourth kilometre slowed before McCafferty picked it up and then Stewart went ahead 600m out and accelerated through to the bell (12:27.4) and only Keino and McCafferty could keep pace. His penultimate 200m of 29.0 couldn’t drop his rivals but he began winding the pace up. Keino tried to get past along the back-straight and then McCafferty closed in the straight as Keino faded but Stewart’s driving 26.4 last 200m gave him victory by a few metres from his Scottish team-mate (13:23.4) and a European record. Only Clarke had run faster. Keino jogged in third (13:27.6).
Edinburgh Highland Games 2M, Meadowbank, August 21
3rd 8:25.0 (Scottish record)
It had been a frustrating track season due to an Achilles injury and an abscess and he did not bid for a place in Britain’s European Championships team but he showed better form here. Puttemans won in a world record 8:17.8 and Stewart battled all the way with European 1500m bronze medallist Brendan Foster for second with Foster’s UK record 8:24.8 just edging his Scottish record.
AAA Indoor 3000m Championships, Cosford, January 29
1st 7:50.0 (UK all-comers’ record)
He had already shown good winter form on the country and here helped in the pace by John Bicourt and Bedford, he took over in the last kilometre and despite cruising in, he was only three seconds off of Wilde’s world record. Bedford, in his indoor debut, was second (7:53.4).
International Cross-Country Championships, Cambridge, March 18
He was not helped by a fall on a section of plough and spiking himself but was well beaten by Gaston Roelants (37:43) and Mariano Haro (38:01) but it was still a good run as he easily beat all the English runners who won the team race.
AAA Championships (inc Olympic Trials), Crystal Palace, July 14
He ran his second fastest time and was only a few seconds outside his previous European record but he was far from happy. Bedford set a scintillating pace (7:53.6 at 3000m) and smashed his own European record by five seconds and only missed Clarke’s world record by 0.6 of a second. McCafferty went third all-time in the world (13:19.8) and ran away from Stewart over the closing laps who contented himself with Olympic selection.
Stockholm 2M, August 14
4th 8:22.0 (UK record) (7:48.4 3000 (PB)
In his final pre-Olympic race, he was well beaten by the eventual first two in the Munich 10,000 – Viren (world record 8:14.0) and Puttemans (8:17.2) – and future Olympic steeplechase winner Anders Garderud (8:20.6), but Stewart’s time smashed the UK record and he beat a disappointed Bedford (8:28.2). The times were faster than AW as the meeting results appeared seven weeks after they happened! Both Viren (13:16.4) and Puttemans (13:13.0) set world records after the Games.
Olympic Games 5000m, Munich, September 10
Stewart became the first British medallist since 1956 with a fantastic sprint which made up 15 metres up on Prefontaine (13:28.4) who he caught with metres to go and he nearly caught defending champion Gammoudi (13:27.4). Stewart had lost contact with the leading trio on the penultimate lap having lost a stride when clashing with the American in trying to move out. However 10,000m champion Viren (Olympic record 13:26.4) controlled the race and no one had any answer to his 1:56.3 last 800m but Stewart felt it might have been different but for being baulked.
College Park 2 Miles, USA, January 13
1st 8:28.4 (European indoor record)
Started the season in style with a win over Jim Crawford and American mile star Marty Liquori (8:35.2) though Crawford beat him in a mile the following day (4:03.4 to 4:05.3). He was on a US tour with Brendan Foster but cut it short over dissatisfaction with the arrangements and went on to have a poor year and was well beaten by Foster’s 5000m debut in the AAA Championships.
Commonwealth Games 10,000m, Christchurch, January 25
6th 28:17.2 (PB)
Set a big PB but was almost 200m behind home favourite Dick Tayler (27:46.4 – to go sixth all-time) and Dave Black (27:48.6). He was fifth in the 5000m (13:40.32) in a cracking race between Jipcho (13:14.4) and Foster (13:14.6). Disillusioned he took up cycle racing and did not compete on the track in the summer.
Gateshead Harriers International Televised Cross Country 4.5M,
Won this BBC televised cross-country on a very tough and muddy 0.75M circuit with much more ease than the two second margin over Knut Boro (23:23) suggests. Black (23:35) and European 5000m champion Foster (23:37), who had been well ahead in Christchurch, followed.
European Indoor Championships, 3000m Katowice, Poland, March 9
Left it late and only just squeezed past 1973 world cross-country champion Pekka Paivarinta on the line with both given the same time in a thrilling last lap.
World Cross-Country Championships 12km, Rabat, Morocco, March 16
He completed an unprecedented double by outsprinting old rival Haro on the Moroccan racecourse relegating the Spaniard to his fourth successive silver. Though then unknown Bill Rodgers was third, it was the greatest world cross-country line-up in history.
Three Olympic champions competed. Roelants was 10th, Frank Shorter 20th and Gammoudi dropped out. Two future Olympic winners – John Walker and Waldemar Cierpinski were 4th and 15th respectively. European 10,000m champion Manfred Kuschmann was 115th, the next European 5000m champion Venanzio Ortis was 90th and 5000m world record-holders of past and future Puttemans and Quax were 16th and 113th respectively. Past winner Paivarinta dropped out.
Borough Road Meeting 3000m, Crystal Palace, May 26
1st 7:46.83 (PB)
Proof that his recent altitude training had worked was borne out with an easy win (rare at the Palace!) and PB. Dave Black led for the first 2000m at a good pace but Stewart took six seconds out of Black (7:52.6) with a 89-second last 600m.
Kraft Games (Olympic Trials) 5000m, Crystal Palace, June 5
In front of a capacity 13,000 crowd, Foster kicked in a 28.6 200m at 3000m and broke away comfortably to win in 13:33.8 from Black (13:35.4) who just beat a disappointed Stewart who did finish well clear of Rose and Simmons who headed the world rankings. He dropped out of the following week’s 10,000m again won by Foster in 27:53.8 while in a qualifying position with just four laps to go due to badly blistered feet.
Helsinki 10,000m, June 23
4th 28:00.04 (PB)
The selectors gave him another chance after his Trials DNF and still suffering from a sore foot, he run evenly and was half a minute quicker than Bernie Ford’s trials time and quicker than Ford’s PB (Ford chose to miss this race thinking he’d done enough). However, it was decided Stewart’s run here was insufficient as winner Viren (27:43.0) took 17 seconds out of him in the last five laps.
Olympic 5000m Final, Montreal, July 30
Unlike in 1972 at the bell he was in the perfect position in second just behind Viren but his old kick was absent and dropped back to seventh as Viren (13:24.8) ran the perfect race to hold off Quax (13:25.2) and win his fourth Olympic gold. Viren ran a 55.0 last lap and 1:57.5 last 800m but Stewart was only able to run 58.0 and 2:00.5 as he ran an almost identical time to 1972. Foster was fifth (13:26.2) after a third in the 10,000m (Britain’s only athletics medal of the Games).
Michelin 10, Stoke on Trent, May 8
1st 45:13 (PB)
As the world track record was 45:57.2 and the UK track record 46:44, it’s safe to say there was incredulity with Stewart’s winning time (4:30 miling and 28:00 10,000m pace) on a far from flat course with a solo 45:13 that saw him 100 metres clear after a mile but the organisers double checked the course after the race and Stewart was insistent it was right. Laurie Reilly was second in 47:34, around 700 metres in arrears despite a super-fast time.
UK National 10,000m, Cwmbran, June 11
1st 27:51.3 (PB)
Convinced that he should have been selected at 10,000m in 1976, and now a stone lighter and running three times a day, he showed what might have been and his true 10,000m potential for the first time. Discounting two very slow opening laps, he ran the remaining 23 at 27:40 pace and his world leading time gave him victory by well over 100 metres from future Olympic medallist Mike McLeod (28:10.2).
UK vs USSR 10,000m, Meadowbank, August 25
28:03.1 (Scottish all-comers’ record)
After having missed six weeks of track training due to illness, he showed a return to form. He was on world record pace at 4000m (10:59.0) and though he began easing back at halfway (13:48.0) he held on sufficiently to win by 80 metres from Aleksandr Antipov (28:16.0), the man who would win a future world cross-country silver and also deny Foster a bronze medal in the 1978 Europeans. As a bonus he broke Lachie Stewart’s famous Scottish all-comers’ record from the 1970 Games.
Coca-Cola 10,000m, Crystal Palace, September 9
6th 27:43.0 (Scottish record)
In front of an excited capacity 18,000 crowd, it was the greatest mass 10,000m of all-time as nine of the first 10 set PBs as Foster (27:36.6) went third all-time closely pursued by future record setter Henry Rono (27:37.1). Stewart went third all-time in the UK and into the world all-time top 20 as he narrowly beat Ford (27:43.7).
English National Cross-Country, Leeds, March 4
A quality race in terms of excitement and depth with Stewart leading Tipton to a clear team win over Gateshead but he failed to match his younger sister Mary who won the women’s National the previous week.
He was bidding for his first senior title 10 years after winning the junior race. He set a cracking pace to get rid of many of the big names on the second lap and he was 15 metres clear at one stage but Ford worked his way back and made his effort on the horrendously steep Hill 60 in the final mile and got a small five metre gap and though Stewart chased hard, he fell three seconds short of Ford’s greatest run to date (41:34).
Simmons – who was to finish fourth in the Worlds a few weeks later – was third (41:52). Other National or Inter County winners of past or future placing highly included Ovett in fourth, Black in sixth, McLeod in eighth, Jon Wild 10th, Wright 12th and Grenville Tuck 14th. It was certainly one of the best quality Nationals in history with well over 50 internationals in the top 100. Former International winner Bedford was 23rd. Another, Tagg was 33rd (lower than his previous World run) as was Glen Grant – 76th here after 31st at Chepstow. Stewart had to miss the World Championships due to flu.
National 12 Stage Road Relay, Sutton Park, April 29
Tipton won again by four minutes though potentially it could have been close as Gateshead’s Steve Irvine set off ahead on stage three but a leg injury meant he finished in hospital rather than at the next change over and the average of the other 11 runners from Gateshead/Tipton was within seconds and a potential Stewart-Foster battle was denied. Stewart had set off ahead (on leg nine) and superbly blasted around solo at sub-27:50 10km speed on the hilly course in unhelpful conditions as he came in almost three minutes ahead of the eventual second team. Gateshead had continued unofficially and Foster had ran the same leg (24:42) 10 minutes back but did have runners in sight to chase and pass as did Ford (24:46) on stage seven.
On the track in the summer he won the Midland 5000m (14:05.2), then had to withdraw from the GB v GDR 10,000m due to a salt deficiency. He returned to run the Gateshead Games 3000m,but was a poor 8th in 7:57.8.
The race was going to be a warm up for the following week’s UK Championships and European Trial 10,000m but instead of his result being in the July 29 AW issue was the following shock announcement: Ian Stewart retires.
The article read: “One of Britain’s most successful athletes of all-time, Ian Stewart (29) announced his retirement from top-class athletics. Disappointed with his track form this summer (his only races were the Midland 5000m which he won in a slow time and the Gateshead 3000m in which he finished well down the field), Stewart explained that it was no longer possible for him to train the 120 miles a week he considered necessary – ‘and I’ve never been the type of bloke to do things in half measures’. He will now devote more of his time to his sports shop in West Bromwich.”
Stewart did make the odd appearance after that – he ran 49:17 for 10 miles at the age of 42 in 1991 which still ranks in the UK M40 all-time top 10. After finishing his running career he coached and was the promotions officer for British Athletics, putting together elite fields for the big televised events, and later head of endurance.
His sister Mary won the 1978 Commonwealth Games 1500m (for England) and the European Indoor title 1500m in world record time and his brother Peter won the 1971 European Indoor 3000m title.
He was not the fastest Ian Stewart at 1500m, mile or 3000m though! The Luton version who was born in 1960 had PBs of 800m: 1:48.08, 1500m: 3:38.65, Mile: 3:53.20 and 3000m: 7:43.90 set in 1981/1982 and ran in the 1982 Commonwealth Games for England.
Photos by Mark Shearman