His sudden death last week — he collapsed in the street, after an agreeable lunch with a friend in Richmond — rated little more than a brief sidebar in the newspaper whose pages his words once adorned. But sportswriter Norman Harris, who was 75, did as much for the running boom in London and across Britain as anyone else, and he may have even have invented the word "jogger".
Harris worked as a sports reporter for The Sunday Times, The Times and The Observer for more than 40 years, and continued to cover county cricket for The Times until just a couple of years ago.
New Zealand-born, Harris wrote more than 20 books, including a noted biography of the tragic life of one of his home country’s greatest sporting heroes, Jack Lovelock, the Rhodes scholar whose last race was in winning the 1,500 metres at the "Hitler Olympics" in Berlin in 1936.
Harris was the youngest of six children brought up in Hamilton, where his first sporting love was cricket. His fledgling journalism career was informed by his attempts to run marathons and ride in cycling races.
Harris met, interviewed and trained with Arthur Lydiard, the New Zealand running coach who pioneered the long slow distance training regime which has been adopted as the orthodox way to train for all distance events, but which was then relatively new and which helped Murray Halberg and Peter Snell to win Olympic gold medals in Rome in 1960.
Barely out of his teens and trying to make his way as a cub reporter, on the day after the runners’ double gold feat, Harris was summoned into the editor’s office at the New Zealand Herald and told to write up all he knew about Lydiard, the coach behind the Olympic champions. His career was launched.
Harris’s coverage of Snell and Halberg’s world record-breaking feats was syndicated around the world and he wrote several books on their feats, including Lap of Honour and, with the Australian distance running hero, Ron Clarke, The Lonely Breed.
But it was a short news story which appeared as a small, single-column item on February 16, 1962 in the NZ Herald which was to make perhaps Harris' greatest contribution to the English language: he introduced the word "jogger".
During a live interview with Radio New Zealand in 2013, a listener texted in to say the word "jog" had been around since Shakespeare's time. Harris replied that the Oxford English Dictionary did not have the words "jogger" or "jogging" before he had coined them, in 1962, to describe a group of veteran Auckland runners as "joggers".
Harris had tried some gentle “jogging” in an attempt to recover his health after a severe bout of hepatitis; in 1964, he undertook a personal challenge of running in the Polytechnic Marathon — the original London Marathon, based on the 1908 Olympic race — and finished 58th in a field of 120 in 2hr 43min.
And it would be the cause of "joggers" in Britain for whom Harris would do the greatest service, after his book-writing career brought him to London in the mid-1960s.
Harris wrote Kiri: Music and a Maori Girl about New Zealand opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa, a book on cricket, one with Olympic champion Mary Rand, and another on Bobby and Jackie Charlton. He also co-authored books with BBC sports commentator David Coleman.
In 1969, Harris resumed his newspaper journalism, joining the staff of The Sunday Times during what is regarded as that paper's golden era of investigative reports on subjects such as Thalidomide and Biafra, the launch of the first Sunday supplement, and other innovations in newspaper coverage. Lovesey encouraged Harris to write a series of articles extolling the benefits of this “jogging” thing he kept talking about. With the backing of Evans, in 1978, Harris organised the first Sunday Times National Fun Run in Hyde Park.
The event soon caught the imagination of increasingly health and fitness-conscious Londoners and became a festival of running, a Glastonbury for joggers, with clubs and running groups setting up their tents and flags and picnicking alongside the Serpentine while watching their friends in the day’s runs, or races, with tens of thousands of people taking part, of all standards, in age group events staged over a rolling two-and-a-half-mile grassland course throughout the day.
It was the enthusiasm for jogging harnessed by Harris which Chris Brasher, then working on the rival Observer, tapped into when he returned from New York and announced he would stage a citizens’ marathon through the streets of London in 1981. The running boom was born, though the National Fun Run did not survive the loss of support, and promotion, it once enjoyed from the newspaper.
Norman Harris continued writing, and jogging, too, well into his 70s. “I've had an interesting and varied career. Always independent, which made it interesting,” Harris said in an interview not long before his death. He also came to enjoy playing golf. In 2010, and despite having a handicap of 23, he got two holes in one in the space of 11 days.
Not bad for an old jogger, as Norman Harris might have said.
By Steven Downes