The revolutionary athletics coach, immortalised in Chariots of Fire
The athletics coach Scipio Africanus Mussabini (1867-1927) is to be commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at his former home in Herne Hill. A pioneering figure in both professional and amateur sport in Britain, Sam (as he was invariably known on account of his initials) transformed athletics.
The plaque will be unveiled at 11.30am on Wednesday 11th July at 84 Burbage Road, which was Mussabini’s home from 1911 until about 1916. The house forms part of the Dulwich Estate and backs on to the Herne Hill Stadium, where he worked as a cycling and athletics coach from the 1890s until his death and trained several medal-winning Olympic athletes.
Lord Coe says: “I’m delighted English Heritage is honouring Sam Mussabini with a blue plaque, right next to the track where he coached Harold Abrahams. As we celebrate Mussabini’s links to the Herne Hill Velodrome and his sporting achievements, hopefully more people will learn about his legacy and the contributions he made to British sport. My father trained at this track and now young athletes using the track today will be inspired by this great man.”
Mussabini’s innovative training methods reaped bountiful rewards: his runners won eleven Olympic medals, including five gold, between 1908 and 1928. He addressed every aspect of training, used scientific methods to analyse running action, and instilled powerful self-belief in his athletes.
Harold Abrahams, who won gold in the 100m sprint at the 1924 Paris Olympics, credited Sam with making him “improve that decisive one per cent, which made all the difference between supreme success and obscurity”. Mussabini’s vital role in Abrahams’ success was later immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire (1981), in which he was played by Ian Holm.
Stephen Fry, who sits on the Blue Plaques Panel, said: “I have to confess that before I saw Chariots of Fire I had never heard of Mussabini. But Ian Holm's magisterial and intensely emotional performance (I still weep when he pushes his fist through his boater as the union flag is raised) was one of the reasons Chariots of Fire won a best picture Oscar. Mussabini's dignified professionalism helped usher in the modern Olympic spirit: proud, professional but true to the spirit of sportsmanship and dedication.”
Mussabini was born in Blackheath, to a Syrian-Italian father and a French mother, and was educated in France. He followed in his father’s footsteps and became a journalist, writing for sports magazines and specialising in billiards.
In 1894 Mussabini was appointed coach to the Dunlop cycling team which trained at the newly-built cycle track in Herne Hill. Early in the 1900s, he entered the world of amateur athletics and coached the young South African sprinter Reggie Walker to a gold medal in the 100m at the 1908 London Olympics.
Mussabini always refused to call himself a trainer, whom he described as “a man who comes on with a bag and a little sponge”, and insisted instead that he was a coach. He sought to transform his athletes’ performances by looking at every aspect of their diet, training, race preparation and racing and adopting a gradual, methodical approach to improve technique, fitness and stamina. The Complete Athletic Trainer, which Mussabini co-wrote in 1913, explored these theories fully and blamed the failures of recent British Olympic teams on inadequate coaching.
In 1913 Mussabini was appointed coach to the Polytechnic Harriers at the Herne Hill athletics track, which ran round the inside of the cycle track. Here he trained Albert Hill, Willie Applegarth, Harry Edward and the fourteen-year-old Harold Abrahams.
Mussabini scrutinised their running styles, especially stride length and arm action, and encouraged them to adopt a swinging arm action, which came to be known as “the Poly swing”. He used a cine-camera to record and study their techniques and insisted that they carry stopwatches in order to learn how to run at an even pace.
Mussabini’s methods yielded results at the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp, where Albert Hill won gold medals in both the 800m and the 1500m, and Harry Edward won bronze in the 100m. Four years later, at the Paris Olympics, his most celebrated protégé – Harold Abrahams – won gold in the 100m and took silver in the 4 x 100m relay.
Mussabini served on the British Olympic Commission from 1923 to 1924, and helped to ensure more female athletes received high quality coaching, including Vera Palmer-Searle, who set three world records in sprint races during that year. Suffering from diabetes, he died in March 1927 at the age of 60.
His athletes continued to enjoy success on the track though, with a number of them winning medals at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam. His lasting contribution to athletics was also celebrated by National Coaches’ Federation in 1998 with the creation of the Mussabini Medal, which was awarded annually to the most outstanding British coach.
Chris Baillieu MBE, Chair of sports coach UK, said: “Sam Mussabini is arguably the forefather of modern coaching. He was a man ahead of his time, for example using photographs to analyse running techniques, a forerunner to the video technology we use today. The success of his coaching was evident in the number of gold medals won by his athletes. Sports coaching today owes a great deal to the passion for excellence and dedication to detail shown by Sam Mussabini. We are delighted that his place in the heritage of British sport has been recognised by this Blue Plaque.”
Susan Skedd, blue plaques historian at English Heritage, said: “Sam Mussabini was generations ahead in his approach. His systematic and intelligent approach to coaching led to his protégés winning eleven medals over five Olympic Games, five of them gold. Although not a household name, Mussabini’s legacy to the world of sport should be remembered.”