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Last of an era
The New Year Sprint, formerly known as the "Powderhall", is a unique event in the annals of sporting history being the last of the old time pedestrian galas. It has been an annual New Year event since 1870, the heyday of pedestrianism (professional footracing) then the sport of the people. The format remains unchanged. All races are handicapped to ensure close finishes and betting adds to the enjoyment of the spectators. The days of huge betting coups and malpractice are long gone but the tradition, spirit and atmosphere remain. To win the "Big Sprint" remains the dream of all competitors no matter their age or ability.

Early champions
During the past 120 years the "Sprint" has produced many top class competitors. Dan Wight of Jedburgh, the 1870 winner, heads a long list Scottish Champions. Other legendary names from the past include Harry Hutchens of London, never a winner, but the fastest sprinter of the century and "scratch" man from 1880 to 1895. The record run of this period is credited to Alf Downer of Edinburgh who in the 1898 sprint ran 128.5 yards in 12.4 secs. On a comparative basis with later "crack" runners, Downer stands out as a great all round running champion. The First World War witnessed the great Australian champion Jack Donaldson and England's Willie Applegarth, a brilliant former amateur. The most famous winner of all was Willie McFarlane of Glasgow who achieved the unique distinction of winning the event two years in succession, the second time from the scratch mark in 1934 - a feat never repeated.

Post war years
During the late 1940s, Albert Spence from Blyth dominated the scene running in five finals and winning in 1947. the star performers of the 1950s were Australia's Eric Cumming and Barnie Ewell of the USA, second in the 1948 Olymics. The 1960s and 70s produced many top flight sprinters but two stood out as being of world class ability. they were Ricky Dunbar of Edinburgh, winner in 1963, and George McNeill of Tranent, winner in 1970 and still 120 yards world record holder.

More recently
In recent years there were two notable performances when Kipper Bell and Bill Snoddy of the USA won in 1984 and 1987 respectively; but for the boycott, Snoddy would have represented his country at the Moscow Olympics. The 1980s also saw reinstated former winners Roy Heron (1978), Gus McQuaig (1981), Andrew Walker (1982), Neil Turnbull (1983), Willie Fraser (1985) and Dave Clark (finalist in 1987) perform with distinction on the amateur scene.

Amateurs compete
The 124th staging of the Sprint in December 1993 saw amateur runners competing for the first time as a result of a landmark agreement between the SGA and the BAAF.

Venue change
The 131st New Year Sprint held in December 1999 was held at Musselburgh Racecourse - the first time the Sprint had ever been staged at such a venue. Bad weather thwarted attempts to stage the final alongside the Christmas National Hunt meeting, as it did the following year. In December 2001, for the 133rd New Year Sprint, runners and horses finally competed in the same meeting.

© Frank Hanlon
Want to know more?
The following books recount the history of the New Year Sprint and professional athletics in general.

Gold at New Year by John Franklin, printed by The Tweeddale Press Ltd., Hawick, covers the history of the Sprint up to 1970. It also contains fascinating "behind the scenes" accounts of numerous victories.

PowderHall and Pedestrianism by David A. Jamieson, published by W. & A.K. Johnstone Ltd, Edinburgh, is a detailed account of the history of the Sprint and related professional races held until 1943.

The Unique Double by George McNeill, printed by Watt Chapman, Dunfermline, tells the story behind McNeill's victories in the centenial runnings of the world's most famous professional sprints - The New Year Sprint and the Stawell Gift in Australia.