The athletics coach Scipio Africanus “Sam” Mussabini (1867-1927) has been commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at his former home at 84 Burbage Road where he lived from 1911 until about 1916. A pioneering figure in both professional and amateur sport in Britain, Mussabini transformed athletics. His innovative training methods led to his runners winning eleven Olympic medals, five of which were gold. He addressed every aspect of training, using scientific methods, and instilled powerful self-belief in his athletes. He is best known for coaching Harold Abrahams, who won gold in the 100m sprint at the 1924 Paris Olympics, as seen in the film Chariots of Fire (1981), in which Mussabini was played by Ian Holm.
Mussabini was born in 1867 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. Specialising in billiards, he later authored various technical and coaching manuals. In 1894 he was appointed coach to the Dunlop cycling team which trained at the newly-built cycle track in Burbage Road where he coached Ben Harris to the first professional cycling championship.
Early in the 1900s, Mussabini 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 looked at every aspect of his athletes’ performance: diet, training, race preparation and actual racing and he adopted 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 Velodrome cycle track. Here he trained Albert Hill, Willie Applegarth, Harry Edward and the then 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 the techniques of Edward Muybridge to photograph his athletes’ actions and techniques and he insisted they carry stopwatches in order to learn how to run at an even pace. His 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, Harold Abrahams won gold in the 100m and silver in the 4 x 100m relay and credited Sam with making him “improve that decisive one per cent, which made all the difference between supreme success and obscurity”
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 under his tutelage. Suffering from diabetes, Sam died in March 1927 at the age of 60, travelling back from his birthday celebrations in France and is buried in Hampstead Cemetery. His athletes continued to enjoy success on the track however, with a number of them winning medals at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam.
A man ahead of his time, as a paid coach in an era of amateurism he was never fully appreciated and he only truly began to gain recognition well after his death and following the film Chariots of Fire. In 1998 the Mussabini Medal was created by the National Coaches’ Federation and is awarded annually to the most outstanding British coach. Past winners include Sir Clive Woodward and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Dr Susan Skedd, 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 many medals over five Olympic Games. Although not a household name, Mussabini’s legacy to the world of sport should be remembered.”
Mussabini told his athletes, “Only think of two things - the gun and the tape. When you hear the one, just run like hell until you break the other”.
The Unveiling of the Plaque
A crowd of over 60 people gathered in Burbage Road to see Sam Mussabini commemorated with an English Heritage Blue Plaque at his former home at 84 Burbage Road on Wednesday 11th July 2012. The house backs on to the Herne Hill Velodrome, where he worked as a cycling and athletics coach from the 1890s until his death and where he trained many medal-winning Olympic athletes, including Harold Abrahams.
With torrential rain beforehand, the current owners of No 84, John Benger and Susan Irvine, kindly allowed everyone to shelter from the English summer but luckily the rain held off and the sun shone for the actual ceremony.
Dr Susan Skedd began by outlining the process of obtaining a Blue Plaque and told of her research into Mussabini, including the confusion caused by his and his father’s use of aliases, presumably to avoid prejudice arising from their surname.
Lord Higgins, Alleyn Old Boy and Olympic athlete of the 1948 and 1952 Games, spoke of being inspired to run by Mussabini’s protégés, including Harold Abrahams, and how he came to know Abrahams in later life. As a young athlete he himself trained at the Burbage Road track and he described an athletics environment a world away from that of today. He explained that the cinder tracks had no starting blocks so the runners had small trowels to dig their own holes in the cinders to allow secure footings. He spoke of a world where the maximum prize was just £15 (in kind not in cash) and how any exceeding of the prize limit would result in a strict lifetime ban.
Kevin Kelly, archivist at Herne Hill Harriers and author of “Into the Millennium, A History of Herne Hill Harriers - 1889 to 2001”, summarised Mussabini’s sporting significance and told of end-of-season dinners where the athletes themselves provided the after-dinner musical entertainment. He brought along a wonderful album of photographs of Mussabini, including a photographic parade of Mussabini’s many hats.
Hillary Peachey, Chair of the Save the Velodrome Campaign, gave an update on the campaign to save the cycle track, the only remaining 1948 Olympic venue still in use today, and there was a message from Lord Coe in which he said, “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”.
Ben Cross, who played Harold Abrahams in the film Chariots of Fire, unveiled the plaque and passed on a message from Abrahams’ daughter, Sue Pottle, who said that her father would have been delighted to know “old Sam” was being honoured, since he thought Mussabini was much more deserving than he, Harold, ever was.
Among those present were the granddaughter and great grandson of Mussabini. Another relative, who could not attend in person, wrote of being allowed to play with Sam’s starting pistol in the road outside No 84. Dulwich Hamlet School House Captains also came along and were shown an original 1948 Olympic torch by South London Harrier John Greatrex, who ran for Wales in the 1970 Commonwealth Games.
After the ceremony the Edward Alleyn Club kindly opened its doors for refreshment and reminiscences.