Run, Jewboy, Run!


In 1967 I was the fastest Jewish runner in England under the age of 19. When I tell people this, which isn’t all that often, I generally add some kind of self-deprecating coda—“There were only three of us competing,” something like that. Secretly, of course, I’m proud, although my memory of the event is bittersweet. When I crossed the line in the 100-yard dash at the Association of Jewish Youth track finals in a blistering 10.9 seconds—okay, it was 11.0 flat—I raised my arms and looked around to see if there was anyone I knew close by. There wasn’t: certainly no relatives (they weren’t at the meet or any other sporting event in which I ever participated), no friends, and not even any one from the Northwest London Jewish Boys Club that I was representing. Eventually, after a search, I found Billy Grossman at the far end of the stadium near the long jump pit. “I won,” I said. “Well done, Wilczyk,” he replied. My friends liked to call me by the last name that had belonged to my grandfather in Poland. Some months later the AJY sent a medal to the club. Some years later my brother, a psychoanalyst, threw it in the trash along with all the other awards I had ever received. I’d left them at his house when I’d moved to Israel in 1977. When he moved, from one part of Oxford to another, my stuff didn’t make the transfer.

I was always a fast runner, and this was lucky for me. I ran away from a kid in my local park who held a knife at my throat. He was very determined to know whether I was Jewish or not. He kept asking me, but my urge to flee was stronger than my urge to reply. I also ran away from two taxonomical strangers on a bus who had written “Jew” on my back as I was on my way home from a soccer game. Maybe if I’d met them first it would have helped the kid in the park.

I think I really got interested in sprinting as a sporting vocation rather than as a method of escape when Dave Segal, an English Jew, won a bronze medal as part of Great Britain’s 4x100 meters relay team at the1960 Rome Olympics. Two years earlier he had brought home a silver from the European Championship’s 200 meters. In Rome, in that event, he was disqualified after two false starts, by judges who were undoubtedly anti-Semitic. Dave wore black rectangular glasses, like Buddy Holly. He was the last English Jew to win any kind of medal at the Olympics. Sensibly, he moved to America when the games were over.  

After watching Dave Segal I’d go out and practice running half way around my block. I’d start on the curve outside the Solomons’ house, pass the homes that housed the various families who had arrived in our neighborhood as refugees from Nazi Germany, and return to the “English Jews’” end of the street. I probably hit full speed outside the Walshes’ house, (they were the only Gentiles on our street) and the only people who would not throw a tennis ball back if you lost one in their yard. The Walshes were an oppressed minority.

A year after I became the fastest Jewish runner my age in England, Tommie Smith, a charismatic black American athlete, won the 200 meters at the 1968 Mexico Olympics in the unworldly time of 19.83 seconds. On the podium he and John Carlos, the bronze medalist, raised their black-gloved hands in a fist salute. It was the most stunning and beautiful gesture of defiance that I had ever seen. About a week later, running in an ecumenical inter-school 220 event, I lost, by at least 20 yards, to a West Indian kid, Jarvis Campbell, whom I had seen smoking before the race and who, as he didn’t own any spikes, ran barefoot. After that I started borrowing my mother’s car a lot, and I got a girlfriend.