Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken's
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Maureen Bonanno-Smith

THE FULL INTERVIEW WITH MAUREEN BONANNO-SMITH OF HIGHGATE HARRIERS - NOV 2008

by Alastair Aitken

MAUREEN SMITH, who is currently the President of the English Cross Country Association, is not someone  that fits into the bracket of being 'A Celebrity' in the media or in the National Newspapers but, there are very few in the sport that could possibly claim, to have contributed more to athletics and, in her case, in a non-paid capacity for 58 years. Her first job in athletics was being Treasurer of the Ladies Section of Highgate Harriers. That was only a short time after joining the club, for which she went on to become their President.
               Besides helping WAAA pioneer things like the women's Steeplechase, Heptathlon (First held in Middlesex WAAA Championships in the 70's) and hammer for women ( 'I was taught to throw the 16lb hammer with three turns in Singapore in the Mid 60's) she was a Founder member of the British Milers Club along with Frank Horwill and also a Founder member of the Women's Veterans Association with Marea Hartman, Vera Searle, Jill Lindsay and Hazel Rider.
For sixteen years she was Secretary of the Middlesex County WAAA for which she became President, as she did with the North of Thames CC Association and SEAA and again Middlesex AA. She was Secretary of Southern Women's Cross Country and Road Walking Association and Chairman of the South of England Cross Country Association. Maureen Smith these days is involved with officiating at many meetings throughout the year in all athletic disciplines for all ages.
   How did it all begin for her?
   " My athletics started by chance some 58 years ago when as a County netball player I was asked to run in the Midland Bank Sports Day Relay Team. I did not even know what a relay team was at the time. I was taken up to Parliament Hill Fields, Hampstead in my netball kit for training, was spotted by Highgate Harriers coach Charlie Warner. My first race was at Victoria Park. My first cross-country was coming 52nd in the National cross country and I was second the following year, leading a winning National Highgate Senior team home, having won the County, Area and National Junior Cross Country Titles in between time. I was coached by Harry Harris when I competed at middle-distance track, cross-country and road running. I took individual titles at county, Area and international level in all three disciplines and gained international selection for track and cross-country."  
   As we talked in a pub, near where Maureen lived in St. Albans, memories were rekindled for us, of those exciting days of athletics we enjoyed at the old White City Stadium. I can remember in the 1950's at the White City Stadium when it was always packed with spectators. People were turned away at the gates when it was full to capacity, on several occasions, which simply does not happen these days. One of the heroes of the day was Yorkshire man, Derek Ibbotson when he broke the World Record for the mile with 3:57.2 on the White City cinder track. It was on the 19th of July 1957. He was followed home by Ronnie Delany, the Irish Olympic Champion of 1956 (3:58.8) and in fourth place was the late Ken Wood (3:59.1) just behind Stanislav Joungwith, who had broken the World 1500 record the previous week. On that same evening on the same track at the White City Diane Leather won the mile in 4:50.6 with Maureen Bonanno second in 4:53.6. That was Maureen Smith's maiden name. It was the first time ever in history that two women had broken 5 minutes for the mile and it took nearly twenty years for the next British runner Anne Smith to dip under the ' 5 minutes.
What happened that evening in 1957?
   'For me it was wonderful' Maureen Smith said 'I warmed up with Frankie Salvat (1960 AAA's 3 mile Champion) and it was the fastest pre-race warm up I ever had. I bless Frankie Salvat for the rest of my life. We did that under the White City Stadium. Diane was inside having her massage and warm up. After the tremendous warm up I got on the track and was almost flying, coming down the back straight and on that final lap. I looked at the clock and took off again and got very close to Diane and we both went under five minutes. It was a great feeling. The next day I ran at Westerham in Kent and ran my fastest half mile in 2:12.'
   Maureen Bonanno-Smith then became the WAAA Mile Champion, in the following year in 5:02.6. ' It was at Motspur Park, the heats and the finals of the 880 and the One mile were on the same day plus the final of the mile. I came third in the 880 and won the mile in a blanket finish. Madeline Ibbotson, Diane Leather and Joy Jordan were the other three that were with me.' Freddy Cuthbert was the Secretary of Highgate Harriers and worked on the Newspapers. He had this enormous poster around the City of me winning the race, and in the newspapers.'
Maureen Smith married her husband David Smith in 1957 and her daughter Beverley was born in 1960. It was in the 1960's she joined the Singapore Swifts Athletic Club and won their National 440, 880, one mile and javelin titles and competed in the Malaysian Games in Seremban, Kuala Lumpur. In 1964 she competed for Singapore against the German team who were on their way back from the Tokyo Olympics. It was not till 1987 when she got injured in Joydens Wood, after the great storm, that she retired  from active athletics.
   Having had so many official posts at all events Maureen Smith has made countless friends and her heroes were not just athletes. ' Vera Searle was a good influence in taking me into officiating. She said' You need to put something back' . She encouraged me and other former women athletes to do that. Vera was a great leader and a friend and set a standard for Women's Officials. Another person I really admire was Sir Arthur Gold particularly with his fight against drug taking.
   Eric Nash, who has been secretary of Cambridge Harriers for 50 years is a great friend of Maureen Smith and introduced her to the City, and through him she is busily involved with her Livery Company, City Association and Ward Club. She is also with Cambridge Harriers as a second claim member. About Eric Nash, she pointed out that he is known as 'Mr South of England' and ' Mr Cambridge Harriers' for his strong involvement with those over many years. Another honorary position outside of athletics that gives Maureen Smith great pleasure is being a Tour Guide at St Pauls Cathedral.
   About the changes that are being made in athletics and those responsible for running the sport Maureen Smith has a strong opinion about that:- ' The sport is being torn apart really. What is going to happen after the Olympics when the funding comes to a halt?
Will we ever be able to get back to normal again, to have and encourage proper Club competition, County, Area and Inter-Counties again! ' With the present availability of money, the higher echelons of our sport are imposing a way of life, and we are being forced to lose our historical identity within the Counties and Areas, which has always been the backbone of our sport. For Officials who have all worked for years and years in an Honorary capacity and ran the sport extremely well., time and the system has definitely changed many of their lives. They have become desperately unhappy about that, and and left the sport they loved.'  
           Maureen Smith also pointed out that something is missing when athletes are not competing or even encouraged to compete in their County or Area championships. She feels athletes in the early days had the competition to progress right through from club to National Championships. That was available to them. It was beneficial, important and necessary for selection to be able to run heats, semi-finals and finals, all in one day and be able to combine middle distance track with road and cross-country in the year. All that gave them the special ingredient to handle Major Championships and be able then to make the finals. Very few are able to do that now.
   She also remarked that athletes should be taught to be loyal to their clubs who gave them the opportunity to compete; to their counties who gave them the opportunity to be good Team athletes. In the high echelons of the sport, they don't appear to be interested in that. Another thing Maureen remarked on was that the National Cross Country Championships was the epitome everybody wanted to do because it was from the National you were selected.
   Maureen Smith was born in London on the 10th of July 1935 in Middlesex and her Father Lawrence Bonanno had been in the Merchant Navy. Her mother Ivy was always supportive when she competed, making sure she had good meals and her clothes were all in good condition for competition, despite money being scarce in those days. Maureen Smith worked in the Midland Bank Overseas Branch in the City of London in the early 50's and then for a firm of solicitors in  St. Albans since 1975 and now her only paid job is three long mornings working in that office.
   Maureen Bonanno-Smith, as she is known in the City since she became Freeman of the City of London to perpetuate her father's name, received the South of England long service Award for 50 years Voluntary work in the sport and the London Federation of Sports and Recreation Gold Award for 50 years of Voluntary service to athletics and, was the only woman from England to be chosen to officiate at the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane. She was also part of the Team Management in Yokohama when the English women won the famous "Ekiden" Road Relay over the marathon distance.
   Maureen Smith concludes about what she feels about, the South of England Cross Country Committee giving her the opportunity to wear the Great Seal of Office of the English Cross Country Association as the new President, after many years of work within the
National Association.
   ' To me athletics has been my life and an absolute joy and this is the icing on the cake, that I have been President of my club Highgate Harriers, Middlesex County twice, President of the South of England CC Association. When I first started with the Women's Cross Country Association, it was actually the Women's Cross Country, Road Running and Walking Association, all three discipline's We have progressed from those early days to the Amalgamation of the Men and Women's Association into the English Cross Country Association'.
   ' All through my athletics- track, Field, Cross-Country and Road, I have been one of the few to cover all those disciplines, to compete, Officiate and be a Team Manager in all of them. It has been hard work but I have loved every moment of it. Would I do it again? I certainly would. I have made so many friends with competitors, athletes and officials and I certainly hold them in high regard as friends that will always remain with me.'

Alastair Aitken

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