Sportshall Athletics: from village hall to global phenomenon

Chances are, if you went to primary school in the UK in the 90s, 00, or 2010s, you’ve had some engagement with Sportshall Athletics, either the equipment – foam javelins anyone? – the competition, or the legacy. Sportshall is a professional outfit, with the equipment and expertise to deliver athletics competitions for 4 to 11 year-old children, giving thousands the chance to experience athletics as a fun and accessible pursuit.

HRHs Prince William and Princess Catherine try out a foam javelin, one of the key items of Sportshall equipment for inspiring young children to take an active interest in athletics.

In the UK, the National Sportshall Athletics Final takes place around Easter time, the culmination of regional competitions between teams of children throughout the school year. Across the globe Sportshall has delivered athletics events from the northern reaches of Canada all the way down to Australia. But how did an initiative which started unintentionally in the northwest of England get to be a global phenomenon?  

Early 1980s. George Bunner, founder and driving force behind Sportshall Athletics with George Uren, first Managing Director of Eveque, the company which manufactures Sportshall equipment.

Sportshall was formed by one man, George Bunner, an engineer by profession with a passion for athletics – he won the English Schools’ AA 880 yards championship in 1950 and was a keen member of Liverpool Harriers Athletics Club for the next two decades. In the early 1970s, having moved from Liverpool to the town of Frodsham, George decided set up a local athletics club.

Envisaging a Harriers style club based around road running and cross country – there were no track facilities nearby – George advertised in the local paper for members and they duly came, but as it turned out, over 80% of those who turned up to the first meeting were primary school children. This was a surprise. Athletics clubs in the early 1970s didn’t cater for young children; adult equipment was too big and too heavy, and the distances too long. But here they were, a group of youngsters, standing in front of George expecting to do athletics, and as a friend pointed out

if you walk away from them now, they’ll never come back to the sport

so, with no facilities, no equipment, an engineer’s brain, and a lot of expectant children, the seeds of what would become Sportshall Athletics began to germinate.

The first thing was to find a space: the neighbouring village had a village hall they could use. Next was to devise athletics inspired games to occupy the children and which could be used indoors. The need for child-friendly, child-sized equipment, and to modify adult events so that children could attempt them successfully was immediately evident, so George the engineer went to work, creating prototype equipment in the garage at home and getting his two young sons, Tom and Ivan to test it out.

The reverse board, allows participants to sprint in short indoor spaces. The angle of the board allows the runner to push off quickly, without losing momentum or speed. The original reverse board was created in George Bunner’s garage from a piece of timber and some old bathroom tiles, and tested out by George’s son Tom.

The first competition took place in 1977 between Frodsham Athletics Club (as it was then) and Sutton & St Helen’s Harriers. The format was a team competition with everyone’s marks counting towards the final score. This model, giving every participating child the ability to contribute to their team’s success whatever their athletic level, remains at the core of Sportshall Athletics Competitions to this day.

Daley Thompson attends a Sportshall event in 1990. As recognition grew, so did interest from sponsors. This was one of the first Sportshall competitions sponsored by Adidas.

The 80s and 90s saw Sportshall Athletics grow and spread, snowballing as coaches and educators discovered how the program filled the gap in children’s sports. The equipment changed to keep up with demand; what had originally been hand-built in the garage by George became properly manufactured for purpose as sponsors began to get behind the programme, and the Sportshall team grew.

George’s sons, Tom and Ivan joined their father in running Sportshall as the programme took off around the world. Today Sportshall works in multiple countries, inspiring countless children, including those most at risk of social exclusion, by providing a fun and accessible way to participate, learn and develop sporting skills and promoting a happy and healthy lifestyle.

In the UK, Sportshall provides the equipment for England Athletics’ funetics programme, aimed at supporting teachers and coaches working with children aged 4 to 11 to learn how to Run, Jump and Throw, the skills which form the basis of athletic success. Funetics Ambassador, World Champion gold medal heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson, is herself a former Sportshall competitor.

Heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson is an ambassador for the England Athletics funetics programme which aims to support teachers and coaches working with young children to Run, Jump and Throw, using Sportshall’s equipment.

You can hear Tom and Ivan discussing some of the amazing projects Sportshall has run all over the world in a special podcast Heritage Special: History of Sportshall.

Find out more about Sportshall and funetics by clicking the links below