Run For Your Life: Moving tale of athletics club that keeps at-risk youngsters on the right track

Samuel fishwick

Life is full of challenges.

For instance, should you manage to make it through ITV’s Run for Your Life tonight with dry eyes, congratulations - a trip to the optometrist to have your tear ducts examined is required.

The documentary follows Track Academy, a north London youth athletics club that has spent 11 years redirecting youngsters from the wrong side of the running tracks to the right one.

“While Britain reels under the menace of knife attacks, a sports charity fights to transform young lives before it’s too late,” the voiceover reads, interspersed with Sebastian Coe, Kelly Holmes and Daley Thompson — the two-time Olympic decathlon gold medallist — decrying the funding crisis strangling extracurricular school sports clubs.

Pictured: The founder of charity Track Academy, Connie Henry (centre), with Lord Sebastian Coe (left) and Daley Thompson CBE (right) at Daley Thompson’s gym (Daley Fitness) in Putney, London (Golden Egg Innovation)

The logic is sound and simple: with nothing stimulating to do after school, kids more easily get in trouble. Last year there were 135 murders in London — the highest total since 2008 — heavily concentrated in the 15-24 age group.

“Because we were here together, we weren’t outside doing something else,” says Confidence Lawson, one of the academy’s 60m track rising stars (he’s raced against Usain Bolt — he lost).

“Kids do like to be in gangs,” adds Thompson, putting a gym crowded with young athletes through their paces, “and this is a different kind of gang”.

Aiming high: Track Academy founder Connie Henry with alumnus Confidence Lawson (Golden Egg Innovation)

Fans of Netflix’s wildly successful documentary series Last Chance U will find similar stories of sporting redemption here. We follow Lawson to the cusp of greatness at the indoor European Championship qualifiers, geed on by the mesmeric Coach Clarence, who is something of a scene stealer. But if you feel at a loss every time another stabbing is reported on the news, this is also for you. For all the questions about the root cause of gang violence, here we have solutions.

The academy’s founder, and the documentary’s star, is Connie Henry, a former GB triple-jumper, tough coach and terrific mentor. “Confidence Lawson went to a school in the local area, and his PE teacher called me up one day when he must have been about 16 years old, and said, ‘Connie you’ve got to come and get this kid,’” she says. “If you don’t come and get him, I think he’ll be dead or in prison within a year.

Then there’s Paul Barnes, an academy mentor and father of Quamari, who was stabbed to death in January 2017 aged 15 after an altercation that began on social media. He recounts his confusion when the news of his son’s murder was relayed to him over the phone. “I remember someone saying, ‘He seems OK, he seems OK, he’s just on the floor,’” he recalls.

It’s these parents, coaches and students, you feel, who are most entitled to blockade Waterloo Bridge until action is taken. Their demands are straightforward: a PE teacher for every primary school.

There is sincere frustration at the bungled legacy of the 2012 Olympics. Grassroots sports facilities are withering. For those who question the merit of sport in society (and yes, there are those of us who scored A for effort but 5 for achievement in PE at school), think of Linford Christie wrapped in a Union Jack, reclaiming it as a symbol from the British National Party in the Nineties. Think of the wave of pride at the 2012 London Olympics. Think of the grim statistics of 2018. It’s a missed opportunity at a time of national division.

And where is a voice from the Government here? It’s a nagging question at the back of the viewer’s mind throughout a documentary that lays accusations of neglect on their doorstep. Yet it’s unforthcoming. “We reached out to the sport and civil society minister hoping that we could have a conversation,” says Henry at the programme’s close, “and unfortunately they were unable to contribute to this.”

No answer from those in charge, then. But still these dedicated mentors keep putting their best foot forward.