This is shaping up to be Richard Hunter's year in more ways than one with his sports equipment business reaching new heights, a bigger and better version of his Run Northumberland series in the offing and the clock ticking down to the explosive opening in London of the greatest show on earth. He spoke to Jane Hall.
RICHARD Hunter will have more reasons than most to feel pleased with himself when he settles down to watch the Olympics in London this August.
He is one of the lucky few who have managed to secure tickets to not one but three of the athletics sessions taking place in the main arena (and in the very sports he had hoped to see).
That means he will be in the enviable position of witnessing the world’s top sportsmen and women in action from close quarters.
And, if all goes to plan, he will have the satisfaction of knowing he had no small part to play in what should be a record-breaking Team GB medal haul.
Hunter’s Northumberland-based athletics and sports equipment company, Track and Field Sports, supplies British Olympic pole vault hopefuls Kate Dennison and local girl Sally Scott with their apparatus.
If, as predicted, they both make it into the final Olympic squad, then Hunter could, metaphorically at least, claim to have put his sports equipment firm top of the podium.
Kate and Sally, who hails from Morpeth in Northumberland, aren’t the only two sportspeople who favour the same Pacer carbon FX poles Hunter’s company supplies, though.
So too does British decathlete Ashley Bryant, Anna Rogowska from Poland, who is the current women’s world champion in the discipline, and Australian Steve Hooker, the 2008 Olympic men’s gold medallist.
Hunter could have as many reasons to smile as Team GB hopefully will have when the first Olympics to be held on British soil since 1948 finally come to a close as a whole on September 9 with the Parlaympic Games closing ceremony.
His Olympic involvement doesn’t end with the pole vault, however. Track and Field Sports has also been chosen to supply all the athletics equipment for the US team’s training venue at London’s Mile End Stadium in the run-up to the Olympics.
As American firm Gill Athletics’ preferred UK and European distributor, the Cramlington firm has been tasked with providing everything from pole and high jump landing areas to hurdles, relay batons, starting blocks, discus and hammer cages, steeple chase barriers and even gazebos.
With pole vault landing areas costing from £7,500 and a discus cage coming in at around £16,000, it is no small order for a business that while founded in 2005 only became a full-time venture for Hunter three years ago.
But in that time the fledgling businessman has seen turnover nearly double each year. Predicted turnover for 2011-2012 based on quarter one and two is between £450,000-£500,000.
And at least part of the reason for the growth is his impeccable contacts.
A former 110m hurdler turned decathlete who represented his country as man and boy at national and international level and who in his youth trained alongside some of the greatest names in track-and-field events such as Jonathan Edwards and Daley Thompson, Hunter maintains it’s “fairly easy” selling to people he knows.
“When you know the product and you know the people, it’s not like I have to do a hard sell on them,” he explains. “Track and Field Sports is also specialising in a small pool. There are only really a handful of other UK companies doing what we are, like Stadia Sports, Neuff and Pro Athletics, and there is certainly no one else in the North East operating in this arena, or Scotland for that matter.
“Track and Field Sports also offers a wider range of equipment than anyone else from school to gym and athletics. Our slogan is from ‘playground to the podium’. We have managed to manoeuvre ourselves into a niche area.”
While Hunter, for whom the last 28 years of his life has been shaped by what happens in the athletics arena and who has successfully managed to turn a teenage passion into a full-time profession, has worked hard on making Track and Field Sports a force to be reckoned with, he is the first to admit luck has also played its part.
Other sectors may be struggling in the current economic downturn, but the last three years have been something of a golden time for UK athletics.
Hunter – who also runs his own sports marketing company, Venator International, as well as the Team Decathlon athletics club which is currently developing the Run Northumberland series of half-marathon and 10k events – is riding a wave that started with the announcement in 2005 that London had won the 2012 Olympic bid. Team GB’s best medal haul since 1908 in the Beijing Olympics four years ago, which saw us finish fourth in the table behind China, the USA and Russia, only served to heighten expectations. As a result, Track and Field Sports equipment has been much in demand for celebrity athletes’ photo shoots, advertising campaigns and PR stunts.
“Five years ago no one was interviewing athletes in the way they are now or using athletics equipment in glossy photoshoots, but the February edition of Marie Claire features heptathlete Jessica Ennis on the cover and it was us the magazine came to when they needed suitable props,” Hunter says.
“We’re also doing a lot more branded athletics equipment in company colours for PR stunts, and not that long ago 10 of our hurdles were used as a metaphor for overcoming obstacles in a full-page newspaper advert from the Home Office.
“We have the Olympics just over seven months away, the European Team Athletics Cup at Gateshead Stadium in 2013, the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in 2014 and then in 2017 the World Championships will be coming to the Olympic stadium in London.
“We are in the middle of a phenomenal decade of big athletics events here in the UK and as a company Track and Field Sports is well placed to take advantage of it all.
“Everything is falling into place at the right moment for us.”
Running his own sports equipment firm is the realisation of a childhood dream for Hunter, who grew up near Matfen and was only introduced to athletics at the age of 13. Before that he had been a rugby man.
It was then he attended a Sportshall Athletics heat at Gateshead. He was so impressed he joined Gateshead Harriers and never looked back.
In 1987 he won the British Schools’ Championships in hurdles and was taken on by Carl Johnson, the coach who trained Jonathan Edwards.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t have the same talent as Jonathan,” Hunter laughs. “There were a few years in the juniors when I was ranked second and third in the hurdles in the country.
“But I was competing at the same time as Colin Jackson, realised I was never going to have his speed and changed to the decathlon.”
By 1992 he was competing nationally in decathlons – and still is in the Northern Track and Field League, beating competitors half his age.
Currently chairman of Tynedale Harriers, in1997 Hunter began organising sports events and started the International Meeting at Hexham where decathletes Dean Macey and Dan Awde earned their respective places in Team GB to compete in the Athens and Beijing Olympics.
A qualified athletics coach, last year he launched the four-race Run Northumberland series held against the backdrop of some of the county’s most iconic and beautiful manmade landmarks.
More than 1,000 competitors of all ages and abilities, from serious club athletes to fun-runners, took part in the races, which included a half-marathon and three 10k events at Bamburgh and the National Trust’s Wallington and Cragside estates.
So successful was the programme that Run Northumberland is back for a second helping this year, with a fifth date now added to the itinerary which gets off to a racing start on March 25 with the Wallington half-marathon.
This will be followed by 10k races at Cragside on April 14, Bamburgh on June 17, a return to Wallington on September 9 – just a week before the Great North Run – and newcomer Matfen on October 14.
Hunter has set himself an Olympic-sized challenge of 2012 runners for 2012 over all five races and also hopes to encourage families to take up the Run Northumberland mantle.
Looking ahead, Hunter says he would like to become more involved in the events side of athletics, just as 1970s hurdler Alan Pascoe and Brendan Foster have been over the last couple of decades.
“There is a big demand for professionally organised races,” he says. “Just as athletics has become more professional in the past 20-30 years, so races have too.
“Athletics as a whole has undergone a huge facelift from career coaches to the funding that is now available for the elite athletes.
“Some of that funding will be used for equipment and will filter its way down to Track and Field Sports.”
The business had its genesis when Hunter worked in sports development for England Athletics here in the North East, a post he left in 2009.
He used his own money to set the venture up, a good position to be in as the economy struggles to pick up and many firms have collapsed under the weight of commercial loans.
He always has an eye on the bigger picture and believes you need to spend money to make it. Last weekend Track and Field Sports sponsored Vault Manchester, the annual meeting of the UK’s elite pole vaulters, and it will also be involved with Vault Gateshead in March and Vault London.
Interestingly, pole vaulters are the only athletes allowed to use their own equipment in the Olympics. In every other discipline, competitors have to use the apparatus provided by the organisers to ensure athletes compete on a level playing field.
But because vault poles are specially tailored to each athlete’s height and weight, the same rules don’t apply.
Hence Hunter’s added interest in what was already going to be the sporting occasion of a lifetime for him.
He admits to being “as surprised as anyone” that after going through the ballot he should have come away with three pairs of tickets out of the 16 sessions he applied for.
He is mightily relieved his name wasn’t pulled out of the hat for all 16.
“If it had been we probably wouldn’t be sitting here talking,” he jokes. “I would be bankrupt!”
He will be joining tens of thousands of spectators at the main Olympic stadium on August 3, 6 and 8 when he will be fortunate enough to see the start of the men’s decathlon as well as the women’s pole vault final and the qualifying round for the men’s pole vault, among other events.
“It will be a very proud moment on a personal as well as a regional level if Kate Dennison and Sally Scott make it all the way to the podium,” he says.
“I never had the chance to compete for my country at the Olympics, but if two world-class British athletes were to make their mark using equipment Track and Field Sports had supplied it would be the next best thing.”