New knight Brendan Foster hopes for glorious Great North Run return in 2021


Brendan Foster hopes his knighthood can be followed next year by a biggest and best ever Great North Run.

The 72-year-old has been recognised in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to international and national sport and culture in north-east England.

Foster enjoyed a distinguished athletics career, including a gold medal at the 1974 European Championships in Rome, before setting up the Great North Run in 1980, the year he retired from racing.

The 2020 race was due to be the 40th running of the event, with a record 60,000 entries, but had to be cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Foster, who described the knighthood as a great privilege, said staging the race next year was his big dream for next year.

He told the PA news agency: “We would love to celebrate the 40th Great North Run in 2021, that would be the biggest and most exciting ever because of the circumstances.

“If it did happen it would be the first big mass event, it would be Britain returning from this crisis. It would be a signal of that and we would love to be in that position.

“What I would like to do is stand on that finish line, with everything back to normal and as it’s been in the past, and say ‘well, that’s 40’, come down off the rostrum, have a couple of drinks and then start working on the 50th.”

Runners cross the River Tyne at the 2017 Great North Run
Runners cross the River Tyne at the 2017 Great North Run

Foster recalled how the news of the record entry list coincided with the first confirmed cases of coronavirus in the UK.

“This year we were sitting on 60,000 entries, which would have made it the biggest mass participation event that had ever been held in the UK,” he said.

“On January 31 we were celebrating the 60,000 entries and round the corner, the RVI (Royal Victoria Infirmary) in Newcastle announced the first patients to be admitted for Covid. So they were sitting 800 yards away, terrified, and we were sitting there, celebrating. We were never to know, they were never to know.”

The origins of the Great North Run lie in New Zealand, Foster said.

“I was with David Moorcroft and this guy invited us to run in this race in Auckland in 1980,” he said.

“We travelled up to Auckland to train and there were 12,000 people standing around ready to run this Round The Bays race.

A phenomenal 34,380 proud runners, joggers and walkers brought Auckland’s waterfront to life yesterday and what a sight it was! 🏅

We loved the energy and enthusiasm you all brought to NZ’s largest fun run, so thank you to all who joined us! 💙 Bring on #RTB2021! 🙌🏼

— Round the Bays (@roundthebays) March 8, 2020

“The biggest race in the UK at the time was the national cross country championships which was 1,300 runners. Dave and I stood on the start line and said ‘My God, what’s this?’

“Fun runs don’t usually have the prime minister starting them off, so we thought ‘hey, this is a big deal’.

“Dave and I were running together and I said ‘Dave, this is fantastic’ – we ran from the city to the coast, it was beautiful all the way along and I said to Dave at the end ‘I tell you what when I retire after the Olympics this year I’m going to organise an event like this in the north-east, it could really take off’.

“That was the seed that was planted all those years ago.”

Foster, who was born and raised in Hebburn, County Durham, was awarded an MBE in 1975 before being honoured with a CBE in 2008.

Queen Elizabeth II hands over the baton for the Commonwealth Games relay to Brendan Foster in June 1982
Queen Elizabeth II hands over the baton for the Commonwealth Games relay to Brendan Foster in June 1982

As well as his track success and his work with the Great North Run, Foster is best known to many for his work as a commentator for the BBC, a job he did between 1980 and 2017.

His favourite moment on the track happened close to his north-east roots.

“The one that probably goes down in the folklore is the reopening of the stadium in Gateshead (in 1974) and I set the 3,000 metres world record there,” he said.

“I’d promised to do it in a moment of rashness at a civic reception where I said ‘If you build the track, I’ll break a world record’.

“It was a foolish thing to say, but when you’ve had a few drinks at a function in December, it’s easy to say next August I’ll break the world record!”

Reflecting on this latest honour, Foster said: “When I look back, which I’ve only done in the last few weeks, I think how lucky I’ve been to spend my life doing something I love and that I’ve loved since I was a kid, and then The Queen gives me a knighthood for doing it.”