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Sylvester Stein: the legend behind Peak Performance
Andrew Hamilton looks at the life and times of the late Sylvester Stein, whose inspiration and talent helped to create the unique publication that is Peak Performance
I can’t remember the exact date, but I do remember that my love of running and fitness started in earnest in 1979. Back then, Britain was a very different place. Following the ‘winter of discontent’ that saw uncollected rubbish piling up on the streets and the dead unburied, Margaret Thatcher – for better or for worse – was elected Prime Minister. This was also the year that saw Sebastian Coe setting a new world record of 3mins 48.9secs for the mile, the launch of the first ever Vauxhall Astra and the rise to fame of bands such as Spandau Ballet, Gary Numan and the Tubeway Army, The Specials and Madness.
What was also very different was the world of sport and fitness. Back then, the subliminal message was that only accomplished athletes trained and competed. Ordinary folk might enjoy the odd team game like a Sunday kick about, but generally they just watched. I clearly remember my very early running days; people would invariably stare in disbelief, and then try to see who might be chasing me!
However, a revolution was just beginning to take place – something that was to change the lifestyles of tens of millions of people across the globe. Over in the US, the running boom was gathering pace. The introduction of ‘city marathons’ along with introductory fun runs inspired thousands of would-be couch potatoes to give it a go.
One runner in particular – Frank Shorter – is also credited with starting the running boom of the 1970s. His gold-medal performance, run in a time of 2:12:19, made him a household name across America. Shorter’s victory gave novice runners comfort and incentive to run the streets. For the first time, masses of previously inactive Americans began to think, “Hey, I could be a runner too!” Before long, a new era of exercise culture began to envelope not only professional sports, but also recreational fitness.
A new dawn of sports science knowledge
The problem with being a 70s boomer runner was one of knowledge – or lack of it. How to build fitness, how to choose shoes, how to avoid injury – answers to all of these questions and more were not much more than a blend of guesswork and hearsay. In my own case, it never occurred to me that a complete beginner could never successfully transition to a 120-mile-per-week training schedule in just nine months without becoming disastrously injured. Suffice to say I soon got to know plenty of physiotherapists!
One sunny May day in 1980 however, I wandered into my local newsagent and did a double take. On the shelf right in front of me was a new publication called Running Magazine, which turned out to be a godsend to thousands of novice runners just like me. Here at last was a source of (at the time) cutting edge information aimed at guiding runners of all abilities to run faster, further and more safely. The success of Running Magazine is why you are reading this today; its creator was a kind-hearted and gifted genius by the name of Sylvester Stein, who later became the founder of Peak Performance.
Sylvester the man
Sylvester Stein was born on Christmas day in 1920 in Cape Town, and was brought up in Durban. He studied engineering at Howard College in Natal before serving in the Royal Navy. After World War II, he became a reporter and then political editor for the Rand Daily Mail. From there, he took on the editorship of Drum magazine, where he spent three years working with a staff of black writers, who would later become well known for their accounts of life under apartheid. Uncomfortable with the apartheid system, Stein left South Africa in the late 1950s, and settled in London, where he launched ‘The London Property Letter’, which was aimed at non-professionals interested in the real estate market. He also wrote books, including the anti-apartheid satirical novel, ‘2nd Class Taxi’ in 1958, which was quickly banned back in his native South Africa.
Sylvester the child
Love of sport
Sylvester was a passionate advocate for freedom and equality and put much energy into overcoming the apartheid system in his homeland. But he had other facets to his personality, one of which was a love of sport and exercise.
As a schoolboy, Sylvester was a reasonable sprinter, but at Capetown University he had no chance at all; he was only fifteen and athletic competition meant going head to head with men of 20 and 21, which was a bit too
hard! When the war broke out, Sylvester found himself in the Royal Navy, and when it finished, family life took over. However, he always kept fairly fit, with swimming and a bit of football. But over time, he gradually returned to running.
In the late 1970s, Sylvester began to note the growing number of joggers appearing in London’s parks, and soon realised that here was an opportunity to work in an area he loved. Soon after, he published the UK’s first ever running magazine – aptly named ‘Running Magazine’. Unlike most fitness publishers however, Sylvester loved to practice what he preached, and in his late middle-age, sprinting became a fresh challenge for him. He won a silver medal in the 200m at the World Veteran Games in Toronto in 1975 and, six years later – a year after publishing Running Magazine and at the age of 61 – he converted this to gold in Christchurch, New Zealand, with a time of 26.81sec!
The birth of Peak Performance
By the late-80s, Sylvester was looking for a new challenge, one which led to the birth of Peak Performance. Sylvester realised that while sport and fitness magazines could offer great value, they lacked appeal to amateur athletes who already understood the basics, and were looking for something a bit more cutting edge.
With the 1980s explosion in sports science research, there was plenty of cutting edge info out there so at the end of that decade, Sylvester decided to combine the two in a newsletter called ‘Peak Performance’ The goal of Peak Performance was to give athletes cutting edge, scientifically validated information about how to improve performance (and get ahead of the pack) – all written in plain, easy-to-understand English. Although it has evolved over almost three decades and 360 issues, this is still what we aim to do!
In the 1990s, Sylvester sold Running Magazine to Roedale Press and founded Electric Word Publishing, under which Peak Performance was produced. Throughout this time and beyond into the 2000s, he pursued his sprinting career, competing in both British and international athletic competitions, and winning numerous medals. Indeed, at the age of 86, while still running for Highgate Harriers, Sylvester won the British Over-85s 100m title, running almost three seconds ahead of Frank Copping, who won the Over-80s event. He only gave up competitive athletics in his late 80s because (as he put it) “there was no one left to run against”!
Sylvester Stein in action at 86 years of age
Although he stepped back from the frontline of Peak Performance in his later years, he always regarded it with affection. I was lucky enough to spend some time with Sylvester in 2005, during my first period of editorship. What struck me was his passion, energy and vision for mass-participation sport. I still remember his words: “Never underestimate what you can achieve, or how late you can achieve it Andrew!” Practicing what he preached, Sylvester stayed active right until his final days. His passing in late December 2015 at the age of 95 was mourned by many, but although gone, he will not be forgotten. And as the current custodians of Peak Performance, we at Green Star will endeavour that his legacy of maximum performance for the masses endures for many more years to come!