TRIBUTES have poured in from across the athletics world for a south Essex man who became one of the sport’s most popular characters.

Mel Batty, the former 10-mile world record holder and coach to Basildon’s most famous athlete Eamonn Martin, died on Monday night, aged 71.

He had been fighting for his life since suffering a heart attack ten days’ earlier.

Former London Marathon winner and triple Olympian Martin described Batty as his “biggest support and number one fan.”

Martin said: “He was there right beside me through all the peaks and troughs of my career.

“I look back at my career highlights and he was there with me for all of them.

“Going to the Olympics in 1984, 1988 and 1992, breaking the British 10km record in Oslo, when he was there fighting my corner because I had been put on the second grid as I hadn’t run a 10km before.

“Then, what is probably my fondest memory of Mel, my London Marathon win in 1993. I think he was more excited than I was then. There were pictures of him on TV just so happy.

“After that there was my Chicago Marathon win in 1995 and I remember just having so much fun with Mel after that.

“We were great friends. We had a great laugh together. When I look back, I don’t necessarily think of my athletics successes, I look back on all the laughs and all the fun we had together.

“He was the greatest support to me and my number one fan.”

Another British London Marathon winner Paula Radcliffe added: “A lovely man who will be greatly missed.”

Batty, who was born in Grays and lived in Thundersley for many years, may be remembered by many as a successful coach, but in his own youth, he was a world-class runner.

He was twice national cross country champion, represented England at the Commonwealth Games in Australia in 1962 and won a bronze and silver medal at World Cross Country Championships.

But the Thurrock Harrier’s career highlight was probably running a world record for ten miles (47m 26.8s) on a cinder track at Hurlingham in April 1963.

“I know for Mel, it was great to be able to have that success as an athlete and then go on to be such a successful coach,” said Martin.

“He really loved the sport and had been involved in it for such a long time.

“I think some people got the wrong impression of him because of his personality. He was a great coach. He spent a long time planning each season in advance. He took it all very seriously. But, boy, did we also have fun.

“He was fun, scatty, organised but disorganised at the same time. I remember when he set up MBO, the Mel Batty Organisation, and I laughed and said it should be MBD, the Mel Batty Disorganisation. He liked that. He could laugh hysterically.

“In fact, he was never happier than when he was at the centre of the joke. He didn’t take umbrage to people laughing at him, he loved it even more!

“I can remember, back in the heyday of Basildon AC, when we had a great bunch of senior men, we would all go out to celebrate Christmas and Mel would be there handing out Brooks T-shirts to everyone, making everyone laugh. They were such fun evenings. Mel knew how to celebrate!”

Batty was able to hand out Brooks T-shirts to Martin and his team-mates as he was also the UK managing director of the American sportswear firm during the Eighties, a time when he also acted as a press liaison at top athletics meetings screened by ITV.

“He was very popular with all the British journalists,” Martin recalled. “He would go and get the athletes for the Press or speak to them and bring quotes back to the journalists. People would see him on the telly more than me!

“Sometimes, when for example Ovett didn’t want to speak to the media, Mel would just make them up. I’m not sure what he thought of that!

“I would say that period during the Eighties was his highlight. He was the managing director of a big sportswear company, coaching the best distance runner in the country and helping out on TV.

“So many people knew Mel and I can see all the tributes pouring in for him.

“He was a friend of so many people.

“Our relationship never changed. He was a great friend to me.”

A WORLD RECORD AND TWO NATIONAL CROSS-COUNTRY TITLES Mel Batty developed his interest in running from his brother Ken, one of the founder members of Thurrock Harriers.

Despite not being a natural athlete, he had great strength and determination.

He started to be coached by Colin Young, a former international race walker, and in 1962, he was picked to run in the six miles for England at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Australia where he finished sixth.

Amazingly, at the same Games, he found a spare place going in the marathon and joined in. In searing heat, he finished fifth.

He finished third in the 1963 IAAF Cross Country Championships which are now called the World Championships and a year later, following a victory at Leicester in the National Cross Country Championships he ran a world record time in the 10 miles of 47m 26.8s on a windy April day on a cinder track at Hurlingham.

In 1965, he won the National Cross Country Championship in Parliament Hills, London, beating the whole of the New Zealand Cross Country team and running greats Ron Hill and Bruce Tulloch.

Competing in the IAAF Cross Country Championships a fortnight later, he left four Olympic gold medallists in his wake but found the then unknown Frenchman, Jean Fayolle, hanging on to him as if his life depended on it.

As they dipped across the non-existing finishing line together the verdict was given to the Frenchman. Even the French newspapers mocked the decision. Mel felt that he had definitely won the race.

For more reaction to Mel's death, see Wednesday's Echo