Play It Tough All The Way (Ray Illingworth)

On another day of capitulation in Australia by the 11 best cricketers in England the memories evoked by the death this week of Ray Illingworth, a true great, are particularly poignant. Illy’s captaincy of England for 31 international test matches between 1969 & 1973 included two series victories over Australia, a fiercely competitive, sometimes antagonistic rivalry for The Ashes, a title conferred after an Australian win in England in 1882. Other cricketing nations have progressed & excelled but, since the first meeting in 1877, this match-up has remained a measure of both nations standing in the sport. Ray Illingworth’s shrewd tactical ability, his knowledge of the game & his determination to win meant that his contribution to the success of the national side was as significant as any other post-war captain.

Before the football season became a ubiquitous year-long obsession cricket was our Summer sport. On the back field where the children of our neighbourhood congregated, (between the flats & the allotments, remember that?) after the F.A. Cup final in May the jumpers for goalposts were replaced by an odd jumble of ill-matched equipment, stumps, if we had them, an approximate 22 yards apart for our impromptu but still serious games. A bat & a ball were the minimum requirement but we somehow begged, stole or borrowed an impressive amount of gear. I was kindly gifted a set of full-sized stumps, in demand even when I was otherwise engaged (measles, bath night, stuff like that) & while the wicket keeper’s gloves were bagged by the big boys, wearing a single, frayed, leg pad, adequate protection against a tennis ball, gave your innings, however brief, greater authenticity.

The top two tiers of the sport consisted of teams representing the counties of England (OK, there was one from Wales). Our local side played in the rather condescendingly named lower section, the Minor Counties. Lincolnshire came to town once a year to play a two day game, amateurs joined in 1968 by the legendary spin bowler Sonny Ramadhin who, along with his partner Alf Valentine, had, in 1950, bamboozled the English batsmen, leading the West Indies to a first famous victory (of many) & immortalised in the cricket calypso above. We could eat all the picnic goodies packed by our mothers knowing that my grandma lived just a two minute cycle ride from the ground & that she would see us right when tea-time came around.

The top 17 counties competed for the Championship & the nearest one to my home, just 10 miles to the West, was Yorkshire. This proximity along with a growing awareness of which side of the country’s North-South divide I was on (the North) led to the adoption of them as “my” team which was a stroke of luck as Yorkshire displaced the Surrey southerners as the dominant cricket force & were champions six times in the 1960s. At that time to play for Yorkshire you had to have been born in the county. A friends mother was sent North from Bedford for his arrival – just in case! We never saw these county sides play, only the Test matches were televised, we were reliant on the daily newspaper reports & scorecards, close study & imagination enhancing the great feats of batting & bowling that contributed to the team’s continued success. I may not always be able to recall quite why I have come into the kitchen but the household (well, our house anyway) names of Tottenham Hotspur’s 1960-61 Double-winning team, of England’s 1966 World Cup winners & of that Yorkshire cricket team – go on, ask me!


Ray Illingworth dead aged 89: Former England cricket captain and Yorkshire  legend passes away

Ray Illingworth, an off-spinner (I’m not about to go into the intricacies of spin bowling) & a more than reliable batsman “played cricket as he was brought up to play it, hard and seriously – giving nowt and expecting nowt in return – which is the best way to achieve results”. He first achieved the “double” of 1000 runs & 100 wickets in a season in 1957 & was to repeat this five times in the next seven years. As the senior lieutenant of captain Brian Close, similarly schooled in the uncompromising local leagues, Illy showed young hopefuls what was expected of a Yorkshire cricket professional. Close, a man so pragmatic that his answer to an intimidating West Indian pace attack was to defend against their 100 mph bouncers, no helmet, with his chest (& these guys were not using tennis balls), could rely on Ray’s assistance to solve the equation of changing conditions (English weather y’know), available time & the talent at his disposal to extract maximum points from any game.

ICC on Twitter: "The greatest fast bowler ever? #OnThisDay in 1931, Fred  Trueman, the first bowler to 300 Test wickets, was born" / Twitter

Yorkshire’s batting strength, founded on seasoned internationals Phil Sharpe & John Hampshire was reinforced by the development of Geoffrey Boycott into a single-minded, prodigious collector of runs. The elegant Don Wilson gave Ray a partner effective on any wicket receptive to spin bowling. The new ball, the preserve of the fast bowlers was taken by the productive & reliable Tony Nicholson & Fred Trueman, “built for the job of a fast ‘un, and with the spirit too”, the best paceman in England, possibly the world & a national treasure. Fred’s youthful gaucheness often brought disapproval from the staid M.C.C., arbiters of the game & he was often overlooked for national team selection until he proved to be just too damn good. On the 15th of August 1964 “Fiery” Fred became the first bowler to capture 300 wickets in Test cricket. I was on summer holiday, an 11 year old with the family transistor radio cupped to his ear, listening to the game taking place 140 miles away. Before I could pass the news to my Dad the whole promenade of the East Coast seaside resort began to applaud, a spontaneous & respectful tribute to a sportsman that I have never seen repeated. A working-class childhood hero is something to be!

Raymond Illingworth obituary | Cricket | The Guardian

Ray left Yorkshire in 1968 after a contract dispute & joined Leicestershire as their captain, being appointed to that position with England just a month later, a stop-gap arrangement that continued until 1973! His shrewd leadership of a team of world class talents, Boycott, the run accumulator, Snow, the intimidating fast bowler (“Geoff & John” of Roy Harper’s wonderfully evocative song), wicket keeper-batsman Knott, augmented by players toughened on the county circuit achieved results which made his position unassailable against opponents on the field & administrators off. Mention must be made here of the mercurial Basil D’Oliveira, exiled from his South Africa birthplace, his all-round skills appreciated by the England cricket team & the many fans of the sport. Leicestershire won their first trophy in 1972, there were to be four more including the Championship before he returned to Yorkshire as manager then captain, at 50 years old, in a spell he recorded in his book “The Tempestuous Years”.

Golden Years of Yorkshire Cricket - remembering 1959-1969

While at Leicester David Gower, a precocious batsman, benefitted greatly from Ray’s experience & knowledge. Similarly at Somerset Brian Close mentored young Ian Botham. Two future captains, dominant personalities in 1980s England cricket schooled in the ways of winning the Yorkshire way. Such was Illy’s stature in the game that involvement with England as chairman of selectors then manager was inevitable as perhaps were differences of opinion with a new generation of players. Maybe I’ve become “that old guy” now too, preferring waking up in a warm bed on a cold winter morning, reaching for the radio to discover the fortune of England’s cricketers under a scorching Australian sun to staying up in the early hours watching the feeble resistance of today’s finest. Ian Chappell, Australian captain, an uncompromising man himself, said of Ray Illingworth that he played to win from the first ball. The current England captain, a Yorkshireman, could maybe try that out.


Cool Runnings Dad

I recently received, from a cousin, a small collection of old family photographs. The black and white images of my late parents’ wedding always invoke strong & wonderful memories. As their oldest child, born just 6 months after this occasion (a-hem !), I can remember this young, striking couple, optimistic that their life together in the post-war 1950s would be a material & social improvement on their childhood experience of economic depression & war. The cache also includes photos & a couple of pages from a scrapbook from 4 years earlier when Dad was an outstanding teenage track athlete, winning 4 County titles at youth level. I don’t know which member of his family had cut out & collected these local press clippings, there was obviously pride in his achievements. My father continued to compete throughout the next decade & I have many summer memories of watching him run. My sister & I are the only ones still around from that time so maybe it’s time to write them here before there is no-one left to remember them.

dad 1In 1949 Dad was 18 years old & became the National Junior Champion at 440 yards. The one lap sprint is a tough race & when he entered his 18 months of National Service (compulsory for males between 17-21) he won championships in the shorter sprints. On returning to England his most notable success was back over the longer distance when, in 1954, now married & a father of 2, he won the North of England title. I once asked him why he stopped running the 440 & he told me that it was just too bloody hard !

He trained, 2 evenings a week, at the well appointed sports ground of the steel company where he was employed & I was often taken along. I did what I could to help, carefully carrying the spiked running shoes but not the lightweight steel starting blocks he used, they were still too heavy & bulky for me. I could join the small group in their warm-up exercises & the best part, probably the reason I was there, assisted on their practice starts. Unfortunately I was not given a pistol. It was “on your marks…set” then I slapped together a pair of plywood clappers. No-one started until I did my thing. Over 30 years later I was back on that field playing cricket in the works league. The same summer sunlight, the same long shadows of the trees were a reminder of those times with Dad & his friends.

There were race meetings across the North of England all summer long back then. Our family travelled by coach with the other local athletes. While Dad prepared for his race I watched the other heats of his event. The races were handicapped & Dad was always at the back of the field. The combination of a young flyer with a favourable handicap could be dangerous. Down at the start of the final I passed on the intel, wished him luck then made my way to the finish line at the other end of the straight. Man, he was strong & powerful & fast. He didn’t always win, though it seems to me that he usually did. As we walked back together after the race I was probably more aware of the applause from the, often large, crowd than he was. It’s cool to hang out with the winner.

Of course this was an amateur sport & no money changed hands. Our house was full of trophies & prizes that he had won, clocks, canteens of cutlery & a couple of Fabulous Fifties bakelite picnic hampers that would be the very thing to have now. Everyone loves a picnic & Mum set the bar for alfresco alimentation pretty high. We sat trackside, cheering on our friends, filling up on hard-boiled eggs, sausage rolls & potted meat sandwiches. Life was good.

dad 2In 1958, when I was 5, my Dad, my godfather Tom White & myself crossed the Pennines for the Northern Counties Championships in Manchester. “Uncle” Tom was Dad’s coach & mentor, a National Champion at 880 yards he had competed in the Olympic Games in London (1948) & Helsinki (1952). I pestered him for details about his great international adventures & he was always considerate of this pesky kid. Dad’s win, 4 years earlier, was engraved on to the biggest trophy on show…impressive. We saw Derek Ibbotson, the then holder of the world mile record, a blue riband event after Roger Bannister had broken the 4-minute barrier for the distance in 1954. Dad called him over & this international star, glowing with fitness & celebrity, in an Olympic issue Great Britain tracksuit (he was a bronze medallist) , approached us for a chat. I was introduced & he shook my hand. I was speechless, my jaw still on the floor from this new information that a sporting hero actually knew my Dad’s name !

The following year the same crew hit the road for the longer journey to the National Championships. My first visit to that London, first time in a large, crowded sports stadium. We had no family car & the journey down the Great North Road, me in the back seat, listening to the men talk up front, was exhilarating. My over-excitement & curiosity (I was a curious boy !) possibly stretched their patience but I knew not to push it. This was too good a time for a motor-mouthed, indefatigable little kid to blow. I’m sure Tom & Dad were relieved when my energy finally ran out & I slept all the way home.

By 1960 there were 4 children in the family & Dad was busy at the steel plant, working with the asbestos fibres which invaded the lungs in his barrel chest, undoubtedly contributing to his early passing. There was less time to train & he was unlikely to maintain the form of his youth. He competed in fewer track meetings. There was also the attraction of his winter sport. Rugby is a team sport, on-field bonds of trust & friendship extended beyond the touchline. Our local club benefitted from his energy & enthusiasm long after his playing days were over. Dad had said that he would retire when he had played with his oldest son (that would be me). When that thing happened, (how great was it to have your Dad looking out for you on a rugby pitch ?), our house was a quieter place for the rest of the week.

As a teenager I had my own spiked shoes & pestered my reluctant Dad to assist our school athletics team. Our star sprinter was surprised when he would be busting himself while the trainer jogged alongside him barking out instruction. If Dad could not make the full session he would hand out our schedules, telling us that he didn’t care if we cheated on them, we would only be cheating ourselves. We had been told ! It worked, our performances improved & other athletes asked to join the most organized group on the track. The mellifluously named Melody, 19 & the fastest female in town, was, I hope, amused by her new gaggle of 14 year old admirers !

In later years I loved to watch televised track & field with Dad. On his own TV debut he had been disqualified for 2 false starts. Mum, watching on a neighbour’s set, was in tears. His expertise & his delight in exceptional performances were informative & inspirational. We attended a meeting in London, an opportunity to admire Britain’s great middle distance runners Cram, Coe & Ovett. At a Northern Championships I encountered an old friend who introduced Dad to some of the competitors. He was always happy in the company of young athletes whatever their sport. Watching him in animated conversation with the winner of the 400 metres, the same title he had won 40 years earlier, was just a gas, gas, gas.

I understand that these memories are rose-tinged. We had our differences, he was my Dad, it’s his job. The strong-legged, fast-twitch runner he was is an important part of carefree, endless summer childhood memories. Now, there’s an empty chair in the room when I watch the Olympics or the World Championships. I know that he would be appalled at the drug-fuelled disgrace of athletics while loving the unique abilities of Usain Bolt. I know that he would be telling it like it is. Sport…it’s something me & my Dad did.

Captured By The Game (Sunday Football)

Hackney Marshes

Ashby Ville was my hometown’s Hackney Marshes, an open space on the edge of town big enough for 10, maybe 15 football pitches. We cycled down there on a Sunday to watch the games, often leaving the higher quality matches to catch one that had become more WWE than FIFA. We would dash back to someone’s house, anyone with an available radio, to catch  the Swinging Cymbal of  “Pick of the Pops” presented by Alan “Fluff” Freeman, the BBC’s unveiling of the new Top 20 hits. Music & Football…I was an uncomplicated boy with simple tastes.

My best mate Wink lived across the road from one of the well appointed playing fields of the local steelworks. Sack Dynamo (I have no idea !) played their home games there & we adopted them as our team. We went to every game that one season. They were a good side, midfield ace Ronnie Walker could have been a pro but a prison stretch hadn’t helped his prospects. When Sack won the Sunday League Cup, (a big deal) beating the toffs from a village pub, they called us over for the team photograph…with the cup ! We were in the paper with the cup !

I made my debut in the Sunday Leagues for Comet Wanderers Reserves. The Comet was Dad’s local & as I was getting the odd goal as a big, daft striker for my school team he volunteered me for the new side. From their kick-off I nicked the ball from an opponent’s feet, he swore at me & hacked at my shins, illegal since 1863 when the FA first codified their rules. Christ that hurt…this never happened in the under-15’s, welcome to the man’s game. I didn’t go near the guy for the next 89 minutes, a footballing lesson I kept in mind later when I became a big, daft defender.

We formed a Sunday team at work to play in the, I hope, ironically named Birmingham Monday League. Emplex F.C., was based at an unemployment benefit office, not as busy in those pre-Thatcher times, without the politicised agenda of 2015 but they knew who we were. “Come on lads, this lot are the dole !” was often the opposition’s team talk. My team mates were good guys, Jimmy was my character witness that time I got arrested at Wembley, Terry shared the cell with me, Sean gave me his Ramones & Jonathan Richman LPs when he left for a new life as a croupier in the Bahamas. We toured the neglected municipal pitches of Birmingham, hoping not just for a lukewarm post-game shower but that there would be a working light bulb in the windowless changing rooms. At a game in Small Heath an adjacent pitch was occupied by a wrestling tournament watched by about a 1,000 Asian men. The random loud cheering was a strange backdrop then, when they were all wrestled out, this crowd found the quickest way to the exit was straight across our pitch. It was a strange clash of cultures & the game had to stop. Me, I was glad of the breather .

Emplex assembled, of course, in a pub. For some it could be the last call for alcohol on a long Saturday night/Sunday morning but Sunday Leaguers soon learn that  the body count is more important than the condition of those bodies. Having only 10 players show out was bad enough but when 15 guys turned up expecting a game it was awkward. It was the same for many teams, people will go elsewhere if they don’t get to play so a full 11 in the same place at the same time is a good start. Playing with 9 men & trailing 9-0  we retreated to our goal determined not to lose by double figures. The final whistle was greeted as a small triumph, you’ve seen “Zulu” haven’t you. These were good times. After my only hat-trick, 3 goals, 1 game, I was walking sideways through doors until Wednesday because my grin was so wide.

In London my, let’s call it a, “lifestyle” was incompatible with being upright on a Sunday morning never mind running about  for 90 minutes. If I was awake there were 2 pick-up games where I could meet friends & get my blood flowing. In beautiful Greenwich Park, the flat bit between Observatory Hill & the National Maritime Museum, the guys even brought their own collapsible goal posts. On Clapham Common we used the more traditional jumpers. Kick-off time at both was flexible but full-time was at exactly 1 o’clock. Back then the pubs closed on Sunday between 2 p.m & 7 p.m, all-day opening has changed the routine of Sunday football. Man, these are intended to be sporting memories but in most cases they seem to involve time spent on licensed premises.

Brackets: WIAA Girls Soccer reaches final fours | Girls soccer, Final four,  Football girlsI became the coach of the “Old Fallopians” women’s football team for a while after I hung up my boots. My friend Sue was one of their big daft central defenders & she knew that I, at least, talked a good game. The “Tubes” gathered in Brixton, South London, on Thursday nights & I ordered 18 women about for a couple of hours, yeah…that’ll work. Surprisingly I was a purist, insisting that an accurate pass to a team-mate is the football skill that matters so you can put those bloody cones away. After a couple of defeats I asked them to consider the long ball to Natasha up front & instructed the full backs that I expected them to kick the opposition’s fancy Danielle wingers into next week. This game is all about results Gary !

The Tubes were a great bunch who loved to play the game. I was their fan on the touchline really, we thought tactics were a breath mint. I was never going to be one of the full-kit manager wankers behaving as if it was a Champions League match, this was fun. I heard a lot of dumb crap from men doubting the ability of “girls”, asking if I went into the changing room. I have always had female friends who went to football & had no problems with them playing. The rituals of the Sunday game were just the same, a head count & hoping there were 11 players, some of them the worse for wear, friends getting together to enjoy themselves, if & when they find the ground. Still Jose Mourinho probably has never had a player hold their breast & say “Ooh, I got one right on the nipple today !”

I have a dodgy knee now & get out of breath running for a bus (so I don’t). There’s a football pitch at the edge of my estate, speckled with dog crap & with an unfeasibly steep slope. I can take my morning coffee & watch the Sunday game played by all shapes & sizes, varied talents & a wide age range. I still wait for the ball to come over the fence so that I can do a little trick before a pinpoint flick back to a waiting player. Football…It’s too late to stop now !

I’ve Got A Bike, You Can Ride It If You Like

Has Lance Armstrong shown contrition for his cheating or is he a squirming, cheating, arrogant prick who will say anything to re-establish his public persona and avoid losing his money and his freedom ? The debasement of professional cycling, a sport in which the UK is enjoying unprecedented success, may be such that Armstrong was just a better cheat than his competitors. As a kid I accompanied my Dad to watch him compete in athletics meetings. Often these events included amateur cycling races. I enjoyed the sport, met some of the participants & appreciated their commitment to riding their bikes. Whatever the damage done to cycling by drug cheats there will always be people who will enjoy testing themselves honestly without the aid of artificial assistance, unsightly Lycra or ridiculous side-burns.

Here is a story of  such a band of brothers & sisters (The Medway Wheelers) told by the brilliant Wild Billy Childish & The Buff Medways. As an inspiraton for this blog wrote, “against that and on the other hand, a good bicycle is a great companion, there is a great charm about it”, (Flann O’Brien). Syd likes them too.


I don’t like cricket (I love it)

“What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” asked C.L.R. James the Afro-Trinidadian historian/philosopher. Mr James, a true man of the 20th Century (1901-1989), always spoke with a calm, assured authority. He inspired a hope in myself that I could be comfortable in my own skin for a life well lived as I grew older. He took great pride in the achievements of the young West Indians who’s exploits on the cricket field made them champions of the sport for two decades. James knew that the ” answer involves ideas as well as facts”.  This sporting success  was a result of, and an influence on, post-colonial Caribbean culture. These wonderful batsmen and bowlers were a gateway for West Indian participation in a wider global context. Let Bunny Wailer elucidate (while he gets rid of an annoying dog) and I Roy celebrate.

Cricket, our Summer sport, has a fine literary tradition which football, a more working-class game, has yet to rival. A.G. Macdonell’s “England, Their England” has a village cricket match at it’s crux.Joseph O’Neill’s fine 2008 novel about memory “Netherland”  is about the game in New York. The journalism of Neville Cardus and others is of a quality which reaches readers  who could not care about the scores and who scored them. Of course the structure of the game easily serves as a template for wider English society. The cultured elegance of the aristocratic batsman, the broad-backed, stout-hearted fast bowler, the over-riding concept of fair play, are easy, and lazy stereotypes and Moby Dick was just a whale, man, just a whale.

However, fielding on the boundary in the late evening Summer sun with the long shadows of mature trees in full leaf stretching across the green field a reverie and reflection on the world, and an Englishman’s place in it, is unavoidable and understandable. The spell can be broken when a ball which should have been caught lands unnoticed just yards away. If. at your, much anticipated, turn to bat, the wicket is disturbed by the first ball you face from the opposition’s woman bowler then it just seems like a bloody silly way to spend your time. She was good, I was not her only victim. A couple of beers in the pub later and on to the next game.

Roy Harper’s song from 1975 “When An Old Cricketer Leaves The Crease” is worthy of entry into the pantheon of cricketing cultural contributions.

This is a valediction to two legends of English cricket, John Snow & Geoffrey Boycott (after whom a good friend, an otherwise rational member of society, named his second son). Harper pays a deserved tribute to the men and the game. The arrangement by David Bedford, a man with a long and interesting contribution to British popular and classical music, is evocative of times past. The Grimethorpe Colliery Band is a survivor from a time when English miners played brass instruments just as Welsh miners sang in choirs. Their playing is beautiful and suits the song so well.

“The fabled men and the noonday sun are much more than just yarns of their days” could, I suppose, be interpreted as referring to a loss of Empire, of an England that no longer exists. I think not. The song is about time passing, about change, but personal change. As Alan Ross, another fine cricket writer said …

“Heroes in fact die with one’s youth. They are pinned like butterflies to the setting board of early memories—the time when skies were always blue, the sun shone and the air was filled with the sounds and scents of grass being cut… I no longer worship heroes, beings for whom the ordinary scales of human values are inadequate. One learns that as one grows up, so do the gods grow down. It is in many ways a pity: for one had thought that heroes had no problems of their own. Now one knows different!”

We know different but we remember them…This song captures the unique beauty of an English Summer evening and the legacy of our childhood heroes. What a lovely thing that is. This song can move men of a certain age to tears (not just me…really) and it may be from remembering past times but it is not from sadness.


olympic memories moscow 1980

There had been a boycott by some nations in 1976. The USA decided not to attend these Games because of, ironically, Soviet incursion in Afghanistan.  The 70s had seen an effective British boycott of contact with South Africa and the Tory government were in favour of non-attendance. It was left to the athletes to decide and very few of them stayed away.


This is the winner of the pole vault, Wladyslaw Kozakiewicz of Poland. He was competing against the local favourite Volkov and the partisan crowd were not keeping quiet during his jumps. Kozakiewicz had the day of his sporting life and broke the world record. On landing his jump he let the crowd know what he thought of them by giving the crooked elbow salute. “Kozakiewicz’s Gesture” as it became known was also interpreted as a protest by the Eastern European against the Soviet Union and the Russians did protest that his medal should be withheld because of the perceived insult. In a world where soundbites by so many sportsmen and women are so asinine and platitudinous it’s just good to see someone showing their emotions in such an individual way.

It was a toss up whether I would include the Steve Ovett/Seb Coe rivalry in 1980 or in 1984. There is another British hero across both these Olympics and he will get the next one. The 100m is now regarded as the blue riband event of athletics.  British fans  had grown up with the stories of the first 4 minute mile by Roger Bannister, helped by an outstanding generation of middle distance runners. We saw the “metric mile”, the 1500m as the glamour event.

Britain had 2 outstanding athletes at this distance. They were not just rivals but very different personalities. Ovett was more extrovert. He had won the European Championships easing up and waving to the crowd. He sometimes grew a scruffy beard, a bit of an outsider. Coe had a purple patch a year later in 1979. He set 3 new world records in 41 days. He was a trim, smart polite boy. Even before he entered politics he was the poster boy for the new Thatcherite  Britain. Your mum loved Sebastian and your mates were for Ovett. It really was split like that. However, if Ovett was to succeed at the Olympics then he was gonna have to raise his game.

Steve was favourite for the longer distance, Seb for the 800m. In fact they won a gold medal each but in their less favoured events. This was only the 2nd time they had actually raced each other and they certainly did not appear to be the friendliest of team mates.

There was a 3rd British competitor in the 1500m final. Steve Cram had to aim high if he was to be even a worthy 3rd best. By 1983 he was the World Champion. It was an amazing time for British middle distance running where we had the 3 best in the world. However they did not run against each other very often. We would go to Crystal Palace and watch all 3 win separate races with world class turns of speed. I’m sure that the egos of the protagonists got in the way. Maybe now with the benefit of hindsight they regret that they did not bring the best out of each other in more races.

Coe, Sebastian

In 1984 I hoped to see the above image into the last bend of the 1500m final. It was not to be. Ovett had respiratory problems and failed to defend his 800m title. He stepped off the track at the beginning of the last lap. Coe went on to defend his title and Cram won the silver. It really was a golden age for British athletics with medals and world records for all 3. Steve Ovett remains a sporting hero of mine for his ability, his attitude and his cussedness. I would have loved to have had the chance to have bought the man a beer.

olympic memories montreal 1976

In 1976 the concept of perfection in sport was brought into focus during the Montreal Olympics. 4 years previously Olga Korbut had charmed the world with her ability. This time around it was the 14 year old Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci in the spotlight. She had received the ultimate perfect score of 10 in previous competitions but no competitor had ever done this in the Olympics. The scoreboard manufacturer inquired if 4 digits would be needed and were told that this would not be necessary. Nadia’s score appeared as 1.00 to the initial confusion of the crowd. She went on to score 6 more perfect scores and won 3 gold medals. Gymnastics has always been popular in the USA and Comaneci was the sensation of the Games. Personally I feel that the ability of these teenage muscle girls is admirable but my favourite gymnast of this era remains the Russian Nellie Kim who was older (though only 19 in 1976) more feminine and more graceful so gets a photo here.

The USA boxing team of 1976 is regarded as the strongest team sent by that country to the Olympics. They won 5 gold medals and 4 of these winners progressed to professional world titles. The Spinks brothers, Leon & Michael, had high profile careers but it was Ray Leonard (nicknamed “Sugar”) who caught the eye the most.He became World Champion in 1979 stopping future Hall of Famer Wilfred Benitez. In 1980 he returned to the Montreal Olympic stadium and lost his title to Roberto Duran. He avenged this loss and regained the title just 5 months later in the famous “No Mas” fight. Leonard was the most famous fighter of his generation. In the early 80s I worked in a small warehouse with a young guy who did not seem in the mood on one particular day. I asked if there was a problem and he said that Sugar Ray was appearing at a nearby gym. He really would rather be there than at work. I told him to keep quiet and clear off for a couple of hours, I would cover for him. He was surprised and pleased that I would do that for him. I did not have to make the tea for about 6 weeks !

The 400m and the 800m were both won by a powerful Cuban, Alberto Juantorena. He was the first man to do such a double at these championships. A wonderful natural runner he had only seriously run the longer distance for a year. He set a new world record in this event. Alberto is remembered as a great athlete and for a remark made by the indomitable British commentator, David Coleman who said “Juantorena opens his legs and shows his class !” Oo-er.

olympic memories munich 1972

I’ve got to be honest, real life got in the way of the Olympics in 1972. I had some important exams & went on holiday for a week. I was away from a TV for a few days. I must have watched the athletics. I don’t think my alternative lifestyle went as far as abandoning sport. I was however away for the defining event of the Games.

Black September, a Palestinian cadre, entered the Olympic village and took Israeli athletes hostage killing two people. Their demands were for the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israel and of the leaders of the German Baader Meinhoff group. Negotiations quickly moved the situation forward and by the evening helicopters were ferrying hostages and kidnappers to an airfield. German authorities never intended to allow the Palestinians to leave the country but the rush to exacerbate the situation had not been conducive to the development of any coherent plan further than killing them. The shoot out went horribly wrong and 17 people died, 11 Israelis, 5 of the Palestinians and a German policeman. The games, suspended for 12 hours, continued.

In the early 1970s radical groups understood the symbolism of gestures which occurred under the scrutiny of the world’s media. Hi-jacks, bombings, robberies and murders became the way these groups publicized their cause. The authorities were slow to react to this threat. There is no greater world wide event than the Olympic Games. The security surrounding the Games is understandable, any incident never mind one as disastrous and as horrible as this massacre is magnified by the intense coverage. Whether the Germans had prior warning of the raid, or were under pressure to resolve the situation as quickly as possible, mistakes were made which caused the death of 11 coaches and athletes.

The women’s athletics were dominated by 3 countries and were disastrous for the USA. USSR, East and West Germany won all the events except one. Heide Rosendahl won 2 golds in the long jump and the relay. She was the local favourite for the pentathlon. It took a new world record to beat her and it was Mary Peters from Northern Ireland who made the record and took the gold. Mary had charmed the Bavarian crowd with her effervescence, her obvious delight in competing before a packed stadium. There were chants of “Mary, Mary” heard as she competed. She charmed our country as well and became Dame Mary Peters within a year. She continued to compete and in retirement became an ambassador for British athletics. This weekend she celebrated the victory of Jessica Ennis, at 73 she looked fit and well and as happy as someone who for two days performed her chosen event better than anyone had ever done.

Precious Mckenzie a diminutive (4ft 9ins) weightlifter was omitted from the South African Olympic team of 1960 because he was the wrong colour. In 1964 he was told he could compete but he must be segregated from the white athletes. He refused to go and left South Africa for Britain. Fast tracked to British citizenship he competed in 3 Olympic Games. He did not win a medal but he did win 3 golds for England in Commonwealth Games. He moved to New Zealand in 1974, winning a fourth gold for them. Precious became a personality during his time in Britain turning up to do things like lift Muhammed Ali in his shoulders. I love this photograph. I hope that after the humiliations brought upon him by the disgusting regime in his home country that he found his adopted country to be a welcoming place. In 2006 he was elected to the South African sport Hall of Fame. Too little too late for a whole generation who suffered I think.

olympic memories mexico city 1968

These were the first Games to be held at altitude. It led to some explosive performances and to fears for the health of those involved in the endurance events. Training was less sophisticated in those days and oxygen bottles were supplied for those unable to cope with the thinner air.

The iconic image of these games is the Black Power salute given by Tommy Smith and John Carlos on the podium as the “Star Spangled Banner” marked their medals in the 200m. Broadcast on prime time TV in the US,  America regarded it as an affront that athletes should make such an overt political statement. Then, as now, African Americans are allowed to succeed in American (and British) society in the fields of entertainment and sport but are not        expected to engage in politics.

I was 15 at this time. I was aware of the civil rights movement. Aware of  the Reverend King, Malcolm and of the Panthers. The iniquities of the Vietnam war were daily shown on TV Muhammed Ali had shown courage to speak out against racism and the war. I was not shocked by the gesture. I knew of the strong views held by these athletes and was thrilled they had used such a high profile moment to make it. Lee Evans was part of this same group of athletes. He had won the 400m and the US took all 3 medals. While they all wore berets to the medal ceremony there is less of a gesture. The athletes had been warned about their behaviour. Evans smashed the world record in his event and then anchored the 400m relay team to gold. The relays are traditionally held at the end of the meeting. What were the authorities going to do, send them home ? They were going any way.

Lee Evans worked in 6 African countries as a coach to help athletes. He returned to coach at a US university. He said at the time that on retirement he

would live in Mexico or Africa where “you are truly free – not like this fake freedom America has everybody believing in.” His world record stood for 24 years ! Everyone remembers Smith & Carlos. I remember Lee Evans as a man of principle and as a great athlete.

The high jump was won by an American, Dick Fosbury. Before Fosbury the 2 prevailing styles of high jump, the straddle and the western roll, both involved the jumper attempting to pass over the bar while facing it. now along comes this crazy american who is going over backwards…wacky ! Not only that but he won the event in an Olympic record with the new sensation the “Fosbury Flop”. Fosbury revolutionised the event. 4 years later in Munich there were 28 floppers against 12 diehards. Now they all do the flop. One of the most influential of modern athletes.

The time difference meant that we saw the live athletics at a very late hour in Britain. I stayed awake as long as I could.My dad had to be at work by 7.30 a.m. and did not stay as late as I could. For the long jump we both decided to watch the full competition. It was our one defending champion, Lynn Davies, again faced by the American, Boston, and the Russian Ter-Ovanesyan. This rivalry had sustained the event since the last Olympics. We felt ourselves to be athletics afficionados and were aware of the potential of the young American, Bob Beamon. He had shown winning form all year.It was though still potential and he had not yet challenged the experienced three in major championships.

Beamon’s first jump in the competition remains one of the most extraordinary things I have ever witnessed in a sports competition. His gangly frame became more graceful, more unified as he approached take off. He seemed to defy gravity. This was a loooong jump, not just in distance but in the time he spent in the air. Beamon had jumped 22 and three quarter inches further than anyone had ever done before. He not only became the first man to have ever jumped 28 feet but had bypassed that mark and jumped further than 29 feet ! This record stood for almost 23 years before it was exceeded. The adjective “Beamonesque” was coined that night. My dad and I shared a look. There would be no need for him to go to work tired tomorrow, the competition was over.

Beamon never jumped further than 28 feet again in his career. A combination of a legal tailwind, the thin air of altitude and his determination to land a big opening jump in the most important competition of his life so far coincided to provide a truly astounding moment of athletics.

olympic memories Tokyo 1964

Abebe Bikila had won the marathon in Rome in 1960. He was the first athlete from sub-Saharan Africa to win gold. The Ethiopian was a pathfinder for the success of future athletes from the continent and he had achieved his success while running barefoot ! In 1964 he returned to the event in Tokyo & won for a second time. For this race he did wear shoes. There was not the circuit of high profile city marathons that exists today. the distance was rarely run & was still regarded as a dangerously long way to run. Bikila won the race in a new world record time. He proceeded to show his remaining energy with a display of calisthenics in the centre of the arena while the trailing athletes arrived to finish their race. it was an amazing display of showmanship by the first African superstar of athletics.

This dude escorting two dolly birds is Lynn Davies, a handsome young Welshman who had won gold in the long jump in Tokyo. He and walker Ken Matthews were our only track and field gold medallists. (We were good at walking in the 60s). Davies gatecrashed the Cold War showdown between the US champion Boston & the Russian Ter-Ovanesyan. On Sunday Britain won this event again for the first time since his success. He showed up on TV to add his knowledge and congratulations. 70 years old now is Lynn & he was looking pretty good still.

On his left arm is Mary Rand, the Golden Girl who won the long jump ( we were good at this too), gained a silver medal in the pentathlon and a bronze in the relay. Another British woman, Ann Packer, won an identical pair. Mary was (and is) film star gorgeous in a Julie Andrews, English rose kinda way. Nowadays she would be a marketing departments dream. Fortunately, in those more innocent times, though she became a public figure she was allowed to glow beautifully and to do the things she did so well on the track.

To Lynn’s right is Lillian Board. Lillian@s Olympic moment would come 4 years later in Mexico City. A powerful 400 metre runner she won a silver medal, losing the gold by just one tenth of a second. She was 19 years old & her future as a world ranked star was assured. Two years later she contracted cancer and she died just two weeks after her 22nd birthday. A tragic loss to not just the world athletic scene.

Don Schollander was the first American athlete to win 4 gold medals in one Games since Jesse Owens. He was the first of the multi gold winners in the swimming pool. The exploits of Mark Spitz, Ian Thorpe & Michael Phelps have made them conspicuous among the group of medal accumulators. You know, in athletics a 100 metre sprinter could not win the 400 metres, There are great athletes who have perfected one event while swimmers seem to be able to be the fastest in different styles of swimming. I am sure that this quartet are all outstanding athletes of their era but I remain unconvinced that such a dominance being turned into a facility to acquire a fistful of medals is a true reflection of their place in the Olympic pantheon.