Looking back at the 1950s when British runners ruled the track
PUBLISHED: 08:59 03 June 2020 | UPDATED: 08:59 03 June 2020
Today’s popularity of jogging, Parkruns, half and full Marathons takes my mind back to another era, the 1950s, writes Dick Sturch.
This was Britain`s heyday for middle and long distance running with names like Chattaway, Brasher, Ibbotson, Pirie, Peters and of course Bannister grabbing the world’s attention.
The first running races I can ever remember were on the ‘Camp’ when Ron Perry, who was a keen runner, organised his own event on a tract of grass that lay between our line of Nissen huts and a row of huts above (all now covered by the Industrial Estate at Millwey Rise).
He’d marked out the track with flags and an elaborate finishing line with a banner stretched between two uprights cut from the nearby copse.
I think you paid to enter the various races and the winner collected a cash reward. Ron probably won most of the races himself as he was extremely fit.
I can just about recall the 1952 Helsinki Olympics one name that still remains embedded in my memory is the Czech Emil Zatopek who won Gold Medals in the 5,000, 10,000, and, after deciding at the last minute to enter it, the Marathon.
The only other name I recall was Roger Bannister who finished fourth in the 1,500 metres, but in doing so set a new British record.
For me it was Zatopek that grabbed my imagination and I can still see Mick Lucas and myself racing round the ‘rack’ at Ercall Gardens when I went back to Shropshire during the holidays.
It was a ring road with houses on either side which to us were the stands holding the cheering crowds. as we attempted to set new records as 10-year-olds.
We were the first to break the four-minute barrier for the mile while an attempt to beat the Marathon record only fell short when we were called in for lunch.
We had calculated each lap of the ‘track to be about 440 yards (1/4 mile). A later, more precise measurements found it was actually only 280 yards which rather put paid to all the records we had set!
The 1950s was a period when athletic meetings were attended by thousands and English runners made their presence felt on the World stage. It was 6pm on May 6, 1954, at the Iffley Road Track, Oxford, when Dr Roger Bannister, after a day at the hospital where he worked, and with Chattaway and Brasher acting as pacemakers, broke the four-minute barrier for the mile, setting a new world record time of three minutes and 59.4 seconds. For some time after his stunning run the land was full of youngsters all ‘emulating’ Roger Bannister!
His record stood for only a few weeks before Australia`s John Landy bettered it.
The final highlight of his career came in the August of the same year at Vancouver in the British Empire and Commonwealth games in a race against Landy.
It was dubbed ‘The Miracle Mile’ as at that stage they were the only two runners in the World to run the mile in under four minutes.
Bannister snatched the race in the last few paces when Landy looked over his left shoulder only for Bannister to burst past him on the right to win. He retired later in 1954 to continue his career as a Doctor.
Chris Chataway came to the fore in 1952 when he led the 5,000 metres at the Helsinki Olympics until the last bend when, under pressure from three other runners, including Zatopek, his foot caught the kerb and he fell.
He got up and finished in fifth place beating his previous personal best.
During 1953 he was involved in several races where new World records were set, but 1954 was a year of triumphs for him.
He first assisted Bannister break the mile record then helped Landy break it again a few weeks later.
He came second to Vladimir Kuts at the European Championships then two weeks later in the London v Moscow Athletics competition at White City he beat Kuts and broke the World record in a televised 5,000 metres.
I watched the race on a relative`s black and white nine-inch screen TV. (I had also watched the Queens Coronation the year before on the same TV.)
In December of the same year, Chris Chataway was voted BBC Sports Personality of the year. He eventually retired in 1956 after competing in the Melbourne Summer Olympics.
One aside; the 5,000 metres race against Kuts had been built up by both TV and the press. Everyone was talking about it and my Uncle (whose TV it was) left work early to return home and watch it. Unfortunately, with all the excitement and noise no one heard him knocking at the door until the race had ended. He wasn’t very happy!!
Chris Brasher, the other pacemaker in Bannister`s record mile, went on to win the 3,000 metres Steeplechase in the 1956 Olympics at Melbourne, but was disqualified for an alleged blocking of Ernst Larsen of Norway.
The following day he was re-instated as winner and in his own words declared: “I had been celebrating for several hours before the delayed medal ceremony and l am sure the only Olympic champion to be totally and absolutely slaughtered when I received the medal.”
Chris Brasher together with John Disley went on to become founders of the ‘London Marathon’ in 1981.
Derek Ibbotson another prominent athlete of the 1950s, won a Bronze Medal for the 5,000 metres at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and the following year set a new World record at the White City track in the London versus New York fixture. The race was advertised as ‘Mile of the Century’ and Ibbotson didn’t disappoint, winning in a new record time of three minutes and 57.2 seconds.
Probably Britain’s greatest middle-long distance runner of this period was Gordon Pirie who also won the British Cross-country Championship three times and for this (as I will describe later) became my inspiration.
He was BBCs Sports Personality of the Year in 1955 although 1956 was Pirie`s outstanding year, when, between June and September, he broke the World record for the 3,000 metres twice.
In the same year he finished second in the 10,000 and 5,000 metres behind the World record holder, Kuts of the USSR.
Jim Peters was Britain’s World beating Marathon runner during the early 1950s when he set three new World Records between 1952 and 1954.
Unfortunately, he will always be remembered for the heart-rending sight of him entering the Vancouver Commonwealth Games arena seventeen minutes in front of the next runner and ten minutes ahead of the record then he repeatedly collapsing with exhaustion unable to finish the race. He retired in the same year.
I said earlier Gordon Pirie was my hero, but Jim Peters became an inspiration in the absence of winning a race. At Colyton Grammar School cross country running was actively encouraged.
PT instructor Frank Howard would accompany us around the course on his bicycle shouting suitable words of encouragement, but most times admonishing the back markers.
The first half of the course wound its way up a long very steep lane eventually onto the level before a downhill run back to the school with the finishing line in front of the cricket pavilion. This area would be packed with other classes cheering home the winner and I decided I wanted some of that so set my target as winning the Senior School event.
The first race found me stuck in the main pack biding my time to breakaway in the final run to the finish.
This was a big mistake as the gap between myself and the front runner became vast.
I did make an effort to close it though in doing so exhausted myself.
With no chance of getting into the placings I thought at least I would make an impression on the crowd I could see. On unsteady legs I entered the avenue of spectators before falling dramatically and then crawling over the finishing line to tumultuous applause and appropriate concern.
For the next race in my final year I decided the only way to win it was to be first to reach the top of the long, steep climb to the level road above.
If I could do that the momentum of the downhill run-in would carry me over the finishing line. It was as simple as that. I finished to more applause and without anyone near enough to challenge me.
There is no doubt the 1950`s were golden years for Britain`s runners especially as the majority ran as amateurs against USA and Soviet athletes who were either sponsored by their governments, universities or major companies.
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