Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken's
Interviews and

Peter Hildreth

By Alastair Aitken

PETER HILDRETH is not a name that would be branded about as a 'Superstar' in today's idiom but, his achievements in life would be hard to match by most. As an Author of many books, mostly on athletics, Editor of Sports books, commentator for BBC sound broadcasting in the 1960's and 70's and Sunday Telegraph athletics correspondent from 1961-94. He has also worked in hospital administration and for an Estate agent and yet, at one stage of his career, he had made more representative appearances than any other British athlete.
He won nine GB internationals from 1951 to 1958, six England internationals from 53 to 60, seven inter-city matches for London 50-58, ran in three Olympic Games (1952, 56 and 60); four Europeans, and a Commwealth Games, so it was no wonder he was admitted to the Freedom of the City of London in 1956.

Something that stood out for me was the fact he won the 120 and the 440ys hurdles against the Czechs in 1956 and another double he accomplished was when he was a player, on one of the most amazing afternoon's in the history of athletics. That was on the 6th of May 1954 at Ilflely Road, Oxford. It was the time Roger Bannister broke the four minute mile barrier with 3:59.4. Peter Hildreth won the 120 and the 220yards hurdle races that day on that very track.

"It was rather a dull day weather wise' he said ' My second race was the 220yards hurdles and that was the race before the mile. After we finished, we went back to the start on the back straight to put our track suits on and, the milers past us at that point, after 1/2 a lap, 11/2 laps; 21/2  and 31/2.
I had a pretty close look at it. An illustration of how differently things were in those days. The reports of the race did not quote Bannister at all. Now every athlete who runs for Britain win, lose or even in the heats, they go on record and say something. I would not know what to say after a race. I think now there is far too much chit chat but maybe the public want it but, after Bannisters's mile the Times report did not quote him at all.'

Peter Hildreth has two sons from his first  marriage and has grandchildren. He has been married for 26 years to Carole, a textile artist. They live at Farnham, Surrey. Peter Hildreth, for a 78 years old is very nimble and the great technician that he was,  he can still clear a chair or table with one hurdling step.
Having obtained a history degree at Downing College, Cambridge he has always had a thirst for knowledge and besides watching TV, slaving away at a novel, he is against drugs in sport and in fact, has collected a massive archive, containing articles and cuttings relating to drug taking and blood boosting etc so what does that tell him then?

' It tells me that drugs make a big difference. They add a lot. They add substantially to everything else that people can do to get more out of their bodies in training and, that is where they enhance performance.
Some people say they are only a short cut. You can get the same results anyway without them if you persevere. It will only take longer well, that is complete bunkum. The training sessions carried out individually by modern athletes on their own would easily defeat three or four of the best clean athletes you could find, sharing out work between them and that process has been in place in sport, starting with steroids for up to 50 years. We do know now the Soviets were into steroids in the 50's and Americans were on steroids back in the 50's.

I was running then and I did not hear about these things until the early 60's before I retired. I heard rumours about them, now we know that our top athletes of the 60's were using steroids. Maybe not all of them but most of the successful one's would have had to do it because the standards of performance in which they were trying to compete at were already artificially enhanced by people using these substances.
Anybody who thinks Bob Beamon jumped 29 feet and did it clean are completely mistaken, of course he didn't. By that time we knew steroids were in use in all the track and field  events they were not banned by the rules, which is very important, not till 1974 so, you are perfectly safe if you name people up to that date who used steroids.
That is not libel at all because they were within the rules.

How difficult then would it be these days to make an Olympic Final?

Here Peter Hildreth's opinion is extreme but worth noting ' I would say in the in the present climate virtually impossible. There maybe exceptions. I find it very hard to understand how they would be able to reach those levels of fitness. People who use the drugs are able to work their way into a completely different world of fitness to what is possible without them. That does not mean everyone is doing it. There are 200 National teams at the Olympic Games and only 30 or 40 of them will produce medallists so a lot of countries, where sport is less developed, are honoured to march round in the Opening ceremony and represent their country. They know perfectly well they are not going to get through the heats. They have looked at the ranking lists to see what performances are needed to make the final."

Hildreth has been in the Press Box and mixed with the World's top sports journalists and statictisticians and had this to say

' I had been back and forward on flights for 43 years. There are a number  of journalists I regard highly. I have always admired Ian Woolridge. He is a sports columnist. Athletics is not his sport as such. Melvyn Watman is a very distinguished statistician. When you are talking about statisticians, they are not commentators, their work is to compile and publish the hard facts as they are released and, they are not required to comment on it. It is a very, very hard job with mountains of information. Mel Watman, Peter Mathews and Stan Greenberg are extremely knowledgeable.'

How did it all begin for Peter Hildreth, who was born of English parents at Bedford on the 8th of July 1928. He spent much of his formative years in India where his Father had a job. His Father Wilfred 'Will' Hildreth came over to England and won a couple of handicap sprints and was chosen to represent India in the 1924 Olympic 200m in Paris. Unfortunately he was injured and had to drop out in his heat. It was interesting to note that the two 'Chariots of Fire' characters Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams were also competing in those 200 heats! Will Hidlreth held the All India 200m record which he did in 1923 in  22.2. It was on the books for some twenty odd years!
His son Peter spent the last part of his schooling at Ratcliffe College near Leicester, where he won the hurdles and held the high jump record with 5ft4ins. He went on to win hurdles races at Cambridge University and in his National service days in the RAF.

'The school Sports day for me was the most important day of the year. I remember also my first race at the old White City Stadium in 1948.Representing Bedford in the Inter-Counties. I got eliminated in the heat. I was so nervous before the race that, as I walked back to the finish I promised myself I would never run there again and, of course I had to, I wanted to!
In 1950 I won my first AAA's title over 120 yards hurdles (Also in 53' and 56' and 220yds hurdles in 52' and 54' and he had the European record of 23.3 for 220yards low hurdles in 1955).- I won a bronze medal in the European Championships in Bruxelles (1 Andres-Jacques Marie (Fr) 14.6; 2 Ragnar Lundberg (Swe) 14.7; 3 Peter Hildreth (GB) 15.0).
'It was a smaller affair than these days where it is now a global industry. It was amateur and so soon after the war.There was austerity, food rationing. In the Final I drew the wet lane one nearest the inside of the track. The two people who beat me were in lanes covered by the roof. They beat me by a long way and I don't think that would have made a difference. Afterwards I went to the drinks counter and got a free ovaltine and so I drank a cup and looked at that medal. After that I could not let it go. I went on year after year, as hard as I could.
Hildreth went  on to come 4th in the European Final in Stockholm in 1958 (1 Martin Lauer (WG) 13.7; 2 Stanko Lorger (Yug) 14.1; 3 Anotoliy Mikhailov (SU) 14.4; 4 Peter Hildreth (GB) 14.4.)

Between those two good results Peter Hildreth was a semi-finalist in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki and in his semi-final was the 'Great' American Harrison Dillard

'He was extremely good. He said 'I can sprint too' He got eliminated in the 'Sudden Death' Olympic Trials in the high hurdles and so went into the 100m and won the Olympic title in London in 1948.Then he won the 110 hurdles in the Olympics at Helsinki in 1952 and was part of the winning sprint relay team each time too.'

Hildreth equalled Donald  Finlay's  British record of 14.3, no less than seven times and he gave a speech at a memorial of Don Finlay as well as at Gordon Pirie's funeral so his opinion obviously would be valuable here.

'Donald Finlay was in my event and it was his record I equalled so many times. To me he was the greatest British high hurdler. Colin Jackson is only the fastest. Donald Finlay's career reached it's peek in 1938 when he won the European in Paris in 14.3. He then served in the War for six years.
He was a fighter pilot in the Battle of Britain, shooting down four enemy aircraft and was awarded various medals. He then came back after the war and at the age of 40 in 1949 ran 14.4 (Still a British Veterans record in 2006), only a tenth slower than when he was a young man and he had had hard war service that is quite extraordinary. Gordon he was a maverick. I said at his funeral he was a great and lovable eccentric, a likable chap. He was as near to being professional and he wanted to be a professional athlete in the amateur days and eventually he could not earn a living as he was devoting too much time to athletics and his health suffered.'

Since having a history degree Peter Hilddreth has done a vast amount of reading particularly on his  favourite subject Sir Winston Churchill and he has this to say about him

am absolutely in awe of his career. I am sure 500 years from now, if there is still a place called England and there are still chaps like us, they will still owe him for what he did for this country there is no doubt about that'

Now for some more interesting accounts of Peter Hildreth's hurdling career

'In 1958 the Europeans were in Stockholm and after I had finished 4th in 14.4, two days after the European, I went to Oslo which was a big meeting, that they now call the Grand Prix and I was placed 2nd in that in 14.3 and that must have been one of my best runs because, we used to take our starting blocks with us in those days. We were not connected up to the photo finish apparatus.
My blocks got on the wrong luggage carousel and was sent back to London so, when I got to Oslo I did not have any blocks. I did not like the one's they were going to lend me so, I ran off the top of the track, no blocks no holes or anything and I still did 14.3. I thought well I must be able to beat this confounded record.
Two nights later we were in Gothenburg and it was that lovely new stadium, which they built for the World Cup soccer. The one where Bobby Charlton and Pele played and I was beaten by Keith Gardner of Jamaica, who had won the Commonwealth Games 110 hurdles, and he was well in front of me and I thought. well  he did 13.8. I thought maybe he was ahead by three metres. I must be under 14.3 not at all it was still 14.3. It was just after that I went to Paris for the France match and again won in 14.3 and a race I made no mistakes in.'

When he was hurdling in the 50's he was in hospital administration

'I had three weeks holiday, 15 working days. The trips on the team would certainly take 10 to 12 working days. Each year I would have practically no holiday left at all. I did not complain about it. It was something I wanted to do but if you are an amateur you had to come home and earn a living.

In 1964 Peter had trouble with his back he was then 36 and in a way that signalled the end of his career as an international athlete. Looking back he says 'I should have spent more time on strength training. I was never a very good sprinter so I needed the strength to move faster. I certainly wasn't a Superstar but I was never coached."

Alastair Aitken

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