Alastair Aitken
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Where Are They Now - John Greatrex

John Greatrex

by Alastair Aitken

I often visit Sainsbury's, which is my local supermarket, 200m from my home in Upper Norwood and did not recognise or realise, for several weeks, one of the check out assistants who served me would be an interesting subject for 'Where Are They Now'
   John Greatrex, a Vice President of South London Harriers and a 1:48.1/800m runner back in 1970 at Koblenz was the man in question. I talked to John Greatrex in a coffee bar in Crystal Palace before his 1 to 9 Wednesday shift at Sainsbury's.
   He takes up the story:- "I suppose I have come back for a little while to the area I was brought up in. I have been away for a number of years, teaching and running sports centres and things like that. As I have come back Sainsbury's enabled me to pay the rent on my flat that is opposite Crystal Palace Museum on Anerley Hill. When I was working at Crystal Palace back in the 1970's at the Sports Centre when Emlyn Jones was the Director, we started up a little organisation called the Crystal Palace Foundation. We used to get people coming along to the athletics meetings from all over the World and they would say 'Where is the Crystal Palace?' and you pointed to the top of the hill and say 'You are  35 to 40 years too late! "
   Two other people and I put on a little exhibition about the history of Crystal Palace. and it led to the Crystal Palace Museum that is now functioning. I got the satisfaction of knowing I had helped set up something that 25 years on, people who come to Crystal Palace can go to that museum at weekends and find out about the history of Crystal Palace'
   Currently John Greatrex has been instrumental with other local people to set up a Crystal Palace Corner, with a small section of the full size cast iron pieces of Paxton's design, to be raised on the top site for the first time since the Palace burnt down in 1936. Planning permission has been granted and hopefully this will all happen in the next year or so.
   Another major interest in John Greatrex life recently, having obtained the Olympic torch from 1956 and 1948 by one means or another, he has gone into schools with the 1948 Olympic torch to enable youngsters to feel and hold a real piece of Olympic history, which could inspire them rather than to be handled by just the 'Great and the Good'  which was what usually happens. At one school he visited with the torch, a little blind boy was brought in he felt the torch by putting his little fingers through the Olympic rings and that really moved John Greatrex and made him feel it was all worthwhile.
   Last year at the British 10k in London, at the start near the Hard Rock Cafe in Piccadilly, he let loads of people touch and hold the 1948 torch before they went on their way but then had to run as fast as he could across the park and through the cordons to hand it to Founder and Organiser of the race Michael O'Reilly, who sprinted down the road to give it to Olympic Champion Stefano Baldini as he came into the last 30 meters of the race, which made an excellent photo shoot. I  Might add that charities and inspirational work towards the 2012 Olympics has been achieved here by John Greatrex with the Olympic torch.
               John Greatrex was born at Westminster Hospital on 22.2.48 and lived in the Herne Hill area so, he was a second claim Herne Hill Harrier. He went to school at Allellyn's in Dulwich. He later met his wife, when they were both working in the Crystal Palace Centre, 31 years ago and they have three grown up children.  He joined South London Harriers when he was 14. His elder brother Tony was a very good runner and represented London Schools on the Continent but the night he had been accepted to run for South London Harriers in the National he was run down in Dulwich Village and both his legs were broken so, it was after that his brother Tony stopped his athletics that John felt he must fill  his shoes as, he looked up to his brother as such a good runner. Incidentally his sister  coached a National net ball team.
    At South London John Geatrex came under the influence of Tommie Thomas, that great motivator and enjoyed cross-country but his breakthrough really came at the event he was going to specialise in. It was at the English Schools at Peterborough he did not realise when he raced in the 800 final that the first two athletes would be awarded a trip to Canada for the Canada v France v England schools match. He came second to Dave Burden in the final in around 1.51/1.52 and went to Canada and won the triangular match 800 and was presented with a gold medal by Geoff Dyson, the famous English coach, who went to coach in Canada. Before going to Loughborough College of Education for three years he had a  year at Kitunga High School Uganda. He had hoped to go to an exotic island for his Voluntary Service Overseas but, unbeknown to him at the time, it was a blessing in disguise because he was running up the hills constantly at 6000 feet above sea level and within six months of returning to England he was in the British team indoors alongside Colin Campbell.
   John Greatrex won the British Universities'  800m final for three years on the trot 1969 (1:51.2), 1970 (1:50.5) and 1971 (1:50.3).  His biggest memory was the 1970 race and here was the report in the newspapers on the race
                    'Yet the race and Champion of the day award belonged to the 800m College's international two lap runner John Greatrex with British International Andy Carter (Manchester) and Loughborough University's crack miler, John Kirkbride also in the field a fast pace was assured.
 ' Kirkbride it was who made the early running before Carter took over to lead into the wind and reach the bell in under 54 seconds. Greatrex then took over for his stint at the front, but cleverly allowing the pace to drop, he made full use of his reserve for the final punishing strides into the cutting wind of the home straight, just holding off a late Carter challenge in the excellent time of 1:50.5 with Kirkbride very close up in third place in 1:50.8.'
   Another 'Great' runner he ran against was Pete Browne, The AAA's Champion of 1971, who went on to be the top Master over '40 and 45' runner in the World.
      'The best race I ever had against Peter Browne was at the Loughborough v AAA's match and, our coach Charley Elliott, whispered in my ear when I was at the bell 'You can win this' Just relax!. At that point I was 15 yards down on Peter but Charley, not shouting and just saying 'Relax you can win this and knowing there was still 400 to run meant that I did get up and beat him on the line.'  
   In 1970 John Greatrex representing Wales (His Father's family came from Pontypridd) in the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. In his heat the first three were Byron Dyce (Jamaica) 1:51.3; 2 Robert Ouko (Who won the final for Kenya) 1:51.4 and John Greatrex 3rd in 1:51.7. Greatrex was 7th in the semi-final 1:51.5.
   He had one last serious attempt in getting in a 'Big' Games team for the Olympics at Montreal in 1976 but a clash of representations, missing out on some fast races that could have given him a qualifying time. However, he was really worked up about not getting the qualifying time and had a very interesting unexpected result in Ireland.  He was angry and channelled that into a good race in Dublin. He represented Wales over 1500 and in the papers in Ireland the two Irish athletes said they would wipe the floor with Greatrex. When the race came he sat on the two Irish runners and went for it in the back straight of the last lap and won well in 3:45 which was the fastest by 18 seconds that he had ever done for the distance!
   Back in his days at Loughborough he had been studying drama and  has written some one act plays and he also obtained the Nottingham Poetry Prize in 1991 so, it is fitting to end this article with just a snatch of his poetry:

'The day you won our medal
We gloried in your name
And joined you on Olympus
To feast upon your fame
And then one day you didn't win
And here the story ends
Except to note in passing
What became of all your friends....'

Alastair Aitken

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