Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken's
Interviews and

Derek Johnson (1985)


Besides Derek Johnson's ability as an 400/800 runner he ran 4.05.0 for the mile and 3:46.8 for 1500 and 9:17.6 for the 3000m steeplechase and was an Oxford Blue over the country.
One authority who is the News Editor of the BMC, said to me he thought the race that transformed World-class 800m running  was when so many were inside 1:47 in the European Championships in Bern in 1954 and Johnson was part of that. Lajos Szengali 1:47.1; 2 Lucien De Muynck; 1:47.3; 3 Auden Boysen 1:47.4; Derek Johnson 1:47.4; Roger Moens 1:47.8. )

  Alastair Aitken talking to Derek Johnson (1985)

Regarding the races you ran against the Olympic Champion Tom Courtney of the United States. In One of them you were injured or you would have beaten him?
 "I think my best season was in 1957 after the Olympic Games. I trod on a hose when I was living in Stockholm and I wrecked the deltoid ligaments and I was not running for three weeks then, I ran again in a race and I was pushed onto a curb and did it again so, it took about six weeks of the Summer season and that was it but I ran my fastest time that year of 1:46.6 but I think quite honestly I was on for the World record that season for the 800 but considering I had six weeks off in the competitive season, you don't often recover from it." (The World record at the time was 1:45.7 by Roger Moens done in 1955).
You had some very good relays.  1954  you were in the 4x440 winning team in the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver and gained a bronze medal in 1956 Olympics for the 4x400 besides obtaining your 800 silver.You were a good medley man too as so often seen at the White City?
 'One of the  big thrills of my life was taking the baton from Arthur Wint in the race in which he retired and that was in the medley relay. (Probably the British Empire v USA at the White City!). I was only 18 or 19 at the time but that was a big thrill'
'Do you ever compare with any people you have seen.
'I think, in a way I had a lot of fun out of my athletics because I could do anything really.I was an Oxford blue for cross-country and I ran for my county.I ran the third fastest steeplechase in the UK one year and it was the first steeplechase I ran in my life, which was about 9:16 (9:17.4) and I was the third ranking  for 440 yards hurdles in the UK with 53.7. I used to train over the hurdles but did not run the event as such but decided to get into the race. I could sprint. I even pole vaulted for my college (Lincoln, Oxford) but as a runner I had a range of ability for sprinting up to cross-country.
Funnily enough I was fortunate that I was a good a sprinter as I was because I enjoyed it. In those days when I was young they were still talking about the dangers of burning out which was a load of rubbish and, that it was very important not to do the longer distances too soon and the longer distances were 800metres and I think, funnily enough, a I took a degree in physiology and I never really thought about the subject till I left, when it was in response to an article about middle distance running which I had thought was a load of rubbish written by Quercetani and it started me thinking about thinking of the physiology of running and, it suddenly dawned on me that physiologically I was more typed as a middle to long-distance runner than I was as a sprinter.
The year I actually stopped running when I had TB I was the fastest 1500 runner in the country."
You were 25 when you had TB so to get back from that must have given you resolve for your whole life and motivation to do well in life again.
You must have been  worried when you knew you had that?

I was lucky because I did not have it very badly.I had it badly enough to finish off my athletic career at the time. I had what was called pleuralefusion and provided it is caught early.-- I was a medical student on a chest  run and I undoubtedly caught it off a patient. I can almost place the week I got it because I went down with what I thought was flu but was not quite showing the proper symptoms of flu that was going round at the time. I think that was the initial infection."
You did raise a few hats at the White City by coming back and running around 1:50. for the half mile.
Was that something you wanted to do in order prove you could get fit again?

 I did nothing for three years and by that time I was 28/29 and I thought I would have some running left in me. By that time you had to be an expert to see on an x-Ray of my chest the results. I had a slight loss of mobility, loss of elasticity really on one side but in fact I actually picked up Achilles tendonitis that year and a calf injury which eventually, meant me getting an imbalance I was almost recovered from it and my previous best since returning had been 1:53 and I ran 1:50 in that race so I was back on the ladder really and then, the Achilles blew again.
The ridiculous thing was I survived TB and eventually went out of the sport on Achilles tendonitis because I could not cure that. There was no knowledge around at the time and I can remember I limped out of a club race nine months later and that was about the end of it really.'
'However you are aware I have done five marathons!'
I know you are a Woodford Green Man but then you joined Serpentine  and enjoyed your running again.
 'I was inspired by the London Marathon and I will be eternally grateful to Chirrs Brasher because I had not really run since the early 1960's and I started running again and I now run (ran) recreationally and joined Serpentine running club.
I decided to do the marathon and did 2:57 and then did 2:55 in the Poly. I did that when I was 50' 'I was lucky because I did not have any joint problems.I think if  you have problems with joints that is the one thing that stops you doing a  lot of things'
Derek pointed out though  'I enjoy running fast and being up on the balls of my feet though'
'I think maybe I was a runner because I was naturally competitive'
Did Oxford University mean a lot to you?
 'I got my degree in physiology there. I enjoyed being at Oxford. It was one of those experiences that were different really. I think it is a strange place in many ways. It was certainly an experience. I would not want to be without. Oxford was very good athletically to start off with but because it had a year round track season, I think in the end it was not that much of an advantage and if anything a disadvantage as, it kept me off the country for about three years.
My best season was virtually my first one and my last one which were  preceded by a cross-country season '54 and 58' My last season, in view of the fact I was carrying TB, it was one of my best seasons'
You were a brilliant athlete, you  worked intensively for the International Athletes club. You learnt about computers and when I was attending some creative writing lectures at the City Literary Institute on a Saturday you were there learning Arabic.
With all that in mind, If someone wanted to get a balance with their life and they wanted to become an athlete and be successful in life too, what sort of advice would you give?

  'I very rarely give advice to how someone should run their lives.
All I would be prepared to offer is some advice about getting the most out of athletics. I think everyone should be advised especially while they are young. I think it is important to get a wise coach. I had Ken Bone who  was a very wise man. I think that is important to get a wise coach, so the coach  knows about your life and keeps you on the rails really.
There is a danger if success comes very early and it is handled badly.---You can get good coaches and wise coaches but they are not necessarily the same. People can get the best out of people athletically but put very little into them as far as experience of life and how they should handle it. That is difficult to find. Once people do have a bit of maturity and they reach international status, they have got to talk to a lot of people and keep their eyes open about the sport.
I think a lot of young athletes are blind to what is going on a round them in the sport. They understand nothing of the political situation of the sport. I think it is very easy to find out something about it by keeping their eyes and ears open and talking to as many people as they can. As mature people at the end of their athletics career they can contribute towards the sport.'
'If I can make a distinction that the top athletes of today enjoy the sport but I don't think they get any fun out of it anymore. I think it is possible to enjoy the sport and I think the top athletes would not be without their sport.
I think it is the same with tennis. Have you seen a happy looking tennis player in the last ten years. You occasionally see golfers they seem to enjoy their sport. Have you seen a happy looking footballer, none the less I think they enjoy their sport but I don't think there is any fun in it not once you get to the top.'
Drugs in sport?
'The trouble is it goes on but very few people know to what extent and very few people have any answers to it. Certainly more money has got to be spent on drug testing and got to be genuinely independent.
I don't know whether testing by National Associations is independent or not.The only way one gets any real control is by random testing at any time of the year. I don't think there is much of a will on these problems'
How old were you when you joined Woodford Green?
'I was sixteen when I went to Woodford Green. I was at East Ham Grammar.
'I started running very early on, I don't quite know why, just interested. I was always racing with a cousin of mine from the age of about 8 onwards. When I went to a grammar school at the age of eleven was the first time I came across organised athletics at about 12 but, I was always being beaten by one particular boy who was bigger than me. He was always ahead of me for about three years but by the time I was 14 I suddenly  went passed him.'
In the end I could run even time 100yards (10.01 was his official fastest for the 100yards per the Achilles  Club Book of athletics)- that makes you a sort of goodish average sprinter really but before I joined Woodford Green I was a member of Fairburn House Boy's Club and I used to go running over the recreation ground at West Ham and, in particular, I used to run two or three times a week in the Winter, round and round the outside, under the guidance of the groundsman who had also been a runner called 'Legs Lewis' and he then had a limp so called 'Leg Lewis' and I really did all my early running there.
Suddenly after one of those seasons, at the age of fifteen, I came out and ran a 52 second quarter mile which was really my start of my rise through the ranks as a junior.
By the time I was sixteen I did 50 seconds and by the time I was 17 I did 48.8 (1950 Port Sunlight to win the AAA Junior) but cross-country  was done with Fairburn House and I can remember the groundsman Legs Lewis saying to me after I said 'What shall I do in this race?' He would say 'Well, you run along with them for about two miles and then at that 2 mile point there is a big steep hill" and he said "When you get to the bottom of this hill sprint for 100 yards.That will probably drop them off and I did religiously everything he told me and everything he told me worked so, he was some 'God Like' creature to me.
Talk about 'Uninhibited' If someone said to me go at the bottom of the hill now I would turn round and run  the other way!'
You won an English Schools Final
'I won the 220 in 22.6 (He went on to do a life time best of 21.8) when I was seventeen and 18 when I ran the quarter mile. I then won the quarter mile in the AAA's Junior the following week in 48.8.
I held the 220 schools title. I went on to win the Schools quarter mile the next year and the AAA's Juniors as well. So, I started off as a sprinter.I think really looking back on my career I got stuck with it.Two things were, I was a good enough sprinter and I anchored the 'National' 4x400 team for four years. We really did quite well at that time.I don't think I was actually ever overtaken on a relay.
I crossed the line first in the European 4x400 in 1954 then we were disqualified. At that time the incoming runner had to move out to a fixed lane position and my lane position was lane 8, which meant the people on the outside have a huge amount of distance to run. Peter Fryer had a Hungarian on his heels and innocently started moving out and unfortunately the Hungarian had to go inside and the Hungarian fell as he clipped the Hungarian or at least the Hungarian clipped him and the rules changed to be made where the present one now. The leading runner takes the pole position and so on but it had not reached the statue books so we were disqualified (GB ran 3.08.2 and France took the gold in 3.08.7).
We got the bronze medal in the Olympics (John Salisbury, Mike Wheeler, Peter Higgins and Derek Johnson).
I think we won pretty well every match. We beat the Europeans out of sight.
I bought a paper in Switzerland in 1954 when I was 14 and saw an interesting shot of the 800m Final in Bern with you in the picture but you just missed out on a medal.
Lajos Szentgali won in 1:47.1 and you were fourth in 1:47.4 and Roger Moens was just behind you in 1:47.8.
(Derek beat Szentagli and Rozsavolgyi at the White City on the eve of his departure to Melbourne where he gained that silver in the Olympics)
' Regarding the European in Berne' That was really the post war breakthrough because people like Mal Whitfield who won the Olympic 800 in 48 and the '52 Olympics were still running around 1:49 for 800metres and suddenly we all went through in 1:47.4.
In 1954 you ran in the Commonwealth Games and you won the 880 yards in Vancouver in 1:50.7 from Brian Hewson (1:51.2) and Ian Boyd (1:51.9).
Hewson had a beautiful running action and went on to win the European 1500m. Hewson must have been a difficult man to beat.

' Brian always was.Brian and I always had ding-dong races.
You won from Brian Hewson in a duel meet at the White City and also won from Mike Farrell in another one.
Farrell of course gained fifth place in the 1956 Olympic 800m but who was the hardest runner you ran against in all those duel meets

It would be Brian Hewson!
In the Olympics in Melbourne in 1956 you had three very good Americans up against you in the final and Auden Boysen of Norway, who was ahead of you in the European to contend with. The field went through in 52.09 and you were about fifth.
 I think I was actually third. Arnie Sowell was in front Tom Courtney was behind with a gap of about three metres. Boysen was outside me. those positions. That hardly changed till the final straight.
You saw a gap?
Courtney moved out. In the Summer he had been disqualified for clashing with Sowell and I think he moved out to avoid any hint of that and I went through the gap.In a way I think it is a pity the gap opened that early.
People normally drift out.'
   'The track was very very poor and I trained on the University track which was shale and very very hard and fast.'

First Six in the final of The Olympics in Melbourne, Australia:-November 26th 1956:
1 Tom Courtney 1:47.7, 2 Derek Johnson 1:47.8; 3 Audun Boysen 1:48.1; 4 Arnie Sowell 1:48.3; 5 Mike Farrell 1:49.26; 6 Lon Spurrier 1:49.2.

Alastair Aitken

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