Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
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Gordon the Legend for October BMC News (June 2020)

GORDON PIRIE

Alastair Douglas Gordon Pirie was born in Leeds on the 10th of February 1931 and died on the 7th of December 1991. I had spoken to Gordon several times, before the Summer of 1989 when, I spent an hour and 50 minutes travelling round Dorset, talking to him. The previous British runner to make an impact in the middle distances was the modest, quiet, bespectacled, solicitor, Sydney Wooderson who was a Champion just before & after the 2nd World Wars’. I was lucky enough to be the only person that ever had a full interview with him, which was in 1979, as he did not give interviews. After Blackheath Harrier Sydney, there was a noticeable lull in athletics then, along came South London Harrier, Gordon Pirie, ‘The Bean Pole Price of Pace’, who would take anybody on and had plenty to say, if you cared to listen to him. I can remember the White City Stadium, when it was packed to capacity for the Chris Chataway v Kuts World 5000 record but it was Gordon Pirie, with his relentless pace, winning or losing, that people identified with, week in week out. In those two aside duels with USSR & France etc. We saw ‘Galloping Gordon’ leading, with the White City roar reverberating round the Stadium, as he came home first each time in the 5000 with either Derek Ibbotson, Franky Salvat or Ken Norris in second spot, giving maximum points to GB. Frank Sando and Stan Eldon were two others that could have been called upon.

Roy Fowler, who beat Gaston Roelants in the World cross country of 1963 and, was third in the European Championships 10k in 1962 remarked to me “Pirie was a great runner and I think all the English athletes owe Gordon a Thank-You because he was the first  Englishman in my opinion, to prove the foreigner could be beaten where, in England we used to sit back, reading the books on how to do it, the foreigner was getting out and rubbing our noses in it- then along came Gordon Pirie with his fantastic training schedules, pushing himself and also using his brain, and I think men like Pirie need to be admired”  Gordon Pirie, like his Father Alick Pirie, who was a Scottish international, did much of their training on Farthing Downs. Gordon loved his hill work on the Downs near, Old Coulsdon and, after he died his ashes were sprinkled there.  
He had two brothers Ian and Peter Pirie, his older brother, who used to be better than Gordon to begin with, as he was that much older and Peter became a National Youth cross country Champion and then along came Walter Hesketh, a very strong junior, who won the 1952 National Senior beating  Gordon Pirie. Gordon had a really powerful sense of wanting to be the very best he possibly could. as a runner. He achieved the Victor Ludorum at Purley County School. He won the National Senior cross country Championships in 1953, 54, and 55. The latter when his club SLH won the team award, with runners in the club kike Peter Driver and Mick Firth. Gordon comes in “I did not continue running cross country because when I ran the National in 1955. I had a lead of more than 100 yards before running into the crowd. I met Jimmy Green later on and he never told me that he never knew I ran into the crowd. In his resume in Athletics Weekly he had said that, of all the runners, Pirie was not running too well because he did not have any lead when he came round for the last lap. My answer to that was I had destroyed my lead by 100 yards and then I ran away from them by 300 yards. When I did run away from them by about 300 yards. ‘ I remember thinking This is not interesting any more, I will do track racing because that had a more interesting challenge to it”.

My Father Colonel David Aitken, was a great war time friend of the Manager of the White City Stadium so in the 1950’s, we always got the best seats, either near the finish or in the restaurant so, at the age of 11 in 1951 I saw Gordon Pirie’ first AAA;s 6 mile win in an English record of 29:32.00 although, I must admit at the time Bill Nankeville, the stylish AAA’s mile winner of 1948, 49,50 & 52 was my hero as a small boy. Gordon was the man who achieved the records and the excitement. Pirie, as a young man was a big fan of Emil Zatopek and his advanced training methods. At the time Zatopek was the 1948 Olympic 10k Champion in London so, as a young man in 1952 Gordon,  was chosen to do the 5000 & 10000 for GB in the Olympics in Helsinki and in the 10k he started at the back of the field with Emil Zatopek, watching Zatopecs’ moves. When Zatopek drifted to the front he went with him and with Frenchman Alain Mimoun. “There were just three of us left in the front at 4 miles then I was  put in a coffin athletically and I don’t know what I did to complete the race (7th) If I wanted to disregard Zatopec I could have been third in that  race, but my attitude is that if I am going to run against somebody I am going to slug it out with them. Many people have said down the years you are crazy: You are crazy you started too fast,” which I did when I beat Vladimir Kuts and the Hungarians (Pirie’s World Record 5000 beating Kuts in 13:36.8 in Bergen on June 19th 1956. AND the Hungarians in a World record 3000m 7:52.8 at Malmo on September 4th, ahead of Istvan Rozsvolgyi, Sandor Iharos and Laszlo Tabori).
It was back after the Helsinki Games in 1952, he came under the guidance of coach Woldemar Gerschler but one has to add that Pirie was so different to so many athletes and really had his own ideas which at the time proved very accurate. Take my favourite race to ever see was, the very first Emsley Carr Mile. The very first one was in 1953. Pirie was not invited as, Jack Crump the British Board Official responsible for getting the runners to do it from various places in the World told Pirie ‘We can’t have you. You are a distance runner’ (A short while before Pirie ran a World record 6 miles time).  Pirie, said he would not run in a particular race Crump had selected him to do abroad shortly after if he did not let him run!. Crump reluctantly  added his name to the approved list of runners for the Emsley Carr Mile.  Pirie on that occasion got his way. The race was at the White City Stadium  on the 8th of August 1953 and field contained perhaps the person who was considered the best miler in the World in that particular year so far Wes Santee of the United States, although Roger Banniser was the clear favourite the following year 1954, with his 4 minute mile. Ingvar Eriksson and Chris Chataway were in the field.  Some previous World record holders were taken round the track in an open car before the race started; Gunder Hagg, Paavo Nurmi, & Sydney Wooderson.

In the race itself Olaf Lawrenz of Germany was first to head the field with a 61 seconds lap 3:03.8 was the time at the bell. Then it was between Gordon and Wes at the front for that last lap. The sound then in the stadium was deafening. Gordon takes up the story “Nobody has seen my training books but if they did they would say ‘ You are a complete lunatic It is physically impossible to do that” so, when I went to a race I knew that going round the track, even for 24 laps was a kind of a sprint. The National cross country was a sprint, because when you run 5 hours a day running an hour to 45 minutes is a joke. You just go full out, as for the mile, but the other factor in the mile was to have the intelligence to run the race properly. The Emsley Carr Mile I knew, if we all sat around, there were some real good little sprinters off the bend, so I went, as you Know , with 600 to go and ran the 200 to the bell in 29 seconds. They all looked a bit green with me at the bell, but I had decided that was what I was going to do, and I had the machinery to do it. I would say when Santee passed me in the back straight I was just about unconscious and my body had lost the race, but my mind kept my body going, and he faded and I took him The speed we went round there was fantastic. We went at a phenomenal pace, My vision was lost in jumps, I was hanging on, then I realised I had a gap and it stayed the same (Pirie 4:6.8, Santee 4:7.2 and Nankeville 4:13.8. On the cinders of course.
The one race at Championship level where he played safe and, only once. was the Olympic 5000 in Melbourne in 1956, after he had raced Kuts in the 10k and got blown apart in the closing stages. It was after, tha it was the 5000 where he gained a silver medal (1 Vladimir Kuts 13:39.6; 2 Gordon Pirie 13:50.6; 3 Derek Ibbotson 13:54.4) .In those days when Pirie competed some of the National Press, who were not so knowledgeable made comments. Take one instance. Gordon Pirie overtook Chris Chataway to gain 4th in the Olympic 10k in 1952, at the last gasp, when Zatopek had already won and after Chataway had fallen at the curb of the last bend. ‘I did not know he had fallen, but when we were staggering across the middle to get our gear I saw he had this terrible graze. It was only then I found out he had tripped over. I was running in oblivion’  I saws him in front of me and I just nipped him on the tape. That nearly caused me to give up athletics, but the British Press never spoke to me but slammed me and criticised me as a bad sportsman for passing Chataway when he had tried so hard. I had tried hard too. Chataway and Geoff Dyson, the National coach, advised me not to take notice of the Press and, they soothed me down. To this day I have not had justice from the Press in this country.  In 1955 Gordon was awarded the trophy for being   Sportsman of the year and, you can imagine some of the things he said about officials and the Press but Let’s face it he was a hell of a runner and a forthright man    He was married to international sprinter Shirley  Hampson in 1956. They had two daughters Jing Guang and Sara. When Gordon was running so well, there were even times when Shirley and Gordon could only afford a meal for one.

Gordon’s fastest mile was 3.59.9;/14:36.8 WR for 5000 and 28:09.6 for six miles. That showed his versatility and he even did a 3000 steeple in 9:06.6, with the tough old water jump on each lap and, he wante4d to do the 1500 in the Olympics of 1952 but was chosen for the ‘5&10 Pirie made a comeback as an amateur’ winning was the AAA’s 3 miles at the White City in 13:31.2 in 1961 and with open arms he welcomed his friend Frank Salvat coming home in second place. Pirie was a good orienteer even with the New Zealand team too, he coached several top class runners Debbie Elsmore, Anne Audin, Alison Rowe and Anne Smith and I assure you he was dab hand in helping with injuries in his particular way, which he did for me. He had talents that were not always spotted otherwise, he would have died a rich man but he will never be forgotten in the history and drama of athletic achievements. and no doubt his spirit still echoes in the open spaces of Farthings and New Zealand.

Alastair Aitken

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