Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken's
Interviews and

Alastair's Favourite Games - 1968 & 1969 (August 2020)

MEXICO 50 YEARS LATER (November 2018)

Perhaps, the last really unusual venue and amateur Olympics was, in Mexico City in 1968.
I went to Mexico with ‘Red Dragon Travel’ and, the bus that took us from the airport to our hotel, near the centre, passed through the poorer areas where all the houses were brightly painted in so very many colours.

I found the Mexicans very hospitable and, I spent an evening with a large Mexican family, whom I had not met before. They had ushered four of us in to their home so, we could spend an evening of dancing &, eating very spicy food washed down by Tequila. That was typical of the open hospitality of the Mexicans, unlike some of the more recent publicity in the news which is not true in most cases.

Then, there were the Mariachis with their impressive sombreros and black and silver costumes, as they played music in the street and if paid for, would go and play outside private houses...
I can remember, even the Mexican National Anthem ringing out in the Olympic Stadium. It was a jolly tune and typically Mexican.

I can also remember going with Howard Winstone and, another friend for friendly Howard to have a short audience with the President of Mexico. Howard had fought the Mexican Vicente Saldivar several times for the World featherweight title so after that they had a good time socially to-gather in Mexico City.

Amongst other interviews I had was with  a student, talking about the student riots and more important to me I interviewed Ralph Doubell, Madeline Manning, Mohamed Gammoudi and later Bill Toomey and Ron Clarke, who suffered so much with the altitude, Kip Keino and that lovely lady Lillian Board.

It was some of the other unusual interviews I would like to talk about here.

Firstly I would like to say I was in a bus going to the first day’s athletics and on a neon board illuminated against a wall came up the first round of the Mens 100m and considering it was 50 years ago, it looked really interesting.
In the first heat was won by Charlie Greene (USA) in 10.00. Heat 2 was won by the final winner Jim Hines of the USA in 10.2. Someone asked Charlie Greene why he wore dark glasses when he ran and his answer to that was ‘Man these are my re-entry shields!’ I suppose another quip that amused me when I talked to Chris Finnegan the British boxing gold medallist. I asked him what he thought of the altitude in Mexico City and his immediate answer was “From what they told me, I thought if you brushed your teeth you  fall flat on your face!”

Anyway, the 200m came later and that was an extraordinary situation in itself. I really feel the most natural 200 runner I have ever saw, won the final and it was Tommie Smith of America in 19.8, which was a World record but on the podium, when the United States National anthem was played, he stood to attention, with his arm held high with a black glove on his hand with a clenched fist held high above his head. as did John Carlos who came 3rd .Their protest for black African Americans  was admired by many but not around the time they did it and, that was the end of their Games, as they were booed out of the stadium. On hindsight it was a brave thing they did and all these years later, they have been admired by many and perhaps moved it on a bit regarding the respect for them nationally.

22year old Tommie Smiths’ philosophy I found interesting “For my own part, I am never satisfied until I have pleased myself. Yes, I may well have pleased the crowd but, unless I feel self-pleasure, I never feel satisfied. The incentive to please himself is born within a person, whatever his ultimate calling in life, and it is thus important that the teacher or coach endeavour to bring this out in the individual at an early stage.”

Lee Evans about his Olympic win over 400m. He ran to a World record of 43.8 that stood as a mark for many years. In the race 2nd was another American Larry James who ran 43.9; and the third American was Ron Freeman in 44.4 and they went on with Vince Mathews to easily win the 4x400 in a World record of 2:56.1.

Lee Evans (Edited by the late Charlie Elliott Editor of ‘Athletics Arena.’ The magazine the late Bob Sparkes was an excellent statistician on the magazine).
Lee “I  felt very easy in the heat, and very strong (45.3); A lot of one lap runners find that the heats tire them out—which helps me of course. I think with me the best running helps loosen me for the next round. I clocked 45.3 in the first heat which felt rather like a stroll. If I had got going I could have run faster than 44.0. In the second heat 2, I was in the outside lane and went off very fast, too fast really because I felt a bit tired going into the second bend. So I slowed up. I did not really want to win by a big margin, then I looked across and saw this fellow Omolo (45.3)  in lane 4 fighting hard but thought better of it and let him go past (Evans 45.5)
In the semi-final I felt really great. I just tootled along man, and ran 44.8 real easy. When it came to the final I was in lane six with Freeman and James in the two inside lanes plus there other guys, but I did have the pole Badenski and Amos Omolo outside to work on.
With the other two Americans on the inside of me I knew that I just had to run like the wind to be sure of winning comfortably. I ran t he first bend very hard, relaxed and lengthened my stride down the back straight then  ran hard to the next b end kicked  for a good finish down the home straight. But, was scared to take a look and aimed myself at the tape. As I hit it I looked left and saw Larry James only a little way off. It was a fantastic feeling to win a gold medal”

David Hemery is someone I talked to many times in his career as an international athlete. He was twice a 110 high hurdles Commonwealth Champion and I met him with my great friend the late Peter Hildreth, when he was at the start of his upward curve to success as a good hurdler.
His Father Peter encouraged him with his brother John, to run round the garden when they were young boys and David got the feeling for hurdling after trying to hurdle the breakwaters at his home town Frinton. Billie Smith coached him in America with good conditioning work and Fred Housden the technical work in GB.

It was interesting now. To look back at his crowning achievement of winning a gold medal in Mexico for the 400 hurdles and who were  his biggest rivals purely times before the games.
At Lake Tahoe, in the American Olympic trials Geoff Vanderstock broke the World record with a time of 48.8 with Boyd Gittins second in 49.1. then came Ron Whitney who was one of the favourites for the Games 49.2. David Hemery’s timeleading up to t he Olympic Games was 49.6 and future European Champion Roberto Franolli had run a 49.7.
Come the day, the lanes were drawn for the final 1 Rainer Schubert (WG); 2 Gerhard Hnnige (WG); 3 Geoff Vanderstock; 4 Roberto Frinolli, 5 Vyachesilave Skomorokhov (USSR); 6 David Hemery; 7 Ron Whitney, 8 John Sherwood (GB) the 1970 Commonwealth Champion.
First Three in the final 1 David Hemery 48.1; 2 Gerhard Hennige (WG) 49.0 and 3 John Sherwood 49.0

John Sherwood in the outside lane set a fast pace, and was obviously a good guide for Dave
right round to the 250 metres point, where Hemery went past him. Sherwood was stationed in lane eight, Whitney in lane 7. As far as running the race from the rest of the field. “My time at the half way mark was 23.0 whilst Whitney’ s was 23.6-7, which would have given me that six metres advantage which I had at that stage. I might have been a bit faster if, it had been a warmer day and the track had been dry. I was under control the whole way round, almost, but I had absolutely no idea where the rest of the field were after the middle of the final bend. I ran very hard from start to finish, and used 13 strides to the sixth hurdle and then 15 strides over the last four. This was different to what I usually had done; 0n all previous occasions in 1968. I had maintained a13 stride pattern to the fifth only. Again, if conditions in Mexico had been better on the actual day, I now know I might have reached the seventh hurdle in 13 strides. As for the time, I must admit I was a little surprised, although I knew it was a fast one. The only part of the race I would criticise myself was for the last 50 metres. I tried to get into a sprint but could not, and I was waiting for the crowd reaction to hear if they were gasping or roaring as if someone closing up on me. I just heard a continuous great roar, so had to push harder and harder to make sure I was not piped on the post. As I crossed that white line, and even as I approached it, I had the most peculiar feeling in the pit of my stomach; I had won, I had won! As I turned round on the track, my eyes focused on the electronic timer in the centre—48.1 I was so elated I thought that I would float away; I’ll never forget that emotional moment as long as I live. It lasted for hours.”

There were some other amazing performances that did have the crowd gasping, Kenyan Amos Biwott. Who won the 3000 steeplechase for Kenya in 8:51.0, the rarefied air at altitude won in 8:51? He used to jump clear over the water, which had not been seen very often... Then there was Dick Fosbury (USA) clearing the high jump on his back and that started the craze for the Fosbury ‘Flop’ witch became the norm for the majority of high jumpers at world level. Fosbury won with 2.24/7’4¼. Perhaps even more extraordinary was Bob Beamon of the USA with his long jump. Although he had won the American trials, what was seen in the Olympic Stadium was pretty amazing He won with a long jump World record of 8.90/29’2½ Previous World record was by Igor Ter-Ovenesyan (USSR) with 8.35 /27’5.

That ‘Great’ long jumper Lynn Davies who did qualify, had won  the gold medal in the Tokyo Olympic of 1964. He also, won a European gold and two Commonwealth golds in his time. He competed till the last round. In Mexico and did 7.94 but the wind was taken out of his sails for the final jump. In second place a long way down on Beamon was Klaus Beer with 8’19 and 3rd Ralph Boston, (the 1960 Olympic Champion) with 8’16.
Lynn thought the event would be won in 27’6 – 28’foot "Bob Beamon’s opening jump shattered everyone’s illusions. Boston and Te-Oveneyasn had been jumping for 11 years under every condition on earth, if it had been possible to jump 28 foot they would have done it somewhere, then suddenly along comes this man and jumps 29 feet, a foot and half longer than the World record.

I think a nice analogy is drawn from a letter that an actor wrote to me after the Games.
He compared it with going on stage for a first night, to find that you have rehearsed for the wrong play”.

The European Championships 1969

In  August 2021 was to have been the European Championships in Paris but like so many other events was cancelled.

In 1969 I was at the European Games in Athens and, in the blazing sunshine, followed by warm evenings. To see the Acropolis light up against the night sky and, reading about the names of the great philosophers who had been in Athens, the attractive bouzouki music that the dancing Greeks enjoyed. Retsina with Greek food, Greek brandy, Ouzo, and being on the sandy beaches, near to Athens are all a memory too but it was primarily the athletics one had come to see and the UK won five events.
My favourite race of the Games was the Men’s 1500 final, won in the closing stages of the last lap by John Whetton of Sutton in Ashfield, England, who was fifth in the Mexico 1500 Final. (Athens 1 John Whetton GB 3:39.42. 2 Frank Murphy,(Eire) 3:39.5;  3 Henryk  Szordykowski, (Poland) 3:39.8)
John  was also known as ‘ King of the Boards’ as he rarely lost a race indoors. I liked his philosophy on training “My favourite type of running is fartlek. I don’t like training on the track nor running on the roads – to me these can be both very, very boring. Personally I like to feel that I am part of the environment : if I am enclosed by trees and bushes, I somehow feel part of it, and of course there is always the point that, when training in woods or Forest land, the running can hardly be boring since the environment is changing continually- maybe short trees or no trees, soft grass or pine needles. Now and again you will scare a rabbit out of its hole, or suddenly find a pheasant swooping down close to you. All this adds interest to one’s training session, and takes one’s mind off the hard work and , honestly, I feel that if I cannot think about aesthetic things in training I become bored”

“Were I to think about athletics all the time I would want to pack it up, and I have felt this sometimes The answer is to take your mind off it, and that is why if I have something beautiful and stimulating to think about I want to continue, that is why I enjoy Sherwood Forest so much. Without the Forest I think I would have finished running a long time ago.”

John’s friend and a training partner at Manchester University was Ron Hill, who won the marathon in Athens, from Gaston Roelants and Jim Alder. In the heat on the tough  Athens course Ron  ran 2:16.47.8.
He entered  the old historic stadium and would receive a crown of olives A massive part of history?.
“This does not mean a thing to me; there is no sentiment in it. To me it is the European Championships the gold medal that counts, not what the course was like or where it is – it’s winning the European Championships” For all I cared it could have been in Blackpool – I just wanted to win that gold medal; that counts, not what the course was like – or where it is. It's winning the European Championships”

Paul Nihill was 2nd in the Olympic 50k walk in 1964 and then won the 20k in Athens; (1 Paul Nihill (GB )1:30.41; 2 L. Caraiostfogiu( Rum)1:1:31.6.4; n. Smaga (SU) 1:31.22)
Paul Nihill “The greatest lesson I have learnt really  is the fact that you never get anywhere unless you put your mind one hundred percent to one thing. I feel now that when, years ago, I was doing mainly boxing plus a little running, a little walking and several other things, had  I gone about training in the same way that I do now (1969), dedicating myself to walking and to making a success of it, I would have been a top junior. The lesson learnt  is that so many people just play around at a sport as runnerst,when, as runnerswith a sportwhen, as runners they could probably become (Derk Ibbotsons) If only that they put their minds to it,,train more conscientiously, realise their potential. To me it is strange that when I was doing walking just to fill a gap, nobody gave me any encouragement. Nobody came up to me and said, You could be a world beater, if  you put your mind to it, or offered to take me in hand. Nobody cared, and I just drifted out as it were, finishing usually in the middle of the field doing nothing outstanding”

Vivacious, Lillian Board, achieved a silver medal in the 400m in Mexico and in Athens took Great Britain, on the anchor leg to victory in the 4x400m relay, overtaking the 400m Olympic Colette Besson of France on that leg. Lillian also won the 800 final in 2:01.5. The relay won in 3:30.8 was World record at the time and the rest of the team comprised of Rosmary Stirling; Pat Lowe and Janet Simpson.

The GB tgem did a World record time and Lillian was awarded the ‘Star’ award of the Games but what was so sad was she died of cancer on the 26th of December 1970.  Did she have any special advice when she started out as an athlete?
“No I joined the club, as I said, and there were club athletes there, but Daddy (George) was extremely keen for me to do well at sport because we are a sporting family, and whatever we did he would take an interest. He was keen on swimming and people have asked why I became keen on athletics instead, and my answer is that, whatever my sport was to be, my father would be interested but, as it transpired, he knew exactly what the score was; he knew all about the four minute miles, but not what a girl of 12 should be doing, so he had practically every athletics book out of the library.”

One of the athletes who was so impressive amongst the throwers was Janis Lusis competing for the Soviet Union. He had won the javelin event in the Mexico Olympics the year before and he won with a throw of 91.52. He also won the European gold in 1966 and 1971.

Alastair Aitken

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