Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken
Alastair Aitken's
Interviews and
Reports

Douglas Alistair Gorden Pirie (Born Leeds 10th February 1931 Died 7th December 1991)

'Galloping Gordon' was not just one of South London Harriers' greatest athletes since the club was established in 1871 but, possibly the most charismatic middle distance runner Great Britain has ever produced and that includes Dave Bedford and Steve Ovett, who also had that special something that makes an athlete interesting to read about and follow for the average club runner and sports enthusiast.
   MICK FIRTH who was 3rd and 4th in the National cross country Senior Championships, when South London were winning the big club prizes and now coaches at the club pointed out
   "Gordon Pirie was undoubtedly the greatest character. He was the forerunner of modern middle distance running in this country. He was inspired by Emil Zatopek and had pictures of him all over his bedroom as the man to beat, then Kuts came along and beat them both.'
   The Late ROY FOWLER, who was 3rd in the 1962 European 10,000 and won the International ' World' cross country Championships in 1963 pointed out to me " I think Gordon Pirie was a great runner and I think all 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 there and doing the training. He had the know - how and was coming to the White City and rubbing our noses in it - then along came Gordon Pirie with his fantastic training schedules, pushing himself and also using his brain, and eventually he took them on.
I think men like Pirie need to be admired."
   Gordon was the 'National' Senior Cross Country Champion in 1953, 54 and '55. He told me ' I did not continue forcing cross-country because I ran the National in 1955, a race where I had already 100 yards or more lead 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 about 300 yards. When I ran away from them again I remember thinking ' This is not interesting anymore, I will do track racing because that had a more interesting challenge to it" (South London won the 'National' team event that year).
   Gordon Pirie was 3rd in the European 5000 in 1958, after being 4th in the Olympic 5000 of 1952. The latter when he was still a bit green as a racer, so much so, he tried to go with Emil Zatopek in the 10,000 and paid a heavy price for doing that.
   He was 2nd in the Olympic 5000 in 1956 and broke the World record that year, beating Vladimir Kuts in 13:36.8 and remember that was on terrible cinder tracks. He also beat Emil Zatopek several time in his career but of course not when Zatopek was winning three Olympic gold medals in 1952.
   In passing one might mention Gordon Pirie won AAA's titles for 3 miles in 1953 and 1961 and 6 miles in 1951, 52, 53 and 1960.
   The Press used to have a field day with Pirie, like they did with Bedford, because they were not always able to deliver the goods all the time but, what men they were and should be admired for trying so hard.
Gordon would come along to the White City on the Saturday at Whitsun time and finish last or near last in a race then on the Monday he would come back with all the press baggage against him, and take on the foreigner, as Roy Fowler would put it. Just remember that time that happened on the Whit Bank Holiday Monday, in the International 2 miles on the 28th of May 1958, when he beat the Hungarian Nicolas Szabo with his wonderful finishing flourish right up the home straight and, in his wake were none other than Derek Ibbotson, the 1957 World mile record holder and that great character Stan Eldon.  
   Two particular races stand out for me. One was when he beat the 'Great' Hungarian trio in 1956 in a world record 3000m in 7:52.8. They were Istvan Rozavolgyi (who was 3rd in the Olympic 1500 of 1956); Sandor Iharos (who beat Ken Wood in a 2 mile World record at the White City) and Laslo Tabori (who beat Chris Chataway and Brian Hewson in a sub-four minute mile race at the White City).
   The other race that sticks out in my mind, for many reasons, was the first ever Emsley Carr Mile race at the White City Stadium in 1953 which I witnessed with my Father and brother Ian. My Father being a great friend of the Manager of the White City Stadium at the time so, I had a brilliant view of the race.
    Gordon Pirie was an afterthought for the organisers to have him competing in the race as he was thought to be more of a distance/cross-country runner. You see some of the World's best milers were invited to run.
He was lined up with possibly the best miler in the World, at that particular time in 1953, from the USA and that was Wes Santee.Then there was Bill Nankeville, who was four times AAA's mile Champion and Father of Bobby Davro the comedian and Chris Chataway who helped Bannister to his first four minute mile and two highly rated milers from the continent.
   Gordon explains " Nobody has seen my training books, but if they did they would say ' You are a lunatic. It is impossible to do that' so, when I went to a race I knew that going around the track, even for twenty-four laps was a kind of a sprint - that "National" cross country was a sprint, because when you run five hours a day running an hour to forty-five minutes is a joke. You just go full out; as for the mile, it is a sprint, but the other factor in the mile was the intelligence to run the race properly. The Emsley Carr Mile I knew, it 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. We went at this phenomenal pace - my vision was lost in jumps. I was hanging on, then I realised I had got a gap and it stayed the same.' (1 Pirie 4:6.8, 2 Santee 4:7.2, 3 Nankeville 4:13.8).
   TOM RICHARDS a South London Official, who is the son of Olympic marathon silver medallist of 1948 Tom Richards of South London Harriers " If Pirie had not run in the 10,000 in the Olympics at Melbourne in 1956 instead of coming second in the 5000 he could have beaten Vladimir Kuts and won the gold medal."
   Someone who ran on Gordon Pirie's South London team was Peter  Driver, the 1954 Commonwealth 6 mile Champion and South London Harriers' official and ex- President Ferdie Gilson, was amongst the top juniors in the country when Driver, Firth and Pirie were on the senior team and he thought that Peter Driver was his personal favourite because he was such a gentleman but then Pirie did tend to speak his mind like Bedford had sometimes and, therefore had run-ins with the officials of the sport.
   Gordon was so special and, as he ran nearly every day of his training over Farthing Down, it was fitting his ashes were sprinkled there. He was not the only one in the family who ran. There were others who had impressive times with South London Harriers. His brother Peter won the National Youth cross-country in 1947 and his Father Alick Pirie, who also ran for South London Harriers was a Scottish International cross country runner.
   I suppose Pirie will be remembered as 'The Bean Pole Prince of Pace' and ' Puff Puff Pirie' as described in the tabloids but he will certainly go down as one of the finest South London Harriers has ever produced.

Alastair Aitken

Back to Reports Index

Back to Archive index