Friday, July 15, 2016

V 6 N. 51 New Book on the 1954 British Empire-Commonwealth Games

I recently discovered a new book by Jason Beck ,  The Miracle Mile, Stories of the 1954 
British Empire and Commonwealth Games published in Canada  by Caitlin Press.

 Much has been written about the Miracle Mile between Bannister and Landy at these games and the outcome is no surprise, nor is the outcome of the Jim Peters collapse on the track in the marathon.

But what is unique in this book is the remarkable way Jason Beck has pieced together the underlying stories behind these two events and at the same time incorporated the other sports of those games in a chronology from the conception of holding the event in Vancouver, the skullduggery in getting the games awarded to the city, and the preparations that went into being the  host.   The British Empire was in its last days although independence was yet to come to many of the 'countries' participating;  Trinidad and Tobago would become just Trinidad and the Gold Coast would become Ghana.  Kenya was there as Kenya, a colony,  though not yet independent and they had two distance men Nyandika Maiyoro and Lazaro Chepkwony.  Much was made of their running without shoes and their imagined lack of training.   Maiyoro would be in the lead of the 3 mile race right to the last lap when he was overtaken on the backstretch by Chris Chataway and several others wearing their spikes and with the benefits of Franz Stampfl's training.  But it was  indeed a breakthrough for the Kenyans onto the international stage.  Later in the week Chataway would do the commentary on the Miracle Mile for the BBC.

Chataway was a 23 year old Oxford graduate and brewer's assistant at the Guiness Breweries who would later go on to have champagne tastes as a member of Parliament.  It's noted that both Chataway and Freddie Green who finished second enjoyed the occasional cigarette as well.

 Chataway came into the games as the world's most famous also-ran having been runner up to Bannister in his first sub four, and a few weeks later to Landy when he broke Bannister's record.

Chataway was not to be headed at Vancouver winning that 3 mile, and a few weeks later that summer went on to defeat his hero, Zatopek   at 5000, although they both lost to a new upstart named Vladmir Kuts.   Six weeks later that year, Chataway would dog Kuts' heels in another 5000 at White City in London and outlean him at the tape in a WR of 13:51.6.

Chataway Kuts  See the last 300 meters of that race.  Note the use of a spotlight on the lead runners.

Jason Beck now curator for British Columbia's Sports Hall of Fame has done a remarkable job of sifting through the records of the games to write this book.  He notes that it was a ten year work.  He meticulously interviewed countless athletes and coaches still living from that time including all the milers who participated in the Miracle Mile,  Bannister, Landy, Rich Ferguson, Victor Milligan, Murray Halberg, Ian Boyd, Bill Baillie, and David Law who followed in that order.  The book is full of side stories to the mile and provides good descriptions of the  preliminaries.

 Ferguson was the great surprise as his career had failed to materialize in the early 1950s.  He had twice won the Big Ten two mile championship for the University of Iowa and had run in the 1952 Olympics 5000 but failed to finish in his heat.  Since then he had developed a case of stomach ulcers.  He just managed to qualify for the Canadian team with a 4:19 mile.  But for a month he underwent intense training with the iconic and controversial Canadian coach Lloyd Percival and had a remarkable transformation.   Percival's athletes filled 14 places on the Canadian team although he was not named to the coaching staff except as a co-coach, a postion he refused.  Ferguson  qualified for the 880 finals and finished a respectable fifth place in 1:53.2 for a Canadian record, so he approached the mile with an increasing confidence.  He would finish third in the Miracle Mile in 4:04, a world class time then and another Canadian record.

While the excitement of the mile was going on,  the marathon was progressing in 80 degree heat.  Jim Peters would enter the stadium about twenty minutes after the mile was over and the crowd was just settling down.   Mr. Beck does a great job of describing that race from its onset and its incredible conclusion with Peters eventually being taken off the track by a caring team masseur Mick Mayes after British officials had repeatedly discouraged anyone from helping Peters in his desperate condition.   Beck also notes that British officials in an effort not to miss  seeing the super-hyped mile race had failed to provide Peters with fluids out on the course.

Of  note especially to Canadian readers but also the old timers who read this blog for its back stories is the account of a young high schooler from Cumberland, BC on Vancouver Island, Terry Tobacco.  Yes, that's right,  Tobacco.   Terry was literally in his first year of running the 440 working his way through various championships to be selected as a member of the Canadian team. In the semis at Vancouver he had the second fastest time of the 28 competitors,  48.3.   In the finals he finished third in 47.8, and would hit 46.4 as the anchor for the 2nd place Canadian team in the 4x440.   He would go on to compete for the University of Washington and make All American status including beating Otis Davis in the NCAA championships in 1959.  Davis would be Olympic champion and world recordman in 1960.

You'll also find stories of Mike Agostini and his psychological war with his Aussie counterparts,  the account of Landy cutting his foot on a photographer's flash bulb just before the mile and keeping it quiet.  He had four stitches put into the arch of his left foot the day before the race.  Being a gentleman, he didn't want to make excuses.

Another interesting story is that of Emmanuel Ifeajuna of Nigeria who won the high jump.  This was the first international gold medal for a citizen of a black African nation.  He would go on to co-lead a coup d'etat against the Nigerian government which precipitated the civil war with breakaway Biafra.  He was eventually executed by his own people , the Biafrans when he tried to make peace and is treated as a traitor to this day by the Nigerian government.  The winners write the history.

A slightly different  bit of history that rings contemporary today was the banishing of Canadian weight thrower Jackie Macdonald for having appeared in an ad for Orange Crush, one of the Games sponsors.  In reality  the expulsion was due to an ongoing dispute  between Macdonald's coach Lloyd Percival and the Canadian AAU and coaching establishment making  Macdonald the scapegoat.  It was noted that Bannister had appeared in a shoe store ad, the Pakistani team in a rug store ad, the New Zealand team in a grass seed ad, and that many Canadian athletes had been photographed wearing t-shirts with Orange Crush logos.  Macdonald was eventually vindicated, but long after the discus event she was supposed to throw in was over.

There is also an account of the photographer Charlie Warner of The Vancouver Sun who took the famous photo of Bannister overtaking Landy on the final turn.

Bill Baillie congratulating Bannister and Landy after the race

So without further compliments and leaving many, many more good stories to be found between its covers. I can highly recommend this book being added to your reading list.  All pictures except the Chataway-Kuts race have been purloined from the book in review.

George Brose

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