My Olympic memories - Simpson’s Soapbox

Handout photo issued by LOCOG of Oliver Golding holding the Olympic Flame in between the Olympic rings logo at Kew Gardens, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday July 24, 2012. See PA story OLYMPICS Torch. Photo credit should read: Joe Giddens/LOCOG/PA Wire''The Torchbearer's name is provided in good faith, however the Press Association has been unable to verify it independently.
Handout photo issued by LOCOG of Oliver Golding holding the Olympic Flame in between the Olympic rings logo at Kew Gardens, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Tuesday July 24, 2012. See PA story OLYMPICS Torch. Photo credit should read: Joe Giddens/LOCOG/PA Wire''The Torchbearer's name is provided in good faith, however the Press Association has been unable to verify it independently.
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LET the Games begin!

That’s the cry that will resonate round the country tomorrow when the opening ceremony for the London Olympic takes place.

The whole expensive, exciting extravaganza will have actually started by then, with soccer kicking off 48 hours earlier.

There is loads to look forward to, though before that, it’s a time to reminisce and ponder past Games.

Personal recollections are entrenched firmly in the 1960s.

The Rome Games are the first I remember on TV and it’s funny how certain things stick in the memory.

Two events stick out for some reason – I can remember feeling disappointed that Peter Radford only won bronze in the 
100 metres, while the other clear recollection centres on Don Thompson, who won gold in the 50 km walk.

Some weeks beforehand, Thompson came over as something of a figure of fun – to these then youthful eyes – when that old BBC programme Sportsview showed his oddball and, as it turned out, extremely hazardous mode of training.

Because of worries about the oppressive heat he would encounter in Rome, Thompson used to train at home by exercising in a bathroom filled with steam and the heating turned full on, while decked out in a thick tracksuit.

It prompted as much mirth, though actually it wasn’t entirely funny – and could have been fatal.

After a particular strenuous session, Thompson would often feel faint, until the realisation that he was breathing in potentially lethal carbon monoxide fumes!

Watching walkers is always a bit of a giggle with the way they jiggle and wiggle, but Thompson had the last laugh as he took gold, winning the hearts of the local Italians, who gave him the nickname 
Il Topolono or Little Mouse.

For that Olympiad in Rome none of the action was live, the film of the events being brought back by plane from Italy for transmission shortly after in Britain.

For this year’s Games, by a variety of inter-active services and platforms, every single sport will be screened live across the BBC.

The only other British gold in 1960 was the swimmer Anita Lonsbrough – such a paucity of medals that would have brought a parliamentary and national outcry if it was too happen now.

But then the athletes those days were amateurs in the truest sense of the word, and there was no such thing as Lottery funding, though Thompson’s method of training was a lottery in a very different way.

My all-time favourite Games was in Tokyo in 1964, mainly because there was live action.

It also saw the introduction, albeit merely for the duration of The Games, of breakfast television for the first time in this country.

The BBC had a show called ‘Good Morning Tokyo’ fronted, I think, variously by Frank Bough and Cliff Michelmore.

The catchy theme tune has everyone whistling it.

I had never seen a 10,000 metres race before and I was astonished by what I saw.

There looked to be chaos on the track with lapped runners aplenty cluttering up the track, and BBC commentator David Coleman was at his excitable best.

It was hard to see just who was in contention and who were so far behind that they had been overtaken – I had no idea that this ever happened in a track race.

There was a shock outcome, and the race was won by an apparently unknown American called Billy Mills, who was of Native Indian stock.

They made a film about him nearly two decades later called Running Brave – though I am anything but a track and field fanatic, it remains perhaps the most exciting race I have ever seen and it is recommended to reprise it on YouTube. Commentator Coleman was every bit as big a star as the British competitors and his enthusiasm was to reach new levels, if that was possible, as he described Ann Packer’s late surge to win the 800 metres, his voice audibly cracking as she came from behind with a late surge to take gold.

Amazingly, Packer retired from athletics at the age of 22,

Nowadays, there would be no end of commercial opportunities to cash in on her talent, but she preferred to settle down and have a family with another of that year’s Olympic competitors, Robbie Brightwell.

She had a rival to be Britain’s golden girl of Tokyo 1964 in Mary Rand, a west country girl with an American husband, who won the long jump and become, like Packer, a national heroine.

The marathon was won by the Ethiopian Abele Bakila, who decimated the field and then stunned the watching TV audience by doing stretching exercises afterwards, just to prove he still had excess energy to burn – Briton Basil Heatley was barely within hailing distance in the silver medal position.

Lynn Davies made it a double for Britain in the long jump, the handsome young Welshman, coached by Ron Pickering, earning the nickname Lynn The Leap.

Long jumpers spend much of their time in mid-air, while another gold medallist at those Games had to make sure one or other of his feet kept in contact with the ground at all times, otherwise he risked disqualification.

The walker in question was Ken Matthews, who followed the trail blazed by Thompson, as he captured gold in the 
20 km walk.

The Yank Don Schollander won four gold medals in the pool and was regarded as the ultimate Olympic swimming phenomenon until the likes of Spitz and Thorpe came along.

In those days, the BBC and ITV went head to head covering the Olympics, but as was usual when it came to sport, the Corporation blew their rivals out of the water.

Few people tuned into ITV or can remember their commentators back then – I just can call to mind watching their final show of those Tokyo Games when the various presenters started a sort of hat dance in the studio in honour of the next Olympics in 1968 in the rarefied atmosphere and heat of Mexico.

There were fears in Mexico that competitors risked death in endurance events, though the only fatalities were students who were gunned down and killed for protesting against the regime – it did not make the headlines that it would do now in these days of wall-to-wall, rolling news.

Of course, the most famous feat of that Olympiad was Bob Beaman sailing beyond a staggering 29 feet, demoralising the opposition and stunning the world beyond athletics with a record that stood for more than two decades.

“He’s nearly jumped out of the pit,” exclaimed an incredulous BBC commentator Ron Pickering.

There was the infamous black power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos, while a certain high jumper Dick Fosbury perfected the flop technique of getting over the bar.

There were six British golds, the most inspirational being by David Hemery in a world-record breaking run in the
400m hurdles.

Chris Finnegan won the middleweight gold in the boxing, earning the admiration of a nation – and a professional contract.

Derek Allhusen, Jane Bullen, Ben Jones, and Richard Meade combined to win the three-day event, while Scorton’s own Bob Braithwaite won a clay pigeon gold, while in the water Rodney Pattisson and Iain MacDonald-Smith won sailing golds.

It was the black power gesture on the podium in 1968, whether you agreed with the reasoning or not, that marked a sea change – and from that point on sport, Olympic sport, somehow lost its innocence.