Dorothy Hyman helped Britain to bronze in the women's 4x100m relay
Credit: HULTON ARCHIVE
When the Olympic flame last burnt proudly in Tokyo in 1964, the relationship between money, athletes and the greatest sporting show on Earth could hardly have felt more different.
Dorothy Hyman – the Dina Asher-Smith of her day – was permanently excluded from competitive sprinting the year after the Games in Japan for receiving £150 for writing an autobiography, Sprint to Fame.
Mary Peters, who finished fourth in the Tokyo pentathlon before winning gold eight years later, was forced to leave her teaching job and work as a secretary at a health club because the area director of education did not like her taking Friday afternoons off to travel to international competitions.
And Ann Packer, the gold medallist at 800m, would immediately retire from athletics after her Tokyo triumph, at the age of just 22, when her competitive career was ended by her taking part in an advertisement for Heinz baked beans.
At a moment when the Olympics ploughs on through the Covid-19 pandemic, to protect broadcast and sponsorship income well into the billions, some of the stories of Tokyo ’64 feel like they are from a different planet, let alone generation.
Members of the British team for the Tokyo Games
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Take the treatment of the 45-strong team of British women. They were housed together under a 10pm curfew in a barbed-wire complex in shared rooms of four. The men’s team, almost four times the size, were granted complete freedom and stayed in bungalows that had housed American soldiers after the Second World War.
“There was no five-star hotel and en suite, but everything seemed so exciting – just getting the uniform was magical,” says Peters, now 82. “It was a time when very few people had been to the East because it was so close to the war years. The traffic in Tokyo was amazing compared to anything we had ever seen.”
Peters shared a room with Packer, whose future husband, Robbie Brightwell, was competing in the 400m. The 800m was only introduced for women in 1964 due to concerns over whether an event, which would take Packer only 2 min 1 sec, was too long for women. “They thought it was unfeminine for women to run so far,” Packer says.
Another British athletics couple from 1964, who later married, were Alix Jamieson and Dave Stevenson, respectively a long jumper and a pole vaulter. The pole vault, laughs Stevenson, was an especially handy tool for evading the barbed wire behind which his girlfriend and the rest of the British team were staying. “It was to keep them in, not keep us out – we were viewed as responsible,” he says, grinning.
Stevenson found himself sharing a bungalow with a South African athlete, a Trinidadian sprinter and British hurdler Laurie Taitt, who was born in Guyana and had been a bronze medallist at the Commonwealth Games (then the Empire Games) two years earlier.
Of Taitt, Stevenson says that his “address was the registration of his car – he didn’t have a house” and yet he was still the British record holder in the hurdles. “He was some boy,” Stevenson says.
There was no landing mat for the pole vaulters and so, from a height of more than 15 feet, Stevenson had perfected a method of landing in the sand without breaking an ankle. “You would land and roll – a bit like a parachute landing,” he explains.
Facilities were so scarce that athletes such as Jamieson, Stevenson and Peters had created their own makeshift sandpits in which to train. “My father gave me a tonne of sand for my 16th birthday,” Peters says.
The leading British sprinter of the 1960s was Menzies Campbell, the future leader of the Liberal Democrats and now a life peer.
Campbell competed for Great Britain in the 200 metres and 4×100 metres relay at the 1964 Olympic Games
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Campbell had just turned 23 in 1964 and, between reading law, working as an apprentice solicitor in Glasgow and being president of the student union, was also an exceptional runner. “I was invited that year to the AAAs in White City [the forerunner to the British Championships] and, to my surprise, I won it,” he says. “I regard going to the Olympics as one of the most extraordinary things that happened in my life. Our 4 x 100m relay team reached the final and broke the British record. For 39.6 seconds I was one of the 32 fastest men in the world, but we drew the inside lane which, on a cinder surface, wasn’t great as they had just run the 5,000m.”
Campbell would later win a scholarship to Stanford University in California and twice broke the British 100m record, peaking in 1967 at 10.2 sec when he even beat OJ Simpson in a race. The British team, says Campbell, had travelled over 24 hours to Tokyo in the “oldest Comet 4B in service”, taking in six stops for refuelling, including Rome, Cairo, Tehran, Delhi and Hong Kong.
The cyclists were grateful to have travelled with their bikes to Tokyo, even though Hachioji, where their races were staged, was 20 miles outside the capital. “We would chuckle while the swimmers and athletes were stood in a queue waiting to catch a bus – you had your road bike as well as your track bike and got around that way,” cyclist Harry Jackson remembered.
The cycling team especially enjoyed their trips to the local swimming baths. “You went in individually with a young Japanese lady who would wash you – and then they would massage your spine by walking up and down on your back with their heels,” Jackson said.
Campbell describes an era in which they “were the last of the amateurs, but the first of the professionals” in at least trying to gain every training and nutritional advantage between working or studying. “We didn’t get paid anything, but we trained as best we could up against the highly subsidised college system in the United States, and the Soviet Union and East German teams,” he said.
“The night before a big race, my mother would give me a steak. In the morning, she would take three or four eggs, warm milk, whip it up and put in some nutmeg and a little thimble of brandy.
“It was a very significant event politically – the first time Japan had been welcomed back into the international accompaniment of nations. In the corner where we stayed there was a little shrine to a major and 11 of his men who, rather than surrender, had taken their own lives.”
In October 2019, there was an emotional reunion between those athletes who represented Great Britain in Tokyo in 1964, organised by the British Olympic Association and hosted by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
“It was just wonderful to see so many old friends,” Peters says. “I have had such a wonderful life through sport. You don’t have to be a champion to have succeeded – you just have to have enjoyed the journey. We made great friendships because we shared the joy and sorrow of success and failure.”