Track Stats - Colin Smith

Britain’s javelin maestro: almost 60 years of competition and coaching

The career of Colin Smith related by the Editor of Track Stats.   Published in “Track Stats” Dec 2011.

It must be a disconcerting experience to have yourself described in a bold headline in “Athletics Weekly” as the “Grand Old Man of British Javelin Throwing” when you are no more than 30 years of age, but Colin Smith was undeterred. He continued competing for the best part of another decade, and 35 years further on he is still very much involved in the event. The former British record-holder emigrated to Australia and at 75 continues to provide a coaching service, communicating with his charges via a witty e-mail address beginning “castaway”.

On 14 September 1957 Smith had achieved an historic victory in the West Germany-v-Great Britain match in Hanover with a British record throw of 75.16m. In the process he had beaten Herbert Koschel and Heinrich Will, 4th and 9th respectively in the previous year’s Olympic final. Though Britain had no proud legacy of success in the javelin, it wasn’t actually the first win in the event in an international match, as there had been five in succession against France between 1949 and 1953 and a Yorkshireman, Peter Cullen, who was the first Briton to throw more than 230ft and 70 metres, had beaten the Czechs at the White City in 1956, but Smith’s win was much the most significant result at this level. His own British record set a month before was surpassed by some eight feet and at the year’s end he ranked 25th in the World – dizzying heights compared with Cullen’s 66th place the previous year.

Even so, it was not the immediate breakthrough which transformed British standards. It was another five years before the record was improved (by John McSorley) and it was not until 1969 that a Briton threw over 80 metres for the first time (John FitzSimons), but Smith had an influence on both these significant progressions as McSorley and FitzSimons were members of a Sunday-morning training group at the Alperton headquarters of Smith’s club, Thames Valley Harriers, as was another British record-holder to be, David Travis. To all intents and purposes they formed a national javelin training squad from the mid-1960s onwards with Smith, already a qualified coach by the age of 25, providing vociferous advice and guidance.

The editor of the TVH magazine, “The Interval”, penned a graphic description of the group’s activities on the Alperton infield in 1965. “It is after midday that the most intense athletic activity takes place, when up to a dozen of Britain’s javelin elite can be observed warming up in their part of the arena”, wrote John Offley, himself a stalwart distance-runner for the club. “The run-up at Alperton has been pounded by many famous feet in the past, but never so much as the present day as a McSorley or a FitzSimons or a Travis sends the 800gm implement hurtling towards the pole-vault pit … among these giants, sometimes throwing but more often yelling out encouragement and advice, stands the 5ft 10in stocky figure of Colin George Smith, an AAA honorary senior coach and the most durable javelin-thrower this country has ever known. What Matti Järvinen was to Finland in the ‘30s, so Colin Smith has been to Britain in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s”.

Comparison with one of the greatest of all javelin exponents who came from a country which revered the event as an integral part of the national culture was praise indeed, and Offley might have been thought to be over-indulgent to such an eminent clubmate, but the remarks are not mere fevered imagination. McSorley hit a meaningful target in international terms when he threw exactly 260ft (79.25m) to win the 1962 AAA title, ranking 15th in the World, and the first British 80m-plus in 1969 by FitzSimons – actually 268-9 (81.92) as a student at the University of Southern California – for 18th in the World was almost exactly matched later in the year at 268-0 (81.69) for Travis in 2nd place to the incomparable Janis Lusis at the USA-USSR-Commonwealth triangular match in Los Angeles. Travis, abandoning his rugby-union ambitions – where he had already won English Schools’ honours – and benefiting hugely from Smith’s coaching, had an unprecedented four wins in international matches for Great Britain that year and was to famously beat Lusis with a British record in a European Cup semi-final in 1970.

Colin George Smith was born in Harlesden, North London, on 2 August 1935 and went to the local technical college at the age of 13, where he took up the shot, discus and javelin. He joined TVH in May 1951 at 15 and promptly came under the supervision of one of the most experienced of Britain’s hard-working band of honorary coaches. He was Bill Plumridge, who had been a member of the club for almost 30 years and a very capable all-round athlete who took up coaching in his role as the club captain during the 1930s. Young Smith joined a group which included Mike Denley, who had won the AAA junior javelin in 1949 and promptly followed that with the senior title the next year, and Malcolm Harradine, who would also win the AAA junior event later in 1951. Denley would go on to be AAA champion again in 1952 and 1953 and would set two British records in the first of those years. In this select company Smith was already beginning to believe that he, too, could represent Great Britain.

Plumridge’s approach to coaching was one of sound commonsense. Responding to an “Athletics Weekly” questionnaire in 1955 he said, “Basically any athlete must be strong, speedy and supple and have the right mental approach towards training and competition. A coach must ensure his charge builds up the basic physical requirements and encourage a purposeful attitude of mind. A coach must strive to fit the application of the technique of the event to suit the physical attributes of the athlete”. Smith fondly recalls of Plumridge, “He was a gentleman who I admired greatly. From him I learned that training was not just throwing. I had to develop all-round ability. Technically we learned together, but his philosophy of fitness, analysis, patience, concentration, focus became a guide for me to follow. I was too young to realise this at the time, but over the years I like to think that I followed much of his philosophy”.

A county youths’ title and then a visit to the English Schools’ Championships

Smith was obviously a precocious and amenable talent because he had already thrown the javelin between 170 and 180ft in training before making Plumridge’s acquaintance and almost immediately won the Middlesex youths’ title by 22ft with 141-3 (43.06) and was then 4th in the English Schools’ Championships 15-to-17 age group, which prompts the question, “Whatever happened to the first three – for the record G. Thompson (Cumberland), D.R. Gretton (Hampshire) and D. Hinton (Wiltshire) ? The next year Smith won the county title again at 172-3 (52.50) and was 2nd in the English Schools’ to another boy destined for obscurity, A. Lambert (Lancashire), but Smith’s advantage over his teenage rivals was that his physique was already better suited to the senior implement as he managed 174-9 (53.26) with that.

The value of that effort can be judged by the fact that only three Britons exceeded 200ft that year and only 12 others were over 180ft. Smith’s progress in 1953 was nothing short of astounding as he won the AAA junior title and achieved 209-6 (63.85) in senior competition, breaking Denley’s British junior best on three occasions. Still only 18 years of age, Smith was thus 4th ranked in Britain for the year behind only Dick Miller, Mike Denley and Kevin Flanagan (both Miller and Flanagan were from Northern Ireland, and Miller was to eventually achieve his best throw in 1963, aged 34), though oddly he was 2nd in the junior list for the 700gr implement to his clubmate, Mike Lanning, who would himself become AAA junior champion in 1954. Plumridge clearly believed in nursing his protegés carefully because Smith had only eight competitions that summer, and one of these came about in September when the autocratic but perceptive national team manager, Jack Crump, selected Smith, aged just 18, for his “Team of Internationals” against the “Old Boys’ Association” at East Molesey, and Smith responded to the invitation by easily beating Denley and another GB international, Dennis Tucker. It must have been an enjoyable afternoon for the spectators as among other winners who had answered Crump’s call were Brian Hewson in the 880, John Disley in the mile, George Coleman in the two miles walk, and John Savidge in the shot and discus.

However, Smith’s further progress was delayed when he suffered that occupational hazard of javelin throwers, an elbow injury, after winning the Middlesex senior title the next year, and so he temporarily revived his shot-putting instead and placed 3rd in the AAA Junior Championships. Back to the javelin in 1955 he was 4th in the AAA Championships and made a modest GB international debut, finishing last of four against Hungary, as otherwise it was Cullen and Tucker who appeared in the other four matches that season, between them collecting commendable 2nd places in each. Smith’s best throw of 212-6 (64.78) ranked 2nd only to Cullen for the year. That “javelin elbow” recurred in 1956, which put paid to any hopes Smith had of Olympic selection, and Cullen was the only British nominee for the Games, placing an inauspicious 20th of 21 in the qualifying round.

Fortunes quickly changed because then followed Smith’s glory year, and in truth it was the finest year in British javelin-throwing until the emergence of David Ottley, Fatima Whitbread and Tessa Sanderson in the 1980s and then of Steve Backley and Mick Hill. The British men’s record fell four times during 1957. Smith reckoned that he competed in 41 or 42 meetings during the year, sometimes three or four a week, though only 27 of them found their way into the columns of “Athletics Weekly”, as follows:

9 February, Alperton, Thames Valley Harriers Field Events Meeting. 187-6 (57.16) 2nd. Miller 195-3 (59.52) 1st.
23 March, Hurlingham, London AC Winter Meeting. 190-5 (58.04) 3rd. Miller 201-5 (61.40) 1st.
20 April, Essex v AAA. 198-8 ((60.56) 1st.
7 May, Cambridge, Cambridge University v AAA. 216-6 (65.98) 1st. Ground record.
11 May, Chiswick, Sward Trophy. 213-0 (64.92) 1st. Meeting record.
25 May, Middlesex Championships. 206-1 (62.82) 1st.
29 May, Motspur Park, London University v AAA. 210-1 ((64.04) 1st.
10 June, White City, Inter-Counties’ Championships. 221-0 (67.36) 2nd. Cullen 228-6 (69.64) 1st.
15 June, Chiswick, Kinnaird Trophy. 205-7 (62.66) 1st.
22 June, Hurlingham, Southern Championships. 208-9 ((63.64) 1st.
6 July, Margam, Welsh AAA v AAA. 226-9 (69.12) 1st. Illegal implement.
12 July, White City, AAA Championships. 207-3 (63.16) qualifying round.
13 July, White City, AAA Championships. 232-11 (71.00) 2nd. Cullen 236-7 (72.08) 1st, GB record.
27 July, Alperton, Club Championships. 218-11 (66.72) 1st. Ground record.
29 July, Dublin, Clonliffe H/Crusaders’ AC Meeting. 228-2 (69.54) 1st.
3 August, White City, GB v France. 238-3 (72.62), British Empire record. Macquet (France) 241- 7½ (73.65) 1st, Match record.
5 August, Inter-Club Match. 205-0 (62.48) 1st.
14 August, Motspur Park, City Charity Contest. 212-7 (64.80) 1st. Meeting record.
24 August, White City, GB v USSR. 238-0 (72.54) 3rd. Kuznyetsov (USSR) 271-11½ (82.89) 1st. British All-Comers’ record.
28 August, Croydon, L.R. Truelove’s England Team v J.C.G. Crump’s Commonwealth Team. 216-6 (66.00) 1st.
31 August, Barking, Joe Louis Trophy. 203-7 (62.06) 1st.
6 September, Waraw, Poland v GB. 71.70 3rd. Sidlo (Poland) 76.40 1st.
10 September, Lodz, International Meeting. 69.24 3rd. Sidlo (Poland) 1st 77.12.
14 September, Hanover, German Federal Republic v GB. 75.16 1st. British Empire record.
25 September, White City, England v Poland. 241-0 (73.48) 3rd. Sidlo (Poland) 1st 271-10 (82.85).
28 September, Glasgow, “Scottish Sunday Express” Meeting. 226-9 (69.12) 2nd. Sidlo (Poland) 249-0 (75.90) 1st.
2 October, Cologne, International Meeting. 72.44 (2). Koschel (Germany) 73.95 (1).

The domestic rivalry with Peter Cullen was intense. A member of Rotherham Harriers, Cullen was three years Smith’s senior, born 24 August 1932, and had set his first British record at 223-1 (66.99) in 1955. He improved marginally to 224-9½ (68.51) when he won against Czechoslovakia in 1956 and a week later had a throw of 233-6 (71.17) at the Kodak ground at Wealdstone, Middlesex, which may have benefited from a downhill slope and so did not receive official recognition. Another 70-metre man emerged, most unexpectedly, in November of that year when Clive Loveland, of London AC, reached 231-0 (70.41), which again was accepted by the statisticians but not by the ruling bodies. Both Cullen and Loveland were largely self-coached.

Starting his 1957 season in unseasonable February, Smith struggled to find his rhythm. “My timing was off and I began trying too hard to throw a long way”, he recalls more than 50 years on. “I was pretty frustrated and considered packing it in. I think the turning-point was a match for the AAA prior to which I felt I could do enough to win. I just relaxed and surprised myself by throwing 216ft. I relaxed at the Sward a few days later and that was pretty good – not quite as far but satisfactory. From then on I learned that trying too hard, using only an arm, didn’t get results”.

That AAA match was against Cambridge University in early May and Smith set a personal best in breaking the Fenner’s ground record and then had a fine contest with Cullen at the Inter-Counties’ meeting which “AW” rightly described as producing “the best throwing we have seen in this country at one meeting”. Smith became only the fourth Briton beyond 220ft after Miller, Cullen and Loveland, but Cullen was in even better form and set what was described as a British national and English native record, though both he and Loveland had thrown further the year before.

Cullen and Smith put on a spectacular exhibition at the White City

Even better was to come from Cullen and Smith at the AAA Championships. Dennis Cullum brought all his coaching expertise to bear in writing a detailed appraisal of each of the throwing events for “AW” and enthused of the javelin that it was “the finest and most spectacular exhibition of javelin throwing ever produced by British athletes”. This was the last of the throwing events to be decided on the Saturday afternoon and a large and appreciative crowd was spurred on by a highly informative commentary from Ken Brookman, himself a very capable thrower, a coach and the founder of the Javelin Club. Brookman also served as a coach at Oxford University and was to be warmly remembered in later years by the 1962 president of the university athletics club, Robin Macklin, as “the enthusiastic barking schoolmaster type”.

Cullen, Smith and Loveland were the main qualifiers from Friday afternoon, joined by Ray Davies (London University), Morrison Clayton (Plymouth Spartan AC) and Michael Ruda (South London Harriers). The qualifying mark had been set at 195ft, but several 200ft-plus throwers, including internationals Kevin Flanagan, Dennis Tucker and Dick Miller, either did not manage that or had not entered in the first place. Dennis Cullum described the progress of the final as follows:

“Proceedings opened with a bang. Loveland’s first throw was 222-2, only seven inches below the Championship best performance, and this set the tempo of the competition. Smith hit 217-3, Cullen 208-5, Davies 207-1 and Ruda recorded a personal best of 199-3. In the second round nobody improved except Smith, who pulled out a deceptively smooth 228-3 for a new Championship best performance. Loveland went back to 196-6 and Cullen to 182-9. In the third round Smith got the first of his three successive records with 229-2, but Cullen responded to the challenge with 221-4. There were now three home athletes over 220ft for the first time ever in one competition, but it now became a personal duel between Smith and Cullen. In the fourth round Smith went up again to 230-0, the first time this distance has ever been achieved by a British athlete, whilst Cullen took a breather with 207-3.

“The fifth round brought the real drama. Once more Smith improved, to 232-11, and it looked as though he would become the 1957 champion, but Cullen was not giving up his title without a fight. He retired to the extreme end of the runway across the track, tore down towards the scratch line at great speed, and unleashed the longest throw ever produced by a British javelin-thrower. A moment of silence, and then a roar from the crowd as the distance was given as 236-6 (later re-measured at 236-7). Smith’s last throw was a gallant 231-3 and Cullen for good measure replied with 227-3, and the contest was over!

“Peter Cullen retained his title, but Colin Smith deserves great credit for his consistently high standard – his six throws averaged 228-1½. A great day indeed for British javelin-throwing, with at last 200ft regarded only as a stepping-stone to World class”.

Cullen, incidentally, had been a fine long jumper and high jumper at Rotherham Grammar School, winning English Schools’ titles in these events in 1949 and 1950 respectively, and in the latter year in the Northern Championships junior javelin he and Maurice Morrell, of Wirral AC, a future AAA Champion at senior level, had unusually thrown exactly the same distance and Morrell had been awarded the title because of a better second effort. Cullen, whose javelin training at home took place in a farmer’s field because of the complete lack of any proper facilities in Rotherham, went to Loughborough and after graduation became a teacher of English and physical education back in Yorkshire.

Smith had suffered the galling experience of setting four personal bests and three British records and still finishing 2nd, but he only needed to wait three weeks after the AAA Championships and the record was his again. Against France at the White City he lost narrowly with a throw of 238-3 (72.62) to Michel Macquet, who had been 7th in the Melbourne Olympic final and in June had become one of only 10 men ever to have beaten 80 metres, with Cullen more than 10ft further behind, and a year later, even after beating the record again and then winning the Empire & Commonwealth title, Smith still regarded this as his most satisfying performance. It was the start of the most intensive spell of international competition which any British javelin-thrower had ever experienced.

The USSR were the visitors for an international match at the White City on the evening of Friday 23 August and the following afternoon, and their javelin men produced the outstanding performances of the two days. The first three throws by the Olympic bronze-medallist, Viktor Tsybulenko, were 251-6, 260-4 and 263-10 (a national record), but Vladimir Kuznyetsov did even better with 271-11½ (82.89) in the second round – at the year’s end Kuznyetsov and Tsybulenko would rank 2nd and 6th of all-time. Smith valiantly got within three inches of his British record.

Learning a lot against the best throwers in the World

Off on tour with the British team in September, Smith had another good throw against the Poles in Warsaw of 71.70, but Janusz Sidlo, the Olympic silver-medallist, won comfortably and Andrzej Walczak was 2nd at 72.72. After another loss to Sidlo in midweek, Smith had his day of days at the opening session of the West Germany-GB match, proving his competitive mettle by launching his fourth throw out to 75.16 (converting to 246-7) after Heiner Will had led the competition easily at 73.20. Smith’s last throw of 73.65 (241-7½) was also well in excess of anything he had achieved before and he almost matched that with 241-0 against Sidlo yet again in an England-Poland fixture back at the White City 11 days later. Even so, Sidlo was more than 30ft ahead and Jan Kopyto, who within a fortnight would become the 5th best thrower of all-time, was 2nd at 254-8.

Smith had learned a lot in those few months: “After my exposure to Tsybulenko, Kuznyetsov, Sidlo, Macquet and others I was no longer awed by them. I had led Macquet in our first encounter and I realised that performances could go up or down by several metres. If I could go up, then he could come down. We don’t all throw personal bests all the time. I was there to compete. So compete I did. Sidlo, who spoke good English, was very approachable and he was the man who inspired me the most. I’d first seen him win in 1954 at the European Championships in Berne where I went as a spectator with a group from TVH. To actually compete against him a few years later was an awesome experience in retrospect. Competitors of that era for differing reasons from Sidlo to Danielsen, Lievore and the emergence of Lusis were worthy of respect”.

The next year Smith’s throws were not as good – and for perhaps an odd reason, as unlike so many other athletes he did not seem to benefit from the sporting opportunities offered during national service in the RAF and lost a stone in weight, most of which was muscle. Yet he won his first AAA title ahead of Cullen and then, more importantly, took the Empire & Commonwealth gold in Cardiff. The opposition there was not of the very highest class as none of the throwers would rank in the top 70 in the World at the year’s end, but historically it was a victory very well worth noting as no male javelin-thrower from any of the home countries had ever previously won a medal at these Games, let alone the title. Smith’s first throw of 233-10½ (71.29) led for the rest of the event, though Jalal Khan, of Pakistan, came close in round five and Hans Moks, an Estonian emigrant to Canada, was also over 230ft in 3rd place, as all of the medallists easily beat the previous Games record. By contrast with his Empire & Commonwealth gold and silver, Smith did not qualify for the final at the European Championships of both 1958 and 1962.

Fond memories of the Cardiff experience remain vivid in Smith’s mind to this day: “There was a friendly atmosphere at the team headquarters at St Athan, and familiar barrack accommodation – remember, I was in the RAF, stationed at Stafford at the time. This was home from home, but I was Colin Smith, English athlete, not LAC Smith C. I had a smart English team uniform from Simpson’s of Piccadilly !” Then the time came to get down to business.

“The javelin was the first day” he recalls. “It was warm, sunny, exciting; Cardiff Arms Park had a packed crowd. There was a good grass run-up. I knew the competition was going to be tough. I wasn’t up to my 1957 form, but I’d managed to win the AAA Championships against several of the Games competitors. So I was hopeful. There were 15 competitors and I was the last thrower. My pre-comp warm-up and preparation was focussed on just what I had to do in my opening throw. Nobody put up a challenge in the first round and so my 233-10½ was the target for everyone to try to better. The throw felt so smooth and when it landed a white distance-tape across the arena flickered up and I thought it was the 250ft tape ! Still, it was good enough to win. The victory ceremony was fantastic – ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ for me ! I was tearful and crazily happy, and a dozen of the throwers celebrated at the St Athan pub that evening”.

Many more years of throwing to come, and now an interest in coaching

Smith would go on throwing at this sort of level for the next seven years, with the occasional notable exception, and he readily admitted that he was basically a 230ft thrower – “only a few go over that mark”, he was to remark philosophically. Already in 1958, and still aged only 23, he had set up a small training group which was to play an ever increasing part in his activities, enthusiastically supported by his wife, Brenda, who was the daughter of a leading official, Phil Gale, and who he had married in 1959 after completing his RAF service. They then set up home in North Wembley, conveniently near to the Alperton track.

Still competing regularly, Smith had his first 240ft-plus performance for four years in 1961 during a low-key inter-club match at Chiswick, throwing in a loose-fitting casual day-time shirt because he was suffering from sunburn, and the next year, motivated by the prospect of defending his Empire & Commonwealth title, he set his peak for late in the year to coincide with the meeting in Perth, Western Australia, beginning at the end of November. He risked missing selection when he was only 4th in the AAA Championships, where the dramatic winner was 20-year-old John McSorley with that British record of 260-0 (79.24), and Smith only gained his team place for the Games as a late addition. McSorley was also a member of TVH but had no regular coach at the time, taking advice from Ken Brookman and an ebullient Polish expatriate known to all as Captain Mack.

Incidentally, both Brookman and Mack also deserve their share of recognition as architects of British javelin progress in the 1960s. Brookman contributed a very detailed and informative description of the technicalities of javelin-throwing to a 1963 training manual inspired by Roland Harper, the former international hurdler and doyen of the AAA coaching committee, while I well remember Captain Mack regularly appearing on Sunday mornings at the Woodside track, in Watford, to supervise the javelin training of John Greasley. Mack was one of numerous refugees from Eastern Europe who played a significant part in British throwing events in postwar years, and among his more bizarre adventures during his time as Oxford University coach from the late 1960s through to 1989 was to organise winter training visits by car to his snow-bound native Warsaw for a group of his throwers, including Greasley.

The leading thrower in the Perth entry-list was Australia’s Nick Birks, who was the nephew of the 1948 Olympic long-jump silver-medallist, Theo Bruce, and whose Empire & Commonwealth record of 265-9½ (81.01) the previous February would finish the year 5th best in the World, but Smith demoralised Birks with a tremendous opening throw – the very first of the competition – which sailed out to his best ever distance of 255-8½ (77.94), and Smith happily remembered, “I thumped hell out of it !” As it happens, Smith had to settle for the silver medal as another Australian, Alf Mitchell, also excelled himself with 256-3 (78.11) in round four to win, while McSorley was completely out of sorts, barely over 190ft in 9th place. McSorley ranked 15th in the World for 1962, Mitchell 22nd and Smith 25th. Of the others in the top 25, there were four each from Germany and the USSR (including Lusis 1st, Kuznyetsov 2nd, Tsybulenko 9th); three each from Hungary, Poland (including Sidlo 6th) and the USA; and one each from Finland, France (Macquet 18th), Italy and Norway.

A personal triumph in 2nd place at the Commonwealth Games

Smith was entirely happy with his performance and remembers almost half-a-century later, “My hardest task was being selected. I’d studied the graphs of my competition performances for the previous few years where my peak came in the September/October period. I wanted to peak for late November in Perth and I’d therefore changed my training emphasis by nearly two months. Fortunately there was a late-season meeting at Brighton, and although the run-up was not great I managed 247ft, and was added to the team. When I discovered that I was the first to throw in Perth, I was pleased as this was just what I wanted. I knew I was in good form and I believed that my peaking was right. This is what I had dreamed of. I wasn’t expected to win as both Birks and Mitchell had superior throws, as had McSorley, but I had first throw and it would be good, and they could chase me. It was nearly enough to win in the end, but with an international PB it was a victory to me !”

A third AAA title win for Smith in 1963 was very welcome, but family commitments, coaching duties and a career move were taking natural precedence. Smith and his wife were by now the parents of two daughters and a son, and he completed a teachers’ training course in 1964, with all the studying which that had entailed. The same year an 18-year-old named David Travis, from Surrey Athletic Club, who had placed 2nd in the previous year’s AAA Junior Championships, moved to the Alperton training squad. Within a year Travis had been joined by John FitzSimons, John McSorley, John Kitching and others, and the only two among the country’s seven leading throwers not under Smith’s care were John Greasley, of Watford Harriers, who was 2nd-claim to TVH and also coached by Captain Mack, and the self-coached Clive Loveland.

Still throwing in the high 230s, Smith could lead by example, and his varied schedules included hill running, hurdling and a great deal of exercising for suppleness. His expressed his training philosophy thus: “Enjoyment of training is more important than the actual work. If you don’t enjoy your work, you’re wasting your time. An athlete can get results and perform superbly well for one or two years without full enjoyment, but is he’s going to get the maximum out of athletics he’s got to be able to go on for a long time”.

John Offley’s perceptive article for the TVH magazine concluded with the observation that “it will be most surprising if the British javelin record is not pushed up to a more respectable level in the near future, and no doubt the man behind it will be the ‘old maestro’ himself, Colin Smith”. By 1970 David Travis, with Smith’s astute guidance, had taken the record to 83.44. The difference between the British record and the World record in 1955, when Smith started to come to prominence, had been 13.76 metres. In 1970 it was 9.26. That might not seem dramatic progress, but in an era in which state aid for Eastern European athletes was the major impulse in the Worldwide improvement in athletics standards, and particularly those in the technical events, this British advance was one of which the “old maestro” could be justifiably proud.

In 1972, when Smith and his family emigrated to Australia, his training group at West London Stadium (later to be renamed the Linford Christie Stadium) included Travis and three others in the country’s top 15 – Brian Roberts, Ron Silvester and Mladen Gavrilovic – and the national rankings spanned 20 years of British javelin-throwing history as in 22nd place was a youth named David Ottley, who had thrown 66.34 on his 17th birthday and would be Olympic silver-medallist in 1984, and back in 90th place was Dick Miller, now aged 43 and in 1952 the last male Briton before Ottley and his team-mate, Roald Bradstock, to reach an Olympic javelin final. The AAA Championships results of 1971 and 1972 were further testament to Smith’s coaching expertise: 1971 – 1 Travis, 2 Gavrilovic, 3 McSorley; 1972 – 1 Travis, 2 Roberts, 3 McSorley.

“I was sorry to leave my group of athletes”, Smith says, “but I felt they were a self-motivating group. They were successful, educated, intelligent, and I felt close to them. Margaret Whitbread took over as national event coach and Jan Kopyto was building up a good conditioning school of throwers (Kopyto had been 5th for Poland in the 1956 Olympics javelin), and I had to think of my family. The youngest, Kerry, had just been born”.

Re-creating in the wide open spaces of Australia that intimate atmosphere of those Sunday-morning gatherings at Alperton and West London of so many fine throwers was a difficult task, as Smith explains: “Things were frustrating at the time. There was not any support for athletics in Australia – Australia had no national team, as in the UK, but some brilliant individuals. By 1975 we had established a coaches’ association which flourished under Rothman’s sponsorship until Government legislation was passed preventing sponsorships by the tobacco industry. No succeeding sponsor was found. I’d been a respected coach in the UK, but my successes and abilities were not known or recognised, and so I concentrated on building a squad from scratch at grassroots level with moderate success in North-West Sydney. Later, on retirement to country New South Wales, I coach everything and with my wife and my daughter have produced some high-standard youngsters who can mix it with the Sydney athletes, and I find this very satisfying”. The downside is that one of Smith’s athletes, Benjamin Baker, the 3rd-ranked Australian javelin-thrower in 2010 at 75.77, who is raising a family and developing a goat-herd for a living, cannot attract funding and can therefore compete only five or six times a year.

Colin Smith’s highly detailed list of answers to the questions sent by me to him at his home in Australia finished on a splendidly spirited biographical note. Looking back through his life, he wrote: “I was the product of half-time primary schooling, a period as an evacuee in Lancashire, an 11-plus failure, a 13-plus selection to Willesden Technical College, where I took two 0-levels, physics and metalwork. I became indentured to Hoover’s for five years as a toolmaker, 1952 to 1957. I lost my mother in 1955, just after my first international. National Service followed, 1957 to 1959, most of the time stationed at Stafford, where I undertook O-levels in English and maths. I married a week after ‘demob’ and gained a place at Shoreditch Training College and was a residential student from 1961 to 1964. I didn’t receive a grant because my wife had a wage of approximately £15 a week. I taught in Willesden for eight years before emigrating”.

He then concluded his responses on a sobering note: “I’ve had some very rewarding moments and I’m so lucky to have a passion. I’m proud that at the start of my international career there were few of us in the men’s team who weren’t university students. I’m also proud that the subject of performance-enhancing products has never entered my life or the lives of any of my athletes while I was coaching them. I’m left wondering, though, at how naïve I was in the late ‘50s”.

Living with his family on a 40-acre property in a house which he built himself on Oxley Island, 350 kilometres north of Sydney, Smith has over the years managed to meet up with all the leading British throwers – Ottley, Backley, Hill, Fatima Whitbread, Tessa Sanderson – and corresponded regularly with that most erudite of coaches, Wilf Paish, and entertained him several times at home until Paish’s death last year. “If you are a dreamer and if you have vision, hope springs eternal”, Colin Smith believes, and the Smith Dynasty may yet last many more years to come. The Australian under-18 decathlon champion, Lyndsay Newton-Smith, is his eldest grandson.

Colin Smith’s 22 years of javelin throwing

His best performances each year and GB ranking. The names to the right against each year are those of the leading British thrower and his World ranking.

1952: 174-9 (53.26), c. 30th. Miller 32nd.
1953: 209-6 (63.85), 4th. Miller 30th.
1954: 190-6 (58.07), 15th (injured). Miller 53rd
1955: 212-6 (64.78). 4th. Cullen 75th.
1956: 207-0 (63.10), 5th (injured). Cullen 66th.
1957: 246-7 (75.16), 1st. Smith 25th.
1958: 234-4 (71.43), 1st. Smith 82nd.
1959: 236-3 (72.02), 1st. Smith 87th.
1960: 234-6½ (71.49), 5th. Kitching 67th.
1961: 241-10 (73.71), 1st. Smith 76th.
1962: 255-8½ (77.94), 2nd. McSorley 15th.
1963: 237-9 (72.46), 3rd. Greasley 20th.
1964: 239-8 (73.06), 2nd. FitzSimons 72nd.
1965: 237-2½ (72.31), 4th. FitzSimons 45th.
1966: 225-8 (68.79), 8th. FitzSimons 27th.
1967: 234-4 (71.43), 7th. Travis 32nd.
1968: Not competing. Travis 36th.
1969: 60.32, 56th. FitzSimons 18th.
1970: 62.16, 43rd. Travis 18th.
1971: Not competing. Travis 28th.
1972: 60.60, 64th. Travis 33rd.
1973: 62.42, 42nd. Travis 36th.

British All-Time Top 20, Javelin – end of 1969

81.92   268-9   John FitzSimons (Polytechnic H)   (1)   Long Beach, Cal.   23. 3.69
81.68   268-0   David Travis (Surrey AC)   (2)   Los Angeles   19. 7.69
79.24   260-0   John McSorley (Thames Valley H)   (1)   White City   14. 7.62
79.24   260-0   John Greasley (Polytechnic H)   (1)   White City   14. 9.63
77.94   255-8½   Colin Smith (Thames Valley H)   (2)   Perth, W. Aus.   24.11.62
75.48   247-7   Nigel Sherlock (Walton AC)   (2)   Brno   5. 7.69
74.76   245-3   Dick Perkins (Notts AC)   (1)   White City   27. 5.67
74.56   244-3   John Kitching (Achilles C)   (1)   Palo Alto, Cal.   11. 6.60
74.52   244-6   Barry Sanderson (Blackburn H)   (1)   Blackburn   1. 6.66
74.32   243-11   Roger Lane (Oxford University)   (10th)   (2)   White City   16. 7.60
74.30   243-9   Dick Miller (London AC)   (1)   Chiswick   27. 7.63
73.82   242-2   Neville Hart-Ives (Windsor S & E AC)   (3)   Crystal Palace   12. 7.69
72.78   238-9   Tony Edwards (Medway AC)   (1)   Glasgow   15. 6.68
72.54   238-0   Clive Loveland (London AC)   (1)   White City   13. 8.60
72.30   237-2   Vic Mitchell (London AC)   (1)   Grangemouth   10. 6.67
72.22   236-11   Geoff Hill (Birchfield H)   (1)   Welwyn Gdn City   24. 9.60
72.12   236-7   Peter Cullen (Rotherham H & AC)   (1)   White City   13. 7.57
70.20   230-4   Ken Holmes (Hereford & C AC)   (1)   Smethwick   25. 6.66
70.16   230-2   Roger Bartlett (Polytechnic H)   (3)   Chiswick   14. 6.69
70.06   229-10   Michael Turner (Blackheath H)   (1)   Motspur Park   15. 5.68

Note: Sherlock also Borough Road College, Hart-Ives also Army, Edwards also Loughborough University, Hill also Loughborough University, Turner also London University.

Rankings based on those published in “A Statistical History of UK Track & Field Athletics”, edited by Andrew Huxtable, published by the NUTS in 1990.