Track Stats - Jack Parker

In Britain it was just a hobby, but for the Russians he was a “Master of Sport”

David Thurlow interviews British hurdler Jack Parker.   Published in “Track Stats” April 2011.

A funny thing happened to hurdler Jack Parker when he arrived in Bern for the 1954 European Championships. He had a room to himself, for the first time in his six-year international career. Usually he roomed with his fellow hurdler, Peter Hildreth, while they raced as the British pair in 15 head-on matches between 1951 and 1956. Secondly, outside the window of his room and home for three nights was a track. And thirdly, there were hurdles on the track.

Jack said, “I arrived three days early and had two clear days before my first heat in the 110 metres hurdles. On each day I trained over hurdles twice a day and relaxed the rest of the time in splendid isolation, never going out. I squeaked by in my heat, coming 2nd in 14.7. I went and had a run over the hurdles before the semi-final and did 14.8, coming 3rd. There was another day before the final and again I polished my hurdling. In then final I got a good start and was ahead by the sixth hurdle. Then the Russian went by and I finished 2nd.

“It is an example of how important it is to have a facility like that. At the Helsinki and Melbourne Olympics I cannot remember going over a hurdle before my races. There was no practice track at either place and I never had such luxury again. Having one shows the difference between going out and keeping an eye on it. It’s like tennis – keeping your eye in. For a distance runner it does not make any difference, but for a hurdler it does. That was my experience”.

The European final that year was one of the three races during his career that Parker felt pleased about. “They were”, he reminisced in his country home on the Hampshire-Wiltshire border, “the only three races when I have finished content. I thought I could not have done better”. The other two were his win against the Russians in Moscow in 1955 – his best year when he was unbeaten in Europe – in 14.4, for which he was named “Man of the Match” and honoured by the hosts with the award of “Russian Master of Sport, 2nd class”, and his British National record equalling and English Native record of 14.3 for the 120 yards hurdles at the White City the same year.

He is silver-haired now but still erect and fit. He plays tennis in Cheam, Surrey, where his home is. He worked all his life as a civil engineer but became a civil servant at the end of his career when he was an Under Secretary, being Chief Highways Engineer in the Ministry of Transport until he retired aged 64. He is now 83 with three grandchildren, one of whom is a promising sprinter. He ran in the 1952 and 1956 Olympics and also the 1954 Empire Games in Vancouver. He would have been at Iffley road on 6 May that year when Bannister did his sub-four minute mile, but as he explained when invited to compete for the AAA against Oxford University he did not do Thursdays.

He only once broke his rule by taking an afternoon off to go to Fenners at Cambridge for an early evening race against Hildreth over 220 yards hurdles. The wrong-way- round three-laps-to-the-mile track and the early bend suited Parker perfectly and he won by 0.2 sec, equalling the British record in 24.0 just a few days after the pair of them had dead-heated at the Sward Trophy meting over 120 yards hurdles.

For Parker, 6ft 2in (1.88m) and 98kg (15st 6lb) when racing, and born 6 September 1927, was a Saturday-only race man, a man for whom athletics was a hobby fitted in around his work. Internationals abroad meant using part of his holidays or leaving the office where he was a civil engineer slightly early on Friday afternoon and being back at his desk first thing Monday morning. In fact, due to work his hurdling career could have ended a year early after his brilliant 1955 season. He was just married and his firm sent him out to Malawi for five months throughout the winter when he did barely any training at all. In the same way that Jerry Cornes came back to England after nearly two years working in Africa in 1936 without any running and still finished 6th behind Lovelock in the 1936 Olympic 1500 metres, so Parker returned in May of 1956.

And then he was asked to go and work in Hong Kong for three years, with the Olympics in Melbourne just six weeks away. His wife, Shirley, was pregnant with their first child – now a headmistress of a large London school – and he had been picked with Hildreth to go to Australia. He negotiated with the firm and they allowed him to go to Melbourne – as a stage to Hong Kong. His final race was his heat when he finished 4th in 14.8. “Even at my best I would not have done better than 4th in the final, but to be honest my mind was really on Hong Kong”, he recalls.

Taking on the challenge of the Americans, but could they be beaten?

When he first began to show promise as a hurdler in 1950/51 Parker saw no reason why he should not beat the Americans. When he watched Harrison Dillard win at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics he knew he would never beat him, but he had hopes of beating the others until he eventually realised that they – and one or two more – were just that much faster than he and that he would never breach the gap. He was 6th in his semi-final in Helsinki behind Jack Davis, the silver-medallist for the USA whom Donald Finlay once beat. He did, however, become the UK no. 1, winning three AAA Championships, and formed a partnership with his friend, Hildreth (see “Track Stats” Vol. 48 No.4), that was extremely difficult to defeat.

Parker was also the only Briton to beat the incomparable Donald Finlay after World War II, in the pouring rain in Glasgow when Finlay hit a hurdle and they finished 3rd and 4th behind – inevitably – an American, Bill Fleming. Parker and Hildreth first ran together against France in 1951 and stayed as the automatic British selection until 1956 in Budapest. They finished with Parker leading 10 to 5 in their international matches together, with many of their races finishing inches apart, a common occurrence during the dozens of times they ran against each other. The photo of them side by side in the Southern championships in 1950 showed just how keenly they competed against each other and the rest, like Ray Barkway, who actually won this race with a foot covering all three. Barkway sadly died in a service flying accident in 1956.

Parker had one big advantage as a hurdler and one disadvantage. He had a natural stride pattern with which he never had any trouble, but he was also stiff round the hips. “It was incredible that I could do the times I did because I was so stiff. And I was not particularly fast”, he explains. He won Surrey county titles at the sprints but never broke 10.0 for 100 yards and had a best of 22.8 for 220 yards.

He started sprinting at school – his father, Fred, was a good sprinter in his day and impressed his young son by winning a veterans’ race on holiday, finishing with a bigger winning margin than the handicap start he had been allowed – and took up hurdling as a sideline event when at Liverpool University. He won the University title with 18sec, plus a 25.2 220 hurdles win, in 1948. Team-mates and rivals in the Christie Sports (Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds Universities) included Olympians Harry Whittle, Joe Birrell and Alan Parker.

The next year his hurdling improved enough to win the Surrey title in 16.2, and by the end of the season – when he had met and lost to Finlay, then supreme at the age of 39, and Hildreth – he had taken another second off his time. That attracted the attention of the AAA and he joined others, including future Olympians such as Mark Pharaoh (4th in the discus at the 1956 Olympics), Shirley Cawley and Roy Cruttenden, for coaching under John Le Masurier. In 1950 he got down to 15.0 when losing by inches to Hildreth, the heir apparent as Finlay was retiring at the end of the year, and was 4th in his first AAA final.

Getting closer to Hildreth with each race

The next year he won four international vests and beat Hildreth for the first time when winning the AAA title in 14.8. He lost to him against France but won against Greece, losing to him against Turkey and Yugoslavia. He said, “That was the trip when everyone got the stomach virus. Against Greece it was ridiculous. Hammer-thrower Dr Ewan Douglas had to throw the javelin, and in that long stadium with marble seats he threw it into the stand, and it cluttered along the seats. There were squatters in the stadium, the first I had ever seen. Harry Whittle did the pole vault – 8ft 6, I think – and Walter Hesketh shot off the track into the stands with the runs. In Istanbul Peter and I spent an evening looking at all the momenuments and mosques. We were great friends, socialising as well as our racing, and we still keep in touch”.

Parker was now catching Hildreth when they raced, tending to lose out early in the race and then coming through very fast at the end, and as the years moved on Parker was getting closer each time they met in highly competitive fights always right to the line. In the 1952 match against France Parker ran a lifetime best of 14.6 to win and had hopes of reaching the final in Helsinki. He remembered, “We were like tourists at those Games going round seeing the sights. It was like being on holiday. I went to a dinner given by the Russians which was very good”. In the Games he reached the semi-final but then went out, and it was then that he realised just what the gap was between him and the Americans.

By 1953 he was consistently under 15sec and the regular choice with Hildreth for the 110 metres/120 yards hurdles. He said, “Against France I received such a heavy swipe from Ignace Heinrich, the Frenchman who had won the decathlon in the European three years earlier, that he knocked me into the stands. I got him next time we ran. Then we went on the tour to Germany and Sweden and I won both from Peter”. The next year he was AAA champion, just beating Hildreth, with both doing 14.7. As was becoming the custom in their races, Hildreth got away best and Parker had to fight over the last few hurdles to catch and just beat him.

Then came the two Championships, with the Empire Games in Vancouver first. Parker ran well in his heat to do 14.7 behind the Jamaican, Keith Gardner; but in the final very unusually he hit several hurdles and never got going to finish a disappointed 4th in 15.0, with his second string, Chris Higham, running the race of his life to win the silver in 14.9 behind Gardner. Parker said, “When I got back I went to the doctor with ear trouble. He had a look and found my ears were blocked with wax. They had been when I raced in Canada!” He was in the stadium for the Bannister-v-Landy mile and also the finish of the marathon where he reckons Jim Peters collapsed because of the 20-degree incline he had to climb coming into the arena in the heat, a step too much for an exhausted man.

On to Bern and his luxury lodgings and silver medal. “I was determined to beat the Russian next time I met him”, he remembers. “I was ahead until the sixth hurdle. He must have been a beautiful hurdler like Finlay, and he went ahead between the sixth and seventh hurdle. I thought afterwards, ‘Right, I’ll beat you next time’, but although I had two more races against the Russians he never appeared and I never saw him again”.

Parker’s mix of life was work and training in the winter just twice a week. He said, “I used to go to the Poly gym in Regent Street on a Monday evening with Doug Wilson and others where there was an extremely aggressive trainer who really worked us very hard. I’m sure he did us a lot of good. Then we would have a quick run in the park after jogging and running on the spot in the gym. On Saturday mornings I would go to Motspur Park for a session with John Le Masurier over the hurdles, and we would run up a hill four or five times in Richmond Park. In the summer I tried to go over hurdles once a week to keep my eye in”. His racing usually started with the Sward Trophy, then one or two major club matches for South London Harriers – “SLH had a very strong team in those days” – and the Inter-counties’, county, Kinnaird, Southern and AAA, and finally the internationals to end the season.

One of “those great fighting finishes” wins the AAA title

In nearly all the events he was running against Hildreth, and he started 1955 losing by inches in the Inter-counties’, both doing 14.8, and then beating him 14.6 to 14.7 in the Kinnaird. Parker won the Southern by inches, but this time from Paul Vine (the man who finished ahead of Bannister at Oxford by coming last in the 120 yards hurdles, the event before the first sub-four-minute mile!) and then took the AAA in 14.6 from Opris of Rumania, doing the same time. Hildreth was a half-step behind in 14.7. “Athletics Weekly” reported: “The final was a great race and Opris looked all over the winner with two obstacles to go. But Parker pulled out one of those great fighting finishes for which he is so well known and caught his man almost on the line”.

This was followed by five head-to-head internationals, and Parker won all five, with Hildreth 2nd in four and 3rd against Russia. The first match against West Germany was the best and the fastest win. Parker went away from the start for once and kept going superbly to win by half-a-second from Hildreth in 14.3y to equal Australian Ken Doubleday’s British National record and break Donald Finlay’s English Native record. Parker said, “Finlay was a delightful terrific chap and very courteous. After I had broken his record he sent me a letter which said that he was a little sad to have lost his record, but he congratulated me from the bottom of his heart”.

Parker then did 14.4y against Hungary (“Parker seems to be getting those first few hurdles right now and was quickly in front and going strong,” said “AW”), and it was left to Hildreth for once to almost catch him in the same time. In Bordeaux against France it was the same result and the same time of 14.7 in an inches finish, and then against Russia he did 14.4m in Moscow (see above) and finally against Czechoslovakia in Prague he did 14.6, with Hildreth 0.6 behind.

Parker said, “I had spent most of my career catching Peter up, but that year I was on top. I thought that I would have got down to 14.1 or even 14, but that just would not have been anything against the Americans. I was ranked 8th in the World. I thought that at Melbourne I would have squeaked into the final and finished 4th or somewhere like that”. But because of his work it was not to be. It was not until May of 1956 that he was back in the UK from Malawi, and he said, “I had done virtually no training for five months to keep fit, and it was absolutely remarkable I could run as fast as I did without winter training at all. It was a hobby for me, the last of the amateur era. I had three races where I ran as well as I could that year”. And he was picked for the Olympics on the strength of those performances.

He beat Hildreth at the British Games twice. Neither won against better Europeans in the invitation race and Bob Shaw won the Inter-counties’, with the old gang 2nd and 3rd, and Parker did 14.7 to head the rankings. He won the Surrey in a record 14.9 and beat Hildreth by inches in the Kinnaird in 14.9, but the result was reversed in the Southern in 15.1. The AAA Championships was the final proof that the snap in his racing had gone as he finished 3rd behind Hildreth and Eamonn Kinsella, of Ireland, in 14.6, the winner doing 14.5. Parker and Hildreth fought it out against Czechoslovakia in a windy 14.3, with Hildreth just taking it on the line, and Parker did 14.7 a week later for the AAA against the Combined Services.

A last race at the White City and then off to the Olympics again

Then, when the team for Australia had just been announced, his company asked him to go to Hong Kong on a three-year posting to work at the airport. He said ‘yes’ but asked to delay it so he could run in Melbourne. His firm agreed and so he kept training. He lost by half-a-second in a match against his old rival on the Croydon track, and then the home highlight of the year, the match against the Russians, was cancelled at the last minute because Nina Ponomareva, their discus champion, was involved in an allegation that she had stolen a hat from a London store. Instead Parker ran 14.7 against Hildreth in a Battle of Britain Trophy meeting and showed better form with 14.4m to finish well behind the Americans at a floodlit meeting at the White City. The World rankings that came out at the same time ended with no.12 doing 14.0 and Jack Davis leading in 13.4.

In the home match against Hungary at the end of September Hildreth won by 0.1 in 14.4, but in the last race between the two at the White City in October Parker took it by the same margin in 14.5, with “AW” saying, “What a pity we shall not be seeing these two fighting it out in future meetings; so closely matched they have helped each other immensely and Hildreth is bound to miss his old colleague”. In Melbourne they both went out in the first round. Parker travelled on to Hong Kong and Hildreth won many more races before retiring at the 1962 European Championships through back injury.

Parker said, “It was my last race, and with the best will in the world I did not really have my mind on track and field there. If I had kept on improving I would have had a chance of squeaking into the final, but I would not have been in the first three”. He added, “Peter and I must have raced each other over a hundred times, the first being in an inter-university event when I was running for Christie. He beat me. I gradually caught up with him and then in 1955 got ahead. He went on after I had finished and did 14.3 too. We were great friends and great rivals”.

Hildreth ran many 400 metres hurdles races, too. Parker did the event once or twice and was 3rd in the AAA Championships in 1951 in 55.3y (his best ever was 54.6y) but did not train for it and did not like it. He said, “For me athletics was always a hobby, but I enjoyed it very much. One of my main incentives was if I was beaten by a whisker and thought afterwards, ‘If I had done that I would have won, I’ll get him next time we race’. But after I was married to Shirley in 1955 I lost incentive.

“I am not interested now. It’s all changed so much. In my day I had a canvas bag in which I had a track-suit, spikes, heavy starting-blocks, eight nails and a hammer to fix them, and I would lug it on a crowded trolley-car up to the White City and perform in front of crowds of 40,000 to 50,000 people. In return you got a plaque which was shoddy and worthless, perhaps a dinner afterwards, and no other reward but we loved it. Once Adidas turned up and handed out some running-shoes, just five pairs. I did not get one. Now it is all money and agents. I don’t watch athletics because it is all about money. But they have such short careers and they have to live on it for the rest of their lives. I don’t resent it, and nor am I opposed to it, as I never had the opportunity to be part of it”.

National records at 120 yards hurdles/110 metres hurdles

The 20 leading nations as at the end of 1956. Note: 120 yards = 109.73 metres.

USA: 13.3m Dick Attlesey 1950, 13.3y Jack Davis 1956. West Germany: 13.9m Martin Lauer 1956. Sweden: Håkan Lidman 1940. Argentina: 14.0 Alberto Triulzi 1947. South Africa: 14.0y Tom Lavery 1938. Australia: 14.0y Ray Weinberg 1952. USSR: 14.1m Yevgeniy Bulanchik 1952. Cuba: 14.1m Evaristo Iglesias 1956. Canada: 14.2y Larry O’Connor 1938. Jamaica: 14.2y Keith Gardner 1954. Great Britain: 14.3m Don Finlay 1938, 14.3y Jack Parker 1955. Yugoslavia: 14.3m Stanko Lorger 1954. Rumania: 14.3m Ion Opris 1954. Pakistan: 14.3m Hanif Malik 1956, 14.3y Ghulam Raziq 1956. France: 14.3m Edmond Roudnitska 1956. Ireland: 14.3m Eamonn Kinsella 1956. Finland: 14.4m Bengt Sjöstedt 1931. Italy: 14.4m Aristide Facchini 1941. Chile: 14.4m Mario Recordón 1946. Puerto Rico: 14.4m Juan Lebron 1956. Note: Of the 181 men listed in “The ATFS Olympic Handbook 1956” as having run 14.4y/14.4m or faster all-time by the end of 1955, 145 were from the USA! All of the 19 men who had beaten 14.0 were Americans, including the Olympic champions of 1936 (Forrest Towns, best of 13.7), 1948 (Bill Porter, 13.9) and 1952 (Harrison Dillard (13.6y).