Track Stats - John Fairgrieve

At last! The truth behind the torch ceremony at the 1948 Olympics

David Thurlow interviews sprinter John Fairgrieve.   Published in “Track Stats” December 2011.

In the days leading up to the opening of the 1948 Olympic Games two handsome young men were often seen at Wembley Stadium, running round the track while holding a heavy unlit torch. One was the Greek God look-alike and international 400 metres runner, John Mark, medical student and former President of Cambridge University Athletics Club. He was 6ft 2in (1.88m) and blonde and had been chosen to carry and light the torch in the packed stadium on the day that the Games opened. The other was John Fairgrieve, another medical student, an international sprinter and Cambridge wing-threequarter rugby Blue, who was three inches shorter and dark- haired.

They had met as schoolboy rugby players – Mark had trials for the Cambridge side but never played in the Inter-Varsity match – and there was one more difference. Fairgrieve made the Great Britain team for the Games at 200 metres, but Mark was not good enough for the 400 metres. Fairgrieve was his friend Mark’s deputy and the man who would stand in for the torch ceremony if anything went wrong. As we all know, it did not, and on that boiling hot day at the end of July John Mark caused a gasp of astonishment at his genuine beauty as he entered the stadium, the torch held high, and ran round the track and up the stairs to light the flame that had been brought from Greece; a total of 1,415 runners having travelled 1,964 miles carrying the 960-grammes 47-centimetres long stainless steel torches designed by Ralph Lavers.

John Fargrieve, now 85 and a retired consultant surgeon specialising in vascular surgery at Cheltenham General Hospital for 30 years, talked to me about those “Austerity Games” – although he and his team-mates never thought of them in those terms. They were just proud to be part of the Games, glad that they were being held in London, and happy with the benefits that came the way of those chosen, particularly the food parcels. Fairgrieve received his from a family in New Zealand but did not make a hog of himself on the content. Rationing had made people accustomed to shortages, and as a medical student he knew the dangers of suddenly eating too much of the meat and eggs and other goodies that arrived.

He said, ‘In the food parcels I got there would be two pounds of choice meat and eggs, but no one with our rationing could have sat down and eaten that. We were just not used to it. We were very lucky to have the chance. When we were in the Olympic team camp at Uxbridge where the men were housed I would go down to the dining-hall where you could help yourself to anything you wanted. Three eggs or loads of bacon. It was marvellous to go and look at it, but you knew it was not good for you after what we were used to and I ate what we ate normally”.

He continued, “John and I were very good friends. He was chosen for the torch ceremony because of his looks. He was a good quarter-miler with a long stride and very fit. He looked like a Greek God and that’s why they chose him. I was his deputy in case anything went wrong. I think Sir Arthur Porritt was the master-mind behind it all. He probably thought ‘Look, I’ll find a student runner – have we got any among the medical students?’ ” Sir Arthur, a New Zealander, was a senior surgeon at St Mary’s where Mark was a student and also on the organising committee for the Games. He had won a bronze medal behind Harold Abrahams in the 1924 Olympic 100 metres final and was one of King George VI’s royal surgeons.

Fairgrieve recalls, “Sir Arthur was instrumental when it came to choosing. They were looking for a good-looking sort of chap as a fine example of British youth. He had to have a deputy in case of illness. I used to go down to Wembley with him two or three times and run round the track carrying one of the torches. We did a couple of laps just to get the feel of it. The torches we used were solid silver, unlike the ones they carried on the relay which were quite light. Our one was much heavier. It weighed a hell of a lot. You started the lap with it over your head and by the time you reached the bowl it was down to your knees. I could not keep it up, but John could. I was delighted for him to carry it because I’m sure I would have dropped it. It was a great responsibility if one had dropped it, particularly on the steps, and it would have been totally disastrous. He did it very well. Afterwards one of the torches was given to the King and Queen and another to John who kept it in a glass case at his home”.

John Mark was a general practitioner in Liss, in Hampshire, and died from a stroke when only 66 in 1991. Fairgrieve says, “He and I had been friends since playing rugby against each other as schoolboys. He was a wing-forward and went on to play representative games”.

Fitting in athletics at the top level with medical studies

Fairgrieve, 5ft 11in (1.80m) tall and weighing 12 stone (76kg), on the track did just as well. He was a part-time amateur who fitted in some athletics with his medical studies. He had run 2nd to Alistair McCorquodale in the 220 yards at the AAA Championships in 1948 and at the Games finished 2nd in the seventh heat of 12 in the first round of the 200 metres in 22.2, which was the same time as the winner, Gerardo Bönnhoff, of Argentina. In the second round, running in the outside lane six, Fairgrieve was just pipped for 3rd – and qualifying – by a South African, Abram van Heerden, in 21.9, with the eventual bronze-medallist, Lloyd La Beach, of Panama, winning in 21.7 and Les Laing, of Jamaica, 2nd in 21.8.

Fairgrieve remembered, “I was very close to getting 3rd, but I was in the outside lane. So you had no one inside you to set your sights on. If I had been in an inside lane I might have run a wee bit better, but it was just the luck of the draw”. He was not picked for the 4 x 100 metres relay in which the UK team finished 2nd and were promoted to first for a while after the USA team was disqualified on a possible change-over fault. Then the Americans were reinstated and so the hope of British gold went.

He was proud and honoured to be selected for the Games, but he thought the training beforehand was ridiculous. He said, “I was a part-time athlete. My medical studies came first. Before the Games Sandy Duncan was appointed my coach along with a group of others. He would get the three or four of us down to Victoria Park track – near where the new Olympic stadium is – to practise starts and other things. I would get up early at my home in Blackheath in south London and get the train to Charing Cross, do a full day at the hospital, and then finish around 5, 5.30 and catch a train or bus to the track, and we would finish there around 7 and I would get back across London to Blackheath via the Blackwall Tunnel and mother would have a meal waiting for me at 9 and then to bed.

“The next day was exactly the same. I was going to Victoria Park two or three times a week. It was not the way to train. It was absolutely ridiculous in those days. Nowadays that’s what you have to do. As a medical student then the most important thing to do was pass your exams and put your training to one side”.

“He went on, “I was at the Uxbridge camp throughout the Games. They had a special stand at the stadium for the competitors to watch all the events and we would travel there on a coach. Six or seven of us in the relay squad shared a room and we had a gamble on placing the first three in the men’s 100 metres. No one got it right, even though we knew all the runners and what they had done. The only person who made any money was the chap who organised it. He was quids in”.

Successes at Cambridge as the Olympic Games draw near

Fairgrieve was born in Greenwich on 18 April 1926, and he had a successful athletics and rugby career at Imperial Service College, and after the college closed during World War II because pupils could no longer come from abroad he went on to Haileybury, another public school. He went up to Caius College at Cambridge to study medicine in the autumn of 1945 where he gained his blue for both athletics and rugby, winning the 100 yards in the Inter-Varsity match in 10.4. His rugby career suffered badly due to injury, and during his time at Cambridge he had to have three of his four cartilages removed. It hit his rugby but not his athletics.

In 1946 he beat John Mark in the Cambridge sports 440 yards, but his friend turned the tables in the match against Oxford (though losing the 880 by inches) and Fairgrieve won the 100 yards in 10.5. He repeated this the next year when he won the inaugural 220 yards in the match in 23.2. Then 1947 was his most successful year. The main man in sprinting was Emmanuel McDonald Bailey, who came from Trinidad but ran for Britain in two Olympics, gaining bronze in the 100 metres in 1952 but coming 6th in 1948 through injury. Fairgrieve only beat him once, in a 120 yards handicap sprint at the Rangers sports in Glasgow off four yards where he hung on to win by four inches!

The outstanding native-born sprinter that year was John Wilkinson. He was a great talent at 19 who ran the fastest 200 metres by a European in 1947, 21.3, and won the World Student Games double in Paris in 10.6/22.3m into a strong wind, with Fairgrieve achieving a lifetime best 10.7 and 21.6 in the heats, finishing 2nd in the 100 metres final in 10.8 and 4th in the 200 metres. He also finished 2nd to Bailey in the AAA 220 yards in 22.2 and was 3rd in his début international against France at Stade Colombes in 22.1m behind Wilkinson.

Fairgrieve recalls of Wilkinson, “John was a bit of a chump. He came to the hospital and started to smoke and put on a bit of weight and let himself go to the dogs, and when the time came he could not produce his results again”. He also says of the France-GB match, “I still have a bit of that track left in my knee. I was in the medley relay and ran the second leg, 200 metres, and the third man, Paul Vallé, started too fast and I had to lean forward to give him the baton and fell. There is still part of the black dirt from the track in my knee. They could not get it out”.

Fairgrieve had just three years at the top in athletics, and he never allowed it to get in the way of his studies, but he enjoyed his running very much and had no regrets. He raced regularly between May and August for Cambridge University and later for United Hospitals when he was studying in London. He ran in their matches, in the Kinnaird Trophy, the Southern Championships, the AAA Championships – he was 2nd in the furlong twice and was in the 1948 winning Achilles AAA 4 x 110 yards relay after being 2nd the year before – and representative matches. He often won and was nearly always in the first three, with best times of 10.0 for 100 yards and 22.2 for 220 yards.

He fitted his training around his heavy medical studies and would either be at the track or would go for a run in the evening from home, three or four times a week. He said, “I preferred the 220. I was rather a slow starter and it gave me a little bit more time to get going”, and he twice won that event at the triangular England & Wales-v-Scotland-v-Ireland matches which were held just after World War II. ‘The first year I was running for England and I won”, he recalled. “By the next year the Scots had realised I was one of them – my parents were Scots – and so they picked me and I won again this time for them”.

A final year in 1949 and rugby football took precedence

His performances were good for those days but not World-class. He was never the best in the country, but he was always thereabouts. In his first year there was Bailey who would reign supreme in Britain until the early 1950s. In 1948 McCorquodale came out of the blue and finished the first white man in 4th place in the Olympic 100 metres final and then went back to cricket, to be replaced in 1949 by Nick Stacey (later a bishop) and Ken Jones, a rugby international whose biography is out this month.

That year Fairgrieve was 5th in the AAA 220 yards, 2nd to Wilkinson in the Inter-counties’ for Kent, and in the winning Achilles 4 x 110 yards team at the LAC Relay meet. Then he finished with sprinting. He said, “In 1949 I stopped because I was coming up to my final exams and partly because I could not really be bothered to train very seriously. I knew that when I qualified and went into the Army to do my National Service I would have the chance to train, but I could not reproduce the form. So I played rugby for the depot – we usually reached the finals – and then I was the medical officer on a troop-ship to the Far East for the second year.

“I had my fill in Olympic year. I was running pretty well. In those days it was not like it is today. It was very much an amateur sport in which you gave as much time as you could. These professionals work at it all the time. The game is totally different to anything we experienced. I could not have spared the time in my day. The performances now are quite a lot better than ours. It was the same on the rugby field. The standard now is much better than the amateurs”.

There were no drugs in his day. Fairgrieve, son of a mechanical engineer who won the Military Cross at the Somme in World War 1, said, “As far as I was aware there were none. I knew of no one who took drugs. The only thing that anyone could have taken was amphetamines, which were available for patients. I suppose that might have enabled one in a quicker start, but it was just not mentioned”.

He has four daughters and 10 grand-children and lives with his wife in a village just outside Gloucester. As a surgeon he has had his fair share of surgery, too. Apart from losing three of his four cartilages, and never having had any trouble with them so skilful were the surgeons, his hips went in later life, but the operations on them were not such a success and now he has motor neurone disease. He concluded our interview by saying, “I hope I will be fit enough to be at the Games in London”.