Track Stats - John Kay

England’s third man in that 1954 Empire Games marathon

John Kay was a member of Wirral AC who ran for Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) in the ill-fated Empire Games marathon of 1954. He was interviewed by Bob Phillips for “Track Stats” May 2009

The misfortunes of England’s runners in the heat-stricken 1954 Empire Games marathon were recounted in the March 2009 issue of “Track Stats”, including the claim by Jim Peters that inadequate manning of the feed stations contributed to his collapse. Stan Cox also failed to complete the course, but what is not at all widely known is that there was a third Englishman in the race, and his recollections are made public for the first time in this article.

It was Maurice Morrell – who seems to know everybody who is anybody in British athletics over the last 60 years or so – who alerted me to the fact that a fellow Wirral AC member, John Kay, represented Northern Rhodesia (now known as Zambia) in those Games. Kay was also among the 10 non-finishers of 16 starters in that marathon, but his demise came about because of injury rather than the weather conditions. He has no particular memory of the availability of drinks or sponges during the race because he had never taken any before and saw no reason to do so in Vancouver.

Kay, born on 14 December 1919, joined the Wirral club in 1938. He lives within a 20-minute or so jog of Birkenhead’s Arrowe Park which has been a notable course in the past for the National cross-country championships, and he was 60th in the National of 1948 at Sheffield, when Sydney Wooderson won, and he had placed 8th in the Northern, 18 seconds ahead of a future British record-holder at six miles and 10,000 metres, Frank Aaron. Then on 26 June, on his home track at Bebington Oval (later to be the setting for the 1924 Olympic Games scenes in “Chariots of Fire”), Kay won the Northern six miles track title in a championship record of 31:35.4.

This may not sound particularly fast, and Kay himself makes little of it more than 60 years later: “It was a Northern six such as it was. There was nobody in the race from the other side of the Pennines”. Yet it was the 10th fastest time of the year in Britain and he won from Geoff Saunders and Bill McMinnis, who would both be exceptional runners in future years and who were then the three-mile champions for the Army and the RAF respectively. In fact, the results in the monthly “Athletics” magazine give the same date of 26 June for the title wins by Lieutenant Saunders at Aldershot and Sergeant McMinnis at Uxbridge, which is obviously incorrect. It seems much more likely that the services’ meetings took place on the previous day.

Thus Saunders and McMinnis may have been suffering some after-effects, though the former thought highly enough of his chances of victory that he led Kay by 90 yards at one stage and it was only with a mile to go that the gap began to close. Kay went ahead in the penultimate lap and won by 80 yards. The race was held in conjunction with the Northern junior championships and the local newspaper reported that Kay “got a tremendous ovation when he ran out a comfortable winner after being in a position that, to the uninitiated, looked hopeless”. The obvious next target for Kay ought to have been the AAA Championships six miles the following Friday, from which the Olympic selections would be made, but there was never any likelihood of his taking part in that race. He was a male nurse by profession – as was Tommy Richards, who was to win the marathon silver medal at Wembley – and he had worked a split shift at Clatterbridge Hospital, three miles from Bebington, and was still scrubbing out lockers at 1 p.m. in order to take an hour or so off to run in the Northern event.

He continued competing in road and cross-country races for Wirral and then in 1952 took a nursing job in the mining industry in Northern Rhodesia. He still ran to keep fit, and a message which he put up on a notice-board attracted the attention of another former club runner from England. When it was announced that the Rhodes Centenary Games in 1953 would include a marathon, the pair of them decided to have a go. Training in Africa was a singular experience because to avoid the heat Kay would go out at 4.45 in the morning and inspired by the example of Zátopek would run 20 miles each Monday, Wednesday and Saturday and 30 miles on Sunday.

“Like Zátopek I was no stylist and I was very impressed by him”, Kay recalls. “None of the Africans ran then, and they thought it was a great joke to see this bwana running. We weren’t aware of any interest among Africans in athletics, but there was such a social division then and a lot of racist feeling with which I didn’t agree at all. I remember one very good native long jumper in 1953, but when I asked the next year where he was I was told he had given up the sport. I often wondered whether it was just that he received no encouragement to continue”.

Kay ran the marathon distance a couple of weeks before the race to assure himself that he could complete the course and then won the event in about 2:48. “I don’t think anybody in the race had ever run a marathon before, and there was even a 14-year-old lad who took part”, he says. “After I’d finished they told me that I’d broken the Rhodesian record”. The man who had been appointed manager of the Northern Rhodesian team for the Empire & Commonwealth Games, Benny Evans, worked at the same mine and early in 1954 asked Kay, “Are you interested in running the marathon in Vancouver ? We’ll fix up a time-trial”. Kay duly went out for the test run on his own, with Evans following by car, and finished in 2:34 or 2:35 – he can’t remember exactly which – and so was one of only four athletes selected for the Games, together with lawn bowlers, boxers and weight-lifters. His fellow athletes were a long jumper, Gerald Brown, and two women – Edna Maskell, who had run for South Africa at 100 metres and 80 metres hurdles in the 1952 Olympics, and a javelin-thrower, Pearl Thornhill Fisher.

The team stopped off in London en route to Canada, and the athletes had the benefit of coaching from Franz Stampfl, but the irony was that this might have cost Kay his chance of performing at his best in Vancouver. Stampfl thought that Kay lacked speed and so had him running repetition half-miles on a track which led to a foot injury, and only an introduction by the British team manager, Jack Crump, to a physiotherapist got Kay reasonably fit again, though he developed a knee problem in Canada which needed a cortisone injection before the race. In Vancouver Kay had linked up with the Northern Ireland marathon-man, Bob Crossan, and explains as follows:

“We both of us realised that there was no way we’d get anywhere near Jim Peters, but we thought we’d try and get inside 2½ hours. I didn’t think about the heat because I was so used to it, and I suppose really I should have made allowance for it. There was no such thing as feeding-stations when I’d run in Africa, and so I didn’t use them. Bob and I ran together for the first half of the race, and I certainly didn’t feel the heat at that stage, but we then came to a very steep hill and that’s what cracked us. By the time we got to the top the bunch I’d been in had split up and I was virtually running on my own. The pain returned in my knee at about 18 or 19 miles and I made the mistake of stopping. The knee seized up, and that was the end of the race for me. I was very disappointed. You feel as if you’ve let everybody down”. He raced only occasionally after that and eventually married and returned to England.

Crossan, incidentally, completed the course in just over three hours. The finishing order was 1 Joe McGhee (Scotland) 2:39:36, 2 Jackie Mekler (South Africa) 2:40:57, 3 Jan Barnard (South Africa) 2:51:50, 4 Barry Lush (Canada) 2:52:48, 5 George Hillier (Canada) 2:58:44, 6 Bob Crossan (Northern Ireland) 3:00:13. Non-finishers – Rowland Guy, Allen Lawrence, Kevin MacKay (all Australia); Gerard Côté, Keith Dunnett, George Norman, Leslie Stokell (all Canada); Stan Cox, Jim Peters (England), John Kay (Northern Rhodesia). The first native-born athlete from East or Central Africa to compete in an Empire Games marathon was Arap Sum Kanuti, of Kenya, who was 8th in 1958. The first athlete from Zambia to complete the event was Douglas Sinkala, 20th in 1970.

Footnote: the ATFS Annual for 1954 lists the marathon national record for Rhodesia (Northern and Southern Rhodesia) as 2:43:58.8 by W.G. Hunter at Salisbury, Southern Rhodesia, on 17 January 1954, but neither the name nor that performance were known to John Kay.