Track Stats - Alastair McCorquodale

Out of the blue, the reluctant Scotsman who won a silver medal

Alastair McCorquodale was 4th in the Olympic 100 metres of 1948 and won a silver medal in the 4 x 100 metres relay. Interviewed by David Thurlow. Published in “Track Stats” November 2007.

Olympic sprinters have come in all shapes and sizes – from the Frenchman who insisted on wearing white gloves because he was running in front of the King of Greece in 1896 through Abrahams, Owens, Morrow and Carl Lewis to 2008. None has ever appeared out of the blue with such natural power and brilliance to become the fastest white man in the World, and then gone with the same speed to return to the game he really loved, cricket, than the 6ft (1.83m) tall 14st 4lb (91kg) power pack of Scottish smoking excellence, Alastair McCorquodale.

It started on an Army training exercise in the early summer of 1947 with the carrot of a weekend pass – “always the point of the exercise”, he recalled at his home in Grantham, in Lincolnshire – and finished the next year by his picking up almost all the stagger on the first leg of the post-Olympic British Empire-v-USA match 4 x 110 yards relay against Barney Ewell, the Olympic 100 metres silver-medallist. McCorquodale already had an Olympic relay silver medal and 4th place in a blanket 100 metres finish to his credit. He walked off the White City track onto a cricket field and never ran again.

At Harrow School McCorquodale was an outstanding cricketer; a first-class bowler and batsman who performed so well in the traditional match against Eton in 1943 and 1944 that he was selected to play for the Public Schools. He was an excellent all- round sportsman (great rugby player, too) and won the sprint events in the annual school sports in the summer (unlike most public schools and Oxford and Cambridge Universities, Harrow’s sports actually were in the summer, not in the cold of March) in fast time and was the “Victor Ludorum” (all round) winner in 1944 and 1945. He went into the Coldstream Guards in 1944 towards the very end of World War II and served in Germany as a Lieutenant.

It was in the early summer of 1947 that his sensational athletics career began. He recalled: “I was instructing at the School of Infantry at Warminster on Salisbury Plain, and the Company Sergeant Major came up while we were on exercise and said he was a hell of a good hurdler and was running in the Salisbury and district area sports on the Saturday. That’s the lowest point in the Army championships. You proceed from there to through Command and then to the finals.

“For a joke I challenged him, and drew a pair of spikes from the stores, and he fell over at the first hurdle. I won that and both sprints and the shot put and long jump. I then went on to Command, and having won there to the Army championships, and I won the hundred in 9.9 at Aldershot. I was always very fast at school but was not interested in running, just cricket. I got a weekend’s leave pass every time I competed, which was the object of the exercise. Because I had won the Army 100 yards I was entered for the AAA championships and came 5th”.

A photo in “Athletics”, the forerunner of “Athletics Weekly”, shows him very close up to the winner, Emmanuel McDonald Bailey (supreme in British sprinting except when injured until 1952), with John Wilkinson and Jack Gregory even closer. Time: 10sec. “They issued a list at the end of 1947 of people who might be eligible for the Olympic Games the next year and I was on the list”. He was also ranked 7th in the 100 yards by team manager Jack Crump in his annual list in the magazine.

“I came out of the Army at the beginning of 1948 and went round to see Jack Crump at the AAA offices, and it so happened that Harold Abrahams was there. I asked, ‘What should I do?’ They said I should get hold of Guy Butler because he was the best coach and also join the club where he was coach, which was the London Athletic Club. Because of the war I had missed my chance to go to university and join Achilles with the university chaps. I was born at the wrong time because I had to go to war and not to Oxford or Cambridge. I met Guy Butler, and he was very good, but there was not much he could do for me in the time. The first thing was to get me a pair of running-shoes made, size 11, and I went to George Law, the only shoemaker around at the time. Guy Butler worked out a programme for me and I just went from there to the finals at the Games”.

Serious training starts – and first it’s a basic matter of getting fit

The first thing done by Butler, who was another Harrovian and a former Olympic gold medallist for the 4 x 400 metres relay in 1920, was to get McCorquodale fit. He said: “I was not really fit. When I was at school, playing games all the time and not smoking and drinking, I was fit, but not when I came out of the Army. I was smoking and drinking and not fit at all. He gave me a programme, and I started going for runs, doing three to five miles in the dark around Bray where we lived. It was hard work, and after it my first race was a 440 yards at Wellington College in a match against the boys in the spring after which I was sick”. But he was stronger and fitter, and twice a week he would go for training at the White City, learning how to start and run fast. McCorquodale said: “I did not do anything else except go there and do what he told me to do”.

He was also busy at work with the family printing and publishing company which produced the Olympic Games programmes, and he was living outside London in Windsor. So putting cricket aside for a couple of months, he joined the Olympic trail. He said: “I suppose I got satisfaction from it but not much pleasure. You are in a team, but you do your best to beat the other fellow. I did not have many friends in the sport because there was not time. I was keen on all sports. Like all sports, once you have got a taste for it and start winning you go on to see how far you can go. You get self-satisfaction from it. If you have success you go on until such time as you have reached a peak. The peak of sprinting is the final of the Olympic Games. After that there is not very much more to go for and nowhere else to go”.

His first outing in his bid to reach that final was in the Southern championships 100 yards at Uxbridge on 12 June when he ran the Welsh rugby international, Ken Jones, to a foot in 9.9, with Bailey 3rd, which was the first sign showing of the muscle injury that was to wreck Bailey’s Olympic chances. The following Saturday at Chiswick the reluctant 6ft sprinter in the black baggy shorts came out and convincingly won both sprints in the annual Kinnaird Trophy (for the top clubs): the 100 by half-a-yard from Bailey and future consultant surgeon John Fairgrieve; the furlong by a yard from future Bishop Nick Stacey, with Fairgrieve a stride back 3rd, in 22.1.

A few days later McCorquodale, who had been born in Hillhead, Glasgow, on 5 December 1925, ran 11.6 for the 120 yards at half-time during a football match at Hampden Park in the city of his birth, and that is a time which still stands as a Scottish record. He said: “The whole thing was muddled up with football and they booed one of the teams when they came out on the field”. The next weekend it was the AAA championships, and in a tight 100 he nipped between the Australian, John Treloar, and Bailey – 9.9 to 9.8 – for 2nd, and because both of the others were injured McCorquodale took the 220 in 22.2 by two yards from Fairgrieve, a novice in every sense winning such a title.

A few days later in his club championships, which were also an invitational meeting at Motspur Park, McCorquodale did another double, 9.9 and 22.1. Squeezed into the time between then and the Games was a triangular international (England & Wales v Ireland v Scotland) in Manchester, and wearing his native Scottish colours he took the 100 metres in 10.8, an inch or two in front of Ken Jones and the still struggling Bailey.

Seeking heartening performances at the Games

In his editorial in “Athletics” to welcome the Olympics, editor Jimmy Green wrote: “We do not expect too much this time but tend rather to look forward to 1952, for our youngsters are undoubtedly the best ever. But some of our athletes will rise to the occasion and we may find some heartening performances, particularly from the women”. He was right about that, and GB would have had a mighty haul of gold but for a certain Dutch woman, but the three men he singled out – Jack Holden in the marathon, John Parlett at 800 metres and Harry Churcher in the 10,000 metres track walk– did not perform to expectation.

McCorquodale, with his fabulous talent, did.

On the opening day at Wembley, Friday 30 July, he lost his first-round 100 metres heat by inches to one of the favourites, Barney Ewell, of the USA, with both timed at 10.5. Soon after he lost the second-round heat to the American favourite, Mel Patton, the fastest white man in the world, 10.5 to 10.4. The next day, 31 July, he stormed through in 3rd place in his semi-final in 10.7 to qualify for the final just behind the two Americans, Harrison Dillard and Ewell.

Dillard was a wonderful example of athletic guts and determination. He was the World’s best high hurdler for two seasons, with a winning streak of 82 races, but messed it up in the US trials and did not qualify. He used the second string to his bow to gain selection for the 100 metres, won it (and another gold in the sprint relay), and then came back four years later to win the Olympic gold in his own 110 metres hurdles event.

The Wembley 100 metres final was never in doubt once Dillard (10.3) inched ahead, although Ewell at the end thought he had won. In a desperate finish for 2nd the strong Scot in lane three was just beaten by Ewell and by Lloyd LaBeach, of Panama, in 10.4. The place times given after the race were adjusted later as they were so obviously inaccurate at 10.4, 10.6, 10.6. Behind McCorquodale were Patton and Bailey (Trinidad-born but running for his adopted Britain and still suffering), and so the Scot became the fastest white man. It was unexpected by all the pundits and surprised him, too.

He said: “You do your best in the Olympic Games. It was not quite good enough, but it was my best. You could not run in a bigger race than the Olympic Games and I thought I would leave it at that”. But there was still the 200 metres and the relay to run before he could get back to cricket.

On Monday 3 August he won his first-round 200 metres heat in 22.3, and in the second round came up against Patton again. The American was itching for revenge and got it in 21.4 to the Scot’s lifetime best of 21.6 (Patton went on to win the final in 21.1). The semi-final was a race too far and McCorquodale finished 5th in 21.7 (and this was a man who had never run a 200 metres or 220 yards on a proper track before June) behind Cliff Bourland, of the USA, in 21.5.

That left the relay, and at that he was a real novice. So they stuck him on the first leg. He said: “I had no idea. It was the sort of thing you learnt to do at university which I had missed. It was all pretty amateur in those days, and it’s an entirely different ball game now. We were never together, but I think the others were training more than me, and they trained quite intensively during the Games, but I was racing every day. That’s why I ran the first leg so that the only thing I had to do was to hand the baton to the first of the others”.

The baton-changing is fine, and clearly there’s a chance of a medal

It worked. In the qualifying heat he powered round the first bend and put the baton into Jack Gregory’s hand, and with Ken Jones and Jack Archer to follow (Bailey still injured and out) they ran only 0.3 slower than the USA’s 41.1. It was clear that unless there was a disaster (and they do happen, as when the perfect German girls dropped the baton in Berlin in 1936) we were at least going to get a silver and the first men’s medal.

But for several hours it seemed that a miracle had happened not because of a dropped baton but because of the indecision of a rather inexperienced official who thought that the Americans, Ewell and Lorenzo Wright, might, and only might, have passed the baton outside the zone. So the bewildered Americans were disqualified; the delighted crowd roared the Britons onto the victory stand … and next day it was all change again and the Americans were given their rightful medals when the jury quickly realised that there had been no infringement.

The British team really impressed everyone by their baton-changing. “Athletics” described it: “Never have I seen such brilliant baton changing by one of our relay team – a brilliance repeated by the British Empire team later against the USA”. And in the report of the Games it was stated it was a pity that the disqualification “tended to push into the background that the performance of the British team did more to rouse British enthusiasm than any other in the Games. Our baton-changing was perfect”.

McCorquodale’s performances were outstanding and showed tremendous promise for the future. That a man with so little training, even though his natural talent was extraordinary, could run so fast was astonishing. But it did not affect him. Not even after he had the best run of his oh-so-short career, the first leg for the British Empire against the USA at the White City. He was pleased at his success, but athletics did not attract him. He ran because he was asked to do so for his country.

He went off so fast in the inside leg that he all but caught Barney Ewell by the handover to John Bartram, of Australia, which set the others – John Treloar and Jack Archer, the architect of the team’s slick baton-changing – for a win by four yards in a British all-comers’ record of 41.8. He remembered: “It was the fastest I ran, but I did not want to do any more. I wanted to go back to cricket, and I never stepped on a track nor ran again. If I had gone on it would have been very unsatisfactory being over the top and not winning. You have to get out at the top. I had gone as far as I could”.

His cricket career lasted over many years, playing for Middlesex in three first-class matches in 1951, for their second XI many times, going on an MCC tour of Canada in 1951, and for the MCC and Free Foresters as a left-handed batsman and right-arm fast bowler. Even so, he recalls sadly: “I was not good enough and I did not get the time because of business”. But he enjoyed it more than his running. “I found it more social and friendly”, he said.

His only contact with his team-mates from 1948 was at their 50th reunion where he met McDonald Bailey again and John Fairgrieve. McCorquodale said: “It was all so different then, nearly all amateur. Now they are all professionals. A different ball game. But they were beginning to be even then. Roy Cochran, who won the 400 metres hurdles, was advertising running-shoes before the Games were over”.

Alastair McCorquodale had one other link with his Olympic past – when he was on business in Perth, Australia, and tripped over one of the plaques they have in the main street honouring their heroes. He said: “I looked down, and the one I had tripped over was that of John Winter, the high-jump winner on the first day of the Olympics when I was running the 100 metres”.

Note: Alistair McCorquodale died on 27 February 2009.