Sheila Lerwill was an international netball player who did not take up athletics until she was 18 but she still occupies a place of importance in the history of women’s high jumping on two counts. She held the world record at 1.72m from 1951 to 1954 and was the pioneer among female straddle jumpers.
In 1950 she jumped a new British record of 1.69m for then second place on the world all-time list and won a gold medal at the European Championships. The following year was even more notable, for in March she married and in July she enjoyed her greatest moment at the WAAA Championships at White City, succeeding at 1.72m to add a centimetre to the world record which had been held by Holland’s legendary Fanny Blankers-Koen since 1943.
Despite suffering from a high temperature, cough and a calf bleeding from a spike scratch, This tough cookie put up a great fight at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki she won silver. In 1953 she ended the year with a world indoor best of 1.67m.
Alan Pascoe’s high-level of consistency over a very long period was remarkable. Along the way he collected European and Commonwealth gold medals, an Olympic relay silver, British records, 13 AAA titles and the distinction of never having been beaten at 400m hurdles event in international matches.
His wide-ranging involvement with athletics must be unique: world class competitor, British team captain, college PE lecturer, meeting promoter, athletes’ representative on the British Board, Sports Council member and TV commentator. He gave up teaching and lecturing to enter the field of sports promotion and sponsorship and for many years was one of the most influential figures in British athletics as holder of the sport’s marketing rights. He was vice-chairman of London’s successful 2012 Olympic bid.
Sir Ludwig Guttmann
Had Ludwig Guttmann lived to see the 2012 Paralympic Games in London he would have been delighted but astounded. When he was commissioned by the British government to be Director of the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville in 1944, he could hardly have envisaged that his belief, which was controversial among many in his profession at that time, that his patients – mainly severely disabled military personnel – could benefit by taking up sport would lead to a huge worldwide movement.
Guttmann, a distinguished Jewish neurosurgeon, fled Nazi Germany just in time, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, and lived in England for the rest of his life. At Stoke Mandeville he revolutionised the treatment of patients with spinal cord injuries. The team games which formed part of the rehabilitation programme at the hospital developed into a wider programme of activities and the first Stoke Mandeville Games, featuring ex-servicemen and women in a wheelchair archery contest was contested in 1948 and by the 1961 Guttmann founded the British Sports Association for the Disabled (later known as the English Federation of Disability Sport) and he was knighted by the Queen in 1966. It was the vision of Professor Sir Ludwig Guttmann which led to the thriving disability sport we have today.
Being the first woman to break five minutes for the mile, during the infancy of the women’s event, was rated as a highly significant landmark, coming as it did just 23 days after Roger Bannister’s feat.
Diane was 20 when in 1953 she first smashed the world best for the mile with 5:02.6… the record was then taken, but she reclaimed it by running 5:00.2 early in the 1954 season. Three days after that at Birmingham’s Perry Barr Stadium, the tall Birchfield Harrier edged through the five-minute barrier with 4:59.6. Diane LeatherIt proved a memorable year as she also set a world 880 yards record and finished second in the 800m at the inaugural European championship.
In 1955 she made two substantial improvements to the mile record in September she registered 4:45.0 – a time that stood as a world best for seven years and a British best for 11 years. She also set three British 800m records and closed her season with a British 400m record. Clearly, she would have been an Olympic medal contender in 1956 at either 800m or 1500m, but neither event was on the programme in Melbourne, but in 1958 she again struck silver at the European Championships, with a UK record.
Jim was the AAA champion at 6 miles in 1946 and 10 miles in 1947 – and considered retiring. However, his coach ‘Johnny’ Johnston pleaded with him continue. In 1951 he made his marathon winning in 2:29:24 to smash the British record, which had stood since 1929. It was in the same race a year later that he really left the athletics world gasping. Up until then the fastest marathon ever recorded was 2:25:39 and yet he ran 2:20:43. Injury forced him not to finish in the Helsinki Olympic Marathon, but following Helsinki he bounced back reducing the world best to 2:17:40. Jennifer Wadley-Smith. However, in the heat and humidity of Vancouver in the Commonwealth Games with a huge lead he started to struggle and just 200 yards from the finish line he collapsed. He never raced again.
Indeed, he was lucky to stay alive and for the rest of his life (he died in 1999 at the age of 80) he was afflicted by headaches and giddiness from that ordeal in the sun. So he never did win a major title but he was honoured by royalty as he later received a special gold medal from the Duke of Edinburgh, who had watched his agony, the medal was inscribed: “To J.Peters as a token of admiration for a most gallant marathon runner.”
Four British athletes were top world class performers both before and after the Second World War. One of them was Jack Holden. He built up the most distinguished record in British cross country history. English champion in 1938 and 1939 and International champion. He was also a useful track runner.
Jack Holden’s daughter Joan MerrisAt 38 after winning a third English cross country title, he decided to take up marathon running. He was rated among the favourites for the 1948 Olympic title in London, but fell victim to the bane of all road runners … blisters; he dropped out at 17 miles.
But he had a fantastic season in 1950 when, aged 43, he proved himself the world’s number one marathoner by winning the British Empire title and European Championships. Of his 17 marathons he won 14 and outlived all his contemporaries, passing just days before his 97th birthday in 2004.
Mel Watman has been writing on the sport for 60 years and is probably still best known as editor of the old pocket-sized Athletics Weekly from the 1960s to 1980s. By 1954 he was contributing to Athletics Weekly and in 1957 the founding editor Jimmy Green appointed him overseas news compiler – the start of a 30-year involvement with AW. In 1968 he succeeded Jimmy Green as editor, fulfilling his life’s ambition.
Possibly no one has written more words on athletics than this man, who in addition to his work with AW and later with Athletics Today and currently with Athletics International, also freelanced for various newspapers and news agencies. He has produced more than 30 books.
His own career as an athlete was modest, though includes an unbeaten record in the steeplechase; ran one, won one! He considers himself the luckiest of men, having spent a lifetime being paid to write on the sport he loves. He has been fortunate too to have witnessed so many marvellous performances worldwide. He attended the first of nine Olympics in Rome in 1960 and was in London’s Olympic Stadium to experience “Super Saturday”.
His most thrilling moments in athletics? One he says remains the Chataway v Kuts 5000m classic in 1954 when he just managed to squeeze into the White City Stadium before the gates were closed.
Don Thompson won the 50km race walk Olympic gold in 1960 and bronze at the European championships in 1962 and passed away aged 73 in 2006.
From South London Harriers, Gordon, a megastar of his time, won Olympic bronze over the 5000m in 1956, bronze in the European championships in 1958, and also set numerous world records between 3000m and 6 miles.