The Bridge Interviews
If you are asked in a pub quiz “Who was the last Briton to hold a world record in a sprinting event?”, the answer can be found right here, living in Burford. In his heyday Peter Radford was a superstar of athletics, sometimes called the fastest man in the world. Since that time he has achieved distinction in academic life, in sport administration and governance and as a historian.
Peter was born and brought up in Walsall in the West Midlands. He could easily have never become an athlete. At the age of five he contracted scarlet fever which led to acute nephritis. His doctors said that the treatment was to stay in bed, and he remained there for two years. By the time he had recovered, he had lost the ability to walk and was told he might need to use surgical boots to get around. However he managed to walk again by sheer determination.
When he was 13 , he told his mother that he had had a dream that a horse called Choirboy was going to win the Royal Hunt Cup. His pocket money at the time was a shilling a week. At the end of the week his mother gave him 11 shillings. A dedicated non-gambler, she had backed Choirboy with his pocket money and it came in at 10/1. Peter took the money and went to the local branch of W. H. Smith and bought a book called If It's speed You're After by Emmanuel McDonald Bailey. During the school holidays Peter shinned up the school fire escape and entered a window he had carefully unlocked on the last day of school. No-one else was around so he was able to train himself by referring to the book.
Two years later Peter was English under 15 champion in the 100yds. At 18 he represented his country at the 1958 British Empire Games in Cardiff. He and two friends got a lift to a coffee bar in Barry. There he met a 16 year-old girl called Margaret who asked him for his autograph. He invited her to go to the ball at the end of the games. Three years later they were married.
In 1960 he won a bronze medal in the 100 metres at the Olympic Games in Rome, the first British-born athlete to win an Olympic sprint medal since Harold Abrahams of Chariots of Fire fame. He then won another with the GB 4x100m relay team. He also won gold in the sprint relay at the 1958 and 1962 British Empire games. However he says that his proudest achievements were the world records: the world 200m and 220 yards record with 20.5 seconds, the 50 metre indoor record and the 4 x110yds relay. The last of these was at the White City where the British team beat the USA, then the world record holders and the pre-eminent sprinting team. Peter, the fastest in the team, ran the first leg to get a lead and his three team-mates, all called Jones, followed up.
By the age of 23 Peter had visited 42 countries; he competed in Lagos on the occasion of Nigerian independence; was flown out of Berlin the day before the wall went up; and had bottles thrown at him in Athens during the crisis over Cyprus.
Peter’s career overlapped with those of other famous British athletes such as Derek Ibbotson, Mary Rand, Bruce Tulloh and Gordon Pirie. However he does not regard that as being a golden age of British athletics. They were all amateurs, with little back-up apart from coaches at their clubs who were also amateurs. They were competing with Russians who were all in the army and Americans on sports scholarships to universities, all effectively full-time athletes.
After retiring from athletics, Peter went to university in the USA to study for a master’s degree in psychology. His next move was to Canada where he started a PhD in neuroscience. While Peter and Margaret were there, their daughter Lizzie was born. After that he went to Glasgow where he became a head of department and completed his doctorate in physiology. Peter and Margaret remained in Glasgow for 20 years, interrupted by a two year stint in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia (something of a change after Glasgow!) He was then headhunted to become chairman of the British Athletics Federation (now UK Athletics), based in Birmingham. He held that position for two four years until he was offered a professorship at Brunel University, where he remained for seven years.