When Olympic medallist took on 80 year old at the Wellesley

IT’S here at last – 2012, the year of the London Olympics, a topic that seems to have been ever-present since I was a schoolboy listening to an excited Raymond Glendenning commentating at break-neck speed on BBC national radio on the epic performances of a Dutch runner named Fanny Blankers-Koen who won four gold medals on the athletics track when Britain hosted the first postwar Games in 1948.

While we listened to the oscillating and crackling wireless in those days, our imaginations worked overtime trying to picture the scenes in the stadium being described for us.

But we never envisaged that one day we would be able to watch in our homes the Olympics live in high-definition from the farthest corners of the earth, instead of having to trek to the local cinema several days later to watch monochrome newsreels as part of the programme.

It was about 1998 when a jubilant Britain was awarded the 2012 Games, and now, more than a dozen years later, the crack of the first starting pistol is only months away.

Fanny Blankers-Koen? The so-called Flying Housewife, then 32, scooped her clutch of four golds in the 100m and 200m sprints, the 80m hurdles and the 4x100m relay.

She died in 2004, aged 85.

Back in 1948, I doubt that I knew what a metre was, having been schooled in imperial measures like yards...and I am sure that most Britons were equally ignorant of the foreign system that is slowly and stealthily worming its way into this country.

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Down the decades, our neighbourhood has been well represented in the Olympics, but our only medallist was Anne Pashley whom I knew as a Great Yarmouth High School pupil, younger daughter of Roy who taught me English at the boys’ Grammar School and encouraged my ambition to become a provincial journalist.

Anne went to Australia to run in the Melbourne, Olympics in 1956 at the age of 21 and brought home a silver medal when the British team came second in the 4x100m relay, pushing the fancied United States runners into the bronze position; she ran the first leg.

Three years earlier, she was a world record holder when she was in the British 4x220yd quartet that beat the Netherlands in the fastest time yet recorded, and that same year set a new national sprint record of 11 seconds for 100 yards.

Anne was a talented musician and went on to become a professional opera singer, appearing at Glyndebourne and Covent Garden plus major venues abroad.

But although she competed in track events at all levels – from school and her local athletics club right up to the international tournaments and the supreme accolade of the Olympic Games – one race I am sure she has never forgotten is when she was humbled at the age of 20...beaten by a man of 80 who had challenged her!

This bizarre head-to-head was no embarrassing blip on her illustrious career, but was her sporting response to retired Yarmouth solicitor Humphrey Lynde who admired her prowess on the track.

Before she was picked for the Olympics, she good-naturedly accepted the challenge from a man who, although 60 years her senior, was an accomplished sprinter in his younger days, competing in national championships, and had maintained his fitness.

He practised short sprints on Gorleston’s Lower Promenade as part of his preparations for the challenge race.

On an empty Wellesley Road one Thursday afternoon in the mid-1950s, the race was run: Anne covered the full 100 yards but, under-estimating her octogenarian opponent’s ability, sportingly gave him a 50 yard start.

Humphrey Lynde ran strongly and broke the finishing tape 30 yards ahead of her. His time was 8.3 seconds, hers 11.4 seconds.

The independent judges and time-keepers were three veteran Yarmouth journalists – Joe Harrison (who penned this Peggotty column for many years) and Peter Bagshaw, both of the Eastern Daily Press and Eastern Evening News staff, and Mercury sports reporter Don Mills.

Mr Lynde, who “immensely” enjoyed the challenge, gave her a large box of chocolates as a surprise, and was rewarded with a kiss.

Gracious in defeat, Miss Pashley congratulated her opponent: “I think you’re wonderful. You must be remarkably fit. I hope I can run as well as that when I’m 80.”

He died in the early 1960s.

As for Miss Pashley’s hope that she might be able to run as well as that when she reached 80, she is now well into her seventies...

Our first Olympian was sprinter Stanley Fuller (“Flying Fuller”) who was picked for the 1932 Los Angeles Games in the United States but performed below par because he had fallen down a companionway on the liner ferrying the British team across the Atlantic to compete.

Starting-blocks had not been invented then, and when he raced on his home track and training ground - the Wellesley Road “reccer” - he would take a small trowel to make a toe-hold in the cinders, much to the annoyance of the groundsman.

At the time he was a trader for the long-established Yarmouth fertiliser maker J and H Bunn, still in business today, and he was eventually appointed its chairman.

And from the track to the swimming pool, to remember our three young women who earned places at the 1988 Games in the South Korean capital of Seoul.

East Norfolk excitedly followed the progress of Kathy Read, Sharon Page and Karen Mellor as they swam 5000 miles from home, but sadly, they did not succeed in bringing back any medals although the British men won a gold, silver and bronze.

Before they flew off to the pool in South Korea, the trio were given a special parade around Yarmouth Racecourse by the townsfolk. Sharon Page later recalled: “As I left for South Korea, my family gave me words of encouragement. People try to say something inspirational to you, something you can remember as you are on your own behind the blocks. I think they told me just to do my best!

“There was a lot of support for us back in Yarmouth and Gorleston. We knew roughly what times our races would be on the TV and some teachers at my junior school, Peterhouse in Gorleston, told me afterwards they had waited up until 2am to watch it.”