Lynn Davies’ Tokyo gold medal – 50 years on

Lynn Davies – "If you had told me that I would win gold, I would have laughed…"

Clive Williams recalls that memorable day in Tokyo 50 years ago this year when a South Wales mining village went mad. 

On a wet and cold Tokyo day half a century ago this year, a Welsh miners son from the valleys of South Wales stunned the athletics world by taking the Olympic long jump title. His winning leap of 8.07m came in the 5th round and he left the holder and world record holder (8.34m) Ralph Boston of the USA, and former world record holder (8.31m) Russian Igor Ter-Ovanesyan in his wake. It was the first time Britain had won a men’s Olympic field events title and followed days after Mary Rand had achieved the same feat in the women’s event.

He received a rapturous reception on his return to South Wales. Addressing the massive crowd that had assembled outside Cardiff’s General Station he said: “I am immensely proud of my achievement, for my family and for Wales….if you had told me after the qualifying round that I would win the gold, I would have laughed at you.”

The Welsh National Newspaper, The Western Mail, reported the win on its front page, along with reports and interviews throughout the paper. It reported that the Ogmore Valley had gone “wild” when the result was known and that flags and bunting were to be seen all over the Ogmore Valley. Neighbours in Commercial Street, Nantymoel where Lynn was born, had clubbed together to send a cable gram to Tokyo at 3s/5d a word (about 18p today)!

Unsurprisingly, he won the BBC Wales Welsh Sports Personality of The Year award that year and again two years later.

Flash forward 50 years to a couple of weeks ago in  California, where the 2012 Olympic long jump champion Greg Rutherford lifted the UK record from the 8.35m he shared with Chris Tomlinson to become the first UK long jumper over the 8 ½ m barrier with 8.51. But Lynn’s leap 50 years ago in the teaming Tokyo rain, was arguably intrinsically better, given the poor weather conditions and the facilities at the time. No all-weather surfaces then – just soggy cinders.

Davies, who was a multi-talented sportsman, having excelled in many sports in school, went into Tokyo as the 4th ranked in the world behind Boston, Ter-Ovanesyan and another American Gayle Hopkins. But on the day he was able to handle the atrocious conditions far better than his more illustrious opponents.

Lynn was the first Briton over 8m, when he jumped exactly 8 metres earlier in 1964. His best of 8.23m set in Berne in June 1968 was to stand as the UK record for a remarkable 33 years until beaten by Chris Tomlinson in 2001 with 8.27m. Amazingly, that 8.23m, is still the fourth best long jump of all-time by a British athlete – despite the improved facilities of today, where all-weather run-ups have replaced the squelchy loose cinders Lynn mostly competed on.

However, his third-of-a-century streak as UK record holder was not the longest that anyone had held the record. When Lynn first broke the UK record in finishing fourth in the 1962 Perth Commonwealth Games as a 20 year-old with 7.72, the mark he bettered (7.61m) had stood to Peter O’Connor for 61 years!

UK All-Time Best Performances at 1st May 2014 

8.51        Greg Rutherford (2014)

8.35        Chris Tomlinson (2011)

8.26        Nathan Morgan (2003)

8.23        Lynn Davies (1968)

8.15        Stewart Faulkner (1990)

Lynn was one of four British gold medallists in Tokyo. As well as Mary Rand who won the long jump with a world record 6.76m, Ken Matthews took the 20k walk and Ann Packer snatched gold with a dramatic late dash in the 800m, both in Olympic records.

It’s a well-known fact that Lynn became Wales’ first and still only individual Olympic Athletics Champion when he won in Tokyo, but also consider these statistics: 

  • He jumped over 8 metres 21 times. Last year only four British athletes exceeded 8 metres.
  • He became the first athlete to hold Olympic, European and Commonwealth titles at the same time.
  • His 43 senior international appearances for Britain included a remarkable tally of 28 victories in 100m, long jump and relays.

But where did it all start for the former lecturer, who has lived in Cardiff since being a student at Cardiff Training College (now Cardiff Met University), apart from a three year stint as Technical Director of the Track & Field Association of Canada in the mid 1970’s?

Well the 1.84m/79kg superstar was an outstanding sportsman at Ogmore Grammar School and naturally enough played on the wing for his school rugby team and also had a soccer trial for Cardiff City.

But all that was to change when the then National Coach for Wales, the late Ron Pickering attending his very first athletics meeting in Wales since his appointment noticed Lynn’s “fantastic” potential. Said Ron, who died in 1991: “I asked him if he wanted to be greatest athlete Wales had ever produced and whether he was prepared to work harder than any other athlete had ever worked.” Ron continued: “Although quiet and shy, he was quite firm in saying that he wanted exactly that.”

Lynn remembers that occasion in 1961 well: “I had played in a seven a side rugby tournament the previous week and thought that that would stand me in good stead for the Welsh championships – such was my naivety.” He continued: “I won the triple jump in a new Welsh record and came second in the long jump to the late Bryan Woolley, the reigning champion. By absolute coincidence Ron was there and that was how it all started.” He triple jumped 15.43 in 1962, but soon abandoned the event due to recurring injury problems. This stood as the Welsh record until broken by Graham Webb in 1969.

Still only 20 years old, his first major championships were the Commonwealth Games in Perth the following year, where he just missed the bronze medal by a tantalising one centimetre, setting a new Commonwealth and British record of 7.72m to beat O’Connor’s British record by 11cms. Remarkably all three medallists’ performances were wind assisted, but Lynn’s jump was wind free, so a puff of wind could have given him a medal. Just imagine, a year earlier, he was second in the Welsh Championships long jump, and in Perth, he is setting a new Commonwealth and British record just missing-out on a Commonwealth medal!

Not many people predicted a medal in Tokyo, let alone a gold – although the astute former AW editor Mel Watman in his forecast in the magazine predicted bronze behind Boston and Ter-Ovanesyan. As we now know Lynn won in a rain-swept stadium jumping 8:07, with the reigning champion Boston second 4 cms behind and Russia’s Igor Ter-Ovanesyan third another 4 cms back.

The whole of Wales went mad. On his arrival back in Cardiff, it seemed as though everyone had turned up at Cardiff station to meet him. All of the buses and trains out of Cardiff stopped, and traffic around the Central Bus Station came to a halt.

However, Boston had his revenge in Lynn’s back yard the following year. Maindy Stadium, Cardiff was then the Mecca for Welsh athletics. The Welsh Games, started in 1959 to keep alive the spirit of the 1958 Cardiff Empire Games had been held there each year, and was one of the major events in the British calendar. Cardiff City Council and the Welsh Games Council decided to bring the still world record holder Boston over from the United States to jump against Lynn to give his adoring Welsh fans a first-hand view of their Welsh idol.

Altogether, Boston set six long jump world records, the first when he expunged the legendary Jesse Owens from the record book in 1960 when he jumped 8.21m bettering the 8.13 set by the 1936 Olympic superstar, a quarter of a century earlier.

Boston told me last year that he remembers the Cardiff competition with great affection, and felt guilty at beating Lynn. What he didn’t know was that Lynn had been ill in the days before the competition and didn’t want to jump. But Ron Pickering told him in no uncertain terms that if he didn’t jump, he would have to answer to the whole of Wales!

At great expense Cardiff City Council dug a special long jump pit in front of the main grandstand to give the event maximum exposure. For a whole hour there were no other events on the programme so that the crowd had no distractions, and Ron Pickering gave a commentary on the event over the public address system. Boston won with a leap of 8.18m which still stands as the Welsh all-comers’ record to this day. Lynn says of that day in his Autobiography Lynn Davies: Winner Stakes All: “He slaughtered me in front of 10,000 Welshmen….It was so quiet when I jumped…..I could hear my own footsteps on the cinders……Everybody was shouting for me as I jumped….But I was absolutely humiliated”

British triple jump record holder Fred Alsop and Birchgrove Harrier John Lister, winner of twelve Welsh titles ranging from 120y/110m hurdles through to decathlon, were also competing that day. Lister, who went on to be AAA treasurer and the UK representative on the European Athletics Association for twelve years, said that the silence was deafening at Maindy that day……”You could hear a pin drop when both Lynn and Boston jumped”.

Bob Beamon put paid to Lynn defending his Olympic title in 1968 with a jump that startled the world. The American soared to 8.90m in the rarefied atmosphere of Mexico City for a world record that was to stand for almost a quarter of a century until beaten in 1991 by compatriot Mike Powell with 8.95, which still stands as the world record today.

Beamon’s jump not only bettered 28 feet for the first time, it also breached the 29 foot barrier in one go. At the time Lynn said that the mark will stand for “a thousand years”, such was his admiration for the leap. Lynn famously remarked afterwards that Beamon "destroyed the event" with that jump. The Welshman who carried the British flag in the opening ceremony in Mexico could finish only ninth with 7.94m, one of his biggest competitive disappointments.

Lynn’s European title came in Budapest in 1966 when he beat his friend and great rival Ter-Ovanesyan by 10 cms with his last jump. The Russian gained revenge however in the 1969 Europeans in Athens when he beat Lynn to take the title with 8.17m – 10 cms ahead of the Welshman who had to settle for the silver. Lynn took the first of his two Commonwealth titles in Jamaica in 1966 and defended the title in Edinburgh in 1970.

As well as his long jumping exploits he was an outstanding sprinter being a regular in Britain’s sprint relay team. As he said following the untimely death of the 1963 AAA Champion Berwyn Jones: “I looked-up to Berwyn, and when he went North to play Rugby League, just before the 1964 Olympics, I took his place in the British relay sprint squad”. Lynn’s 100m best was 10.4 in 1967.

His last major Championships were the Munich Olympics – his third appearance in the Games – in 1972 where he was Britain’s team captain, narrowly failing to reach the final round.

Lynn’s final competition before retirement came in the colours of Cardiff AAC, fittingly enough at their British League fixture in Cwmbran in 1973. By then, the once proud Maindy Stadium had fallen below international standards, and Cardiff had to use Cwmbran for their British League matches. He ran the last leg of the sprint relay to seal Cardiff’s win and lay the foundation for Cardiff’s eventual retention of the British League title that year.

After retirement, he was appointed Canada’s Technical Director for athletics in July 1973 and was responsible for their teams at the 1974 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch New Zealand, the 1975 Pan American Games in Mexico City and the 1976 Montreal Olympics. At the time he said that he didn’t know what to expect from the Welsh team and their supporters in New Zealand. He said: “At least I wore a red blazer, but with a maple leaf and not the three feathers!”

But along with his wife Meriel, he was feeling homesick and he returned home soon after to a new appointment as technical officer for the Sports Council for Wales. He was soon into his stride so to speak back on home soil, and was later appointed British athletics team manager to follow in the footsteps of Cardiff stalwart Ted Hopkins who held the position at the 1960 Rome Olympics.

He received a well-deserved CBE for his services to athletics in 2006 to add to his MBE. To this day he is still in the forefront of British athletics as the well-respected President of UK Athletics.

Serious sport always has a funny side, as Mike Walters remarked in The History of Welsh Athletics: In an interview Lynn recalled an embarrassing incident at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year Awards which he had to miss because of illness. He chuckles recalling the incident as the person announcing the awards said: “…and the runner-up is that great Welsh long jumper Lynn Davies. Unfortunately she can’t be with us tonight because she has got the ‘flu”.

In an international career spanning 11 years, he competed in 14 major games, winning 8 long jump medals, setting 9 outdoor British and Commonwealth records, 25 Welsh records, winning 8 AAA and 8 Welsh titles. The only Welsh athlete to come anywhere close to this remarkable record is former 110m hurdles world record holder (12.91) Colin Jackson who still holds the world record for 60m hurdles indoors with 7.30, but never won an Olympic title.

His UK record stood for a phenomenal 33 years. Superstars like Lynn Davies are a very rare breed.

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