Sub 4 miler Bob Maplestone passes away

04/01/2021 00:00, In Blog / Track & Field /

Cardiff-born Bob Maplestone [no.8 in image], the first Briton to run a mile indoors in under 4 minutes died on Saturday (January 2nd) in his adopted home of Seattle, USA aged 74. He ran 3.59.5 indoors in San Diego in February 1972, and went on to run 3.58.5 outdoors in 1973.

Welsh athletics superstar Bob Maplestone dies in the USA

Clive Williams reports on the death of a fine athlete, who didn’t forget his Welsh roots despite being based in the USA for 50 years.

He achieved this phenomenal performance in San Diego in 1972 with a time of 3 mins 59.5 secs, just under 18 years after Roger Bannister became the first man in the world to better 4 minutes with his world record 3 mins 59.4 in Oxford. Bob’s time would not be out of place today, almost 50 years after his tremendous feat. But the laid-back Maplestone didn’t realise that he had set a British record when dipping under the once magical 4-minute barrier all those years ago. He thought of it as just another race. As a result, the time was never ratified as a British record. Recalling that run a few years ago he told me:

“I remember that day well, and was just pleased it was a personal best. It didn’t enter my head that it was a British record and that I was the first Briton under 4 minutes indoors.”

If Bob had been more diligent, he would have obtained the official result signed by the referee to send home to get the mark ratified as a UK record. Because to this day it is still not recognised as an official UK record despite the matter being taken-up a few years ago with the governing body in the UK.

Evidence of the performance was given via the report of the race published in Athletics Weekly, backed up by athletics historians and newspaper clippings of the race. However, the response was that unless the official application form was completed, and signed by the referee, it could not be considered. Of course, after all of these years, that was an impossible task.

In a typical response to this news, Bob just said that whilst disappointed, he recognised that “rules are rules” but he would have loved to have shown his grandchildren the UK record plaque.

Remembering the race a few years ago, Bob said:

“The crowd of over 8,000 went wild. I remember running down the finishing straight and wanted to look up at the clock to see how close I was. When I crossed the line, someone came over and said 3:59… something. My first thought was that the time would be over 4 minutes, but the official time was announced as 3:59.5 secs – the first time I had run under 4 minutes, indoors or out.”

Outdoor world record holder Jim Ryun had set the world indoor mile record (3:56.4 secs) in the corresponding race in San Diego the year before.

Bob Maplestone leads in opening BAL fixture

Ely-born Bob was a founder member of Cardiff AAC in 1968, which was formed out of the amalgamation of the then two Cardiff clubs – Roath and Birchgrove Harriers. He was a key member of the Cardiff team in the early 1970s which became Britain’s strongest club. He adorns the front cover of the recently published book, The Glory Years of Cardiff AAC, which recalls those heady days when the club took the British League title for three successive years.

Photo: Bob Maplestone leads in BAL opening fixture of 1969 from Ray Roseman and teammate Bernie Plain

 

Tributes have poured in from former Welsh and Cardiff teammates.

  • Close friend Mike Delaney said: “This is devastating news. I spoke to him a few days ago and whilst obviously unwell, he seemed in good spirits.” The former British team manager continued: “He had been unwell for some time, but seemed to be coping well.”
  • Former triple Welsh record holder, Bernie Plain said: “Despite being team-mates we always had a friendly rivalry, especially before the amalgamation, as he was a member of Roath Harriers and I was Birchgrove.” This has come as a tremendous shock.”
  • Another to add his sadness was former Welsh 3,000m steeplechase record holder Bernie Hayward: “I spent a year in Seattle with Bob lecturing at his College where he was Professor of Mechanical Engineering. We were team-mates at the 1970 Commonwealth Games and at many British League matches. He will be sorely missed.”

Bob was a relative late starter in athletics in the mid-1960s, but still made the Welsh team for those 1970 Edinburgh Games. However, he didn’t run well and failed to make the final of the 1,500m. Bitterly disappointed, he decided to take up a college place in the US, and almost immediately made his mark. In fact, he ran so well he was a candidate to make the US team for the 1972 Munich Olympics after finishing third in the US championships 1500m with a Welsh record 3 mins 39.7 secs.  The time was so good that it was almost a UK record as it was just adrift of Peter Stewart’s record of 3:39.0 set in 1970. Bob’s 1500m time is still good enough, after almost half a century, to place just outside the UK top 10 in 2019, and is still fast enough to have won the Welsh 1500 title in the 51 years the event has been held - that’s how good he was.

He dipped under 4 minutes for the mile on three occasions, finishing with a best of 3 mins 58.5 in 1973 when finishing second in the NAIA championships in Arkansas to Tommy Fulton, who won with 3:57.9. Munich Olympic 800m silver medallist Mike Boit was third in 4:00.3. Bob’s 3:58.5 is still amongst the fastest times run by a Welshman after almost half a century and stood as the Welsh record until Neil Horsfield set the present day record of 3:54.39 in 1986. On going to the US on the last day of August in 1970, he firstly studied at Eastern Washington University, some 300 miles east of Seattle. He later went to Oregon State University to earn his Master’s degree in industrial engineering.  He returned on many occasions to run for Cardiff in the British League, but he eventually became a US citizen and lived in the Seattle area for almost 50 years.

But Bob never forgot his Welsh and Cardiff roots. When I went to see him in Seattle a few years ago I took Cardiff folk-singer Frank Hennessey’s CD “Cardiff after Dark.” His partner Carol told me a couple of weeks later that he played it non-stop in his car for the next fortnight!

Everyone in Welsh athletics sends their condolences to Carol and Bob’s children and grandchildren.

 

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