By ANTON RIPPON
TERRY O’CONNOR, an early member of what became the Sports Journalists’ Association, and its chairman in 1961, has died at the age of 92.
During a long and distinguished career he covered 11 Olympic Games and 10 Lions Tours, and spent 30 years working for the Daily Mail. He started out as a copy runner for legendary cricket writer C B Fry, working at The Oval from the age of 14. During the Second World War he lied about his age to join the RAF, who he served as a rear gunner.
Speaking to sportsjournalists.co.uk in 2012, he recalled that in the summer of 1948 he thought that the forthcoming Olympic Games in London “might prove interesting”. So he decided to accept the offer to become a sportswriter. It would be only a temporary move, however. Once the Games were over, he would return to hard news.
O’Connor never made it back to the newsroom. Forty years later, he was still covering the Olympics.
He told me: “When I was 16 I won a scholarship and got into news journalism with the London office of the Yorkshire Post. Then I joined Kemsley Newspapers, who then owned evening titles in Glasgow, Aberdeen, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Sheffield and Blackburn, as well as the Daily Sketch, and the Daily Record in Scotland.”
In 1947, after four years in the RAF, O’Connor returned to news reporting, but the following year he fancied a temporary change of scene.
“I was pretty good at sports at school, so it was natural that I’d want to be around the Olympics when they came to London. When the chance came to cover them, I grabbed it.
“Of course, the Games were light years away from what we see today. The war hadn’t long been over and there was still food and clothes rationing. There was certainly no money to spend on facilities for the Olympics.
“For instance, the cycling events were held at Herne Hill velodrome that had been built in the previous century. A gun battery had been sited there during the war. Some improvements were carried out, but when the foreign competitors first saw it, they thought it was just the practice facility.
“There was no Olympic village. Athletes were put up mainly at military camps around London, including RAF Uxbridge.
“The whole thing was a gloriously amateur affair. It wasn’t like it is today. People weren’t queuing up to spend a fortune on staging the Olympics. Tokyo should have had the Games in 1940. Well, obviously they couldn’t be staged in Japan so soon after the war, so it was the Brits who said: ‘OK, we’ll do it’.
“Today there is a lot of emphasis on an ‘Olympic legacy’, but there was certainly no legacy from the 1948 Games, not so far as facilities went anyway. They were starting to dig up the athletics track at Wembley Stadium almost before the Games were over.
“I did have one luxury. Kemsley paid for a telephone to be installed for me to cover the boxing and swimming at what was then the Empire Pool at Wembley. I also sent back general news stories about the Games.”
“Of course, perhaps the name most often associated with the 1948 Games is Fanny Blankers-Koen, the so-called Flying Housewife from Holland who won four gold medals on the track. She was a remarkable athlete, especially when you consider that she was 30 years old, had two children and had survived the Nazi occupation. Ironically, she’d competed in the 1936 Berlin Games.
“Her husband, Jan Blankers, had taken part in the 1928 Games in Amsterdam, but I knew him as a journalist. He became sports editor of the daily Der Telegraaf based in Amsterdam. I used to see him at Olympics around the world.”
After the Games had ended, Kemsley asked O’Connor to stay on in sport for a short spell until the regular man had recovered from illness.
“Unfortunately for him, instead of getting better, he died. So I just carried on.”
In fact, O’Connor went on to cover every Olympic Games up to and including 1988. He moved to the London Evening News in 1956 and, four years later, joined the Daily Mail – becoming Fleet’s Street’s first sports news editor – where he stayed until 1990.
O’Connor was perhaps best known as the doyen of British rugby writers, with 11 Lions tours and three World Cups in a 50-year career. The 1956 Games in Melbourne stuck in his mind for a non-sporting reason: “It took us four days to fly there because landing and refuelling – you couldn’t do it in one hop in those days – was compromised by trouble in Cairo because of the Suez crisis, and in the Far East. There were quite a few well-known Fleet Street names with us, including Jim Manning and Laurie Pignon. Harry Carpenter was there as well, covering the boxing for the BBC.”
The 1952 Helsinki Games provided O’Connor with a taste of the hospitality meted out by foreign journalists: “We were invited to this most fantastic dinner. I think by then most other countries had had journalists’ organisations for years, probably since the end of the First World War.
“I wasn’t one of the very first members of the Sports Journalists’ Association when it was formed as the Sports Writers’ Association just before the 1948 Olympics, but I wasn’t far behind.
“We used to meet at something called the Newspaper Workers’ Club in a little pub off Fleet Street. It was very much people coming back after the war and wanting to get together.
O’Connor was SJA chairman in 1961 as well as founder, chairman and president of the Rugby Writers’ Club, and chairman of the Athletics Writers’ Club.
He produced coaching films on rugby, and between 1954 and 1968 promoted major athletics meetings at the White City and Crystal Palace. In 1989 the Sports Council honoured him for his outstanding contribution to British sports journalism. In 2013 he went to live at the retirement home supported by the Journalists’ Charity in Dorking, Surrey.
He is survived by two children: son Barry and daughter Coral, and three grandsons: Conor, Finbar and Callum.