Bannister and Peters: the glory and grief of sport

“The Man They Couldn’t Gag” was the name in a bygone Fleet Street era that the Mirror gave to its star sports writer, Peter Wilson. NORMAN GILLER recalls one of Wilson’s finest half-hours, in Vancouver in 1954, when he witnessed and reported sporting triumph and disaster

There’s a fascinating BBC television series called Who Do You Think You Are? I have considered submitting a synopsis for a similar programme: Who Would You Liked to Have Been? No doubt about my choice: Peter Wilson, Fleet Street’s No1 columnist in the Golden Age of sports reporting.

I recently told the doyen of boxing writers, Colin Hart, that he had seen off the best years of Fleet Street sports reporting. “No,” he said, almost wistfully, “I missed it by a decade. Peter Wilson had the best of it, travelling to and from America for the big fights on the Queen Mary and never having more than a couple of calls a day from the office.”

Wilson served his apprenticeship with The Times and Exchange Telegraph before becoming “The Man They Can’t Gag” on the Daily Mirror (interrupted by a brief encounter with the Daily Express).

Harrow-educated Wilson was the middle generation in a sporting journalism dynasty. His father was a former Times correspondent and his son, Julian, carried on the family tradition as the BBC’s racing correspondent.

Over a span of 40 years, including wartime service, the peerless Peter (pictured left) covered 32 world heavyweight title fights, each Wimbledon final from 1929, eight summer Olympics and four winter ones, and every major post-war cup final, rugby international, Test match, Grand National and Derby up until the mid-1970s.

Chain-smoker Wilson, of the luxuriant moustache, flowing cape and silver-topped cane, was a larger than life character who in the best traditions of old Fleet Street could sink a bottle of whisky without spilling a syllable.

I would loved to have been him on August 7 in 1954, when he was in Vancouver for the Empire Games, and in the space of 20 minutes witnessed the glory and the grief of sport.

Back then, I was a 14-year-old East End kid day dreaming of being a sportswriter, my ambitions fuelled every day by Wilson’s graphic reporting in the Daily Mirror — the only paper that my left-of-Lenin Dad would allow in the house.

The grand architect of hyperbole, Wilson described how Roger Bannister foxed the great Aussie miler John Landy in the mile by delaying his famous finishing kick until 70 yards from the tape.

Wilson, hanging the label “The Mile of the Century” on the race, wrote: “Just as Bannister slid into top gear the temptation to look back to see where his Nemesis was overcame John Landy. He turned his head to glance inwards, over his left shoulder, at the precise moment when Roger the Dodger raced past him on his right. Landy later called that fleeting glance as ‘taking a hopeful’.”

The press box was still buzzing with the fact that this was the first time two milers had both gone under four minutes when there was a collective gasp. Britain’s Jim Peters, winning the marathon literally by a mile, came into the stadium on drunken legs. Wilson described it in the Daily Mirror in the present tense:

Peters is running like a rather bad comic on the stage burlesquing a drunk. Two steps forward, then three to the side. So help me, he’s running backwards now. The roar of the crowd dies to a hushed whisper and then to a silence in which you can hear a pin drop — only it is not a pin that is dropping; it is Jim Peters.

The first time he falls it’s forward on to the grey cinders, which are no greyer than his face. Red stars appear on his knees.

He’s up again. He’s running in grotesque, sprawling S’s, so that one moment he’s nearly on the grass centre-field, and the next he’s lurching up against the trackside seats.

Anyway, he’s only got about 300 yards to go — anyone can do that, surely. But — oh, he’s down again. This time he’s in a sitting position, gaping up at the blazing implacable sun, which is screwing the juce out of his featherweight body and the marrow out of his bones.

Ah, there’s the announcer over the public address system telling everyone in the infield to sit down. That’s right. The cash customers have paid up to 35 shillings to see this. They mustn’t miss a moment in this X-certificate movie.

To be sure he’s not taking the shortest route home. He’s fairly weaving all over the track on those funny, wavering, magnificent, wonderful, plucky legs of his, like white pipe-cleaners. But that’s his problem — no one’s making him do it, are they.

Oops! He’s down again. But nobody stops it. Later they say the doctor who is empowered to pull any runner out of this crucifying race at any time has been hauled back by officious officials who don’t want to see Peters disqualified from the race.

I suppose they don’t reckon it matters it he’s disqualified from living.

Now it’s getting quite farcical. He’s up, he’s down. He’s up, he’s down. He’s up, he’s down.

So Jim Peters pitches over the line, a white scarecrow. He is caught and laid on a stretcher as we witnesses remember to start breathing again.

And then they announce that the real finish is on the other side of the track, 220 yards away, and so Jim Peters has lost anyway. What does he remind you of as, head lolling and a collar of foam streaming from one corner of his twisted mouth — a landed fish with a gaffed jaw heaving for water and dying in the sun, a trapped and bloody fox which has gnawed its own leg off for freedom, a rabbit with infected myxomatosis beating its own brains out?

He asks in the treatment room: “Did I make it?” Mercifully, one of the nurses has the good sense to say: “You did all right, Jim.” And so Jim thinks he has won, and in a way he has. He has won the admiration of the watching world.

Years later, I sat at the feet of my hero and asked him what advice he would offer any young sportswriter following in his footsteps. In his awfully English accent, he said: “Simply describe what you see, old boy … and never ever bore your reader.”

Hodder Headliner Roddy Bloomfield, one of my best friends in publishing and himself a legend in the world of words, was the mastermind behind Wilson’s marvellous autobiography, The Man They Couldn’t Gag, in his days running the Stanley Paul company.

Peter was contracted to write 150,000 words. When Roddy visited him at his Majorca retirement villa, he was up to half a million words and far from finished.

Roddy spent two weeks with him editing the book down to manageable size. “Every word and phrase I cut was like a knife in Peter’s ribs,” Roddy told me. “It hurt me just as much, because there were so many pearls we had to discard. Peter was a genius and a gentleman of the first order.”

Yes, Peter Wilson was the man I would liked to have been.

Watch the Mile of the Century on YouTube by clicking here

Read previous Norman Giller columns by clicking here.

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