|The sad sight of Jim Peters repeatedly collapsing at the Commonwealth Games of 1954.|
Runners with a sense of history will wince at this news, for the Commonwealth ('Empire') Games marathon of exactly 60 years ago was played out in similar conditions and truly horrific scenes resulted. The race favourite, Jim Peters of Essex Beagles, was so badly affected by the heat that day he suffered multiple collapses near the finish line and very nearly died.Peters was a runner who suffered with a sensitive stomach, which meant he didn’t take on water during races, however hot and dehydrated he got. He was also a worrier, always scared to moderate his pace in case he was caught, even when holding huge leads. These two handicaps nearly caused him to pay the ultimate penalty at the Vancouver games of 1954. To compound things further on this occasion, he’d even tried to accelerate in the closing stages “in order to get the race over with”. The resulting meltdown was a sickening sight for the thousands who witnessed it, a big crowd that included dignitaries such as the Duke of Edinburgh.
Vehicles carrying helpers were banned from the race to avoid a build-up of exhaust fumes, which meant Peters and the others raced without assistance or information. Around halfway Peters was at least 300 yards ahead, but instead of relaxing became desperate to increase that lead and sped up, even though he was already finding the heat “overwhelming.”He craved a wet sponge to cool his burning head and neck, but such luxuries weren’t on hand. By the 20-mile point, unbeknown to him, he’d forged a remarkable lead of at least one mile and rivals behind were dropping like flies. Had he known this, he could have dropped into a nearby house for a leisurely shower and a cold beer, and still emerged with a healthy lead!
But Peters was running like a frightened rabbit, seemingly oblivious to the damage the heat was doing him. He reached the packed stadium which housed the finish line in around 2 hours and 20 minutes. In the circumstances it was a phenomenal time, and anyone but Peters would surely have eased up and jogged in. But, desperate to end the agony, he pushed hard on the uphill section towards the stadium entrance only to suddenly find his legs wobbling like crazy. He careered down to the running track to great roars from the 33,000 crowd and suddenly collapsed with less than 400 yards to go.“I just couldn’t understand what had happened,” he said later. “For a moment I was completely bewildered. Then I made my mind up I was going to finish. I didn’t want to disgrace my wife and kids. I thought of them at that moment and said to myself I’m going on, there’s a tape you’ve got to break, you don’t stop till you hit that tape.”
Here began the awful sequence seen so often on newsreel clips for years afterwards. He repeatedly collapsed, dragging himself up, falling again, momentarily motionless, then writhing on the floor, rising and falling again. In total there were 12 falls. His soiled clothing showed he’d lost control of bodily functions and he was also evidently slipping in and out of consciousness. It was a truly sickening and distressing sight. But nobody came forward to help, worried this brave but pathetic figure would be disqualified if assisted and his gold medal would be lost.When researching my 2011 book on Peters (details below!), his gut-wrenching slow-motion journey to the finish line was described to me by an eye-witness, the Australian runner Geoff Warren: “It was actually more like a walk, his arms grasping in the air in front, his legs also reaching forward like a puppet and his head mostly tilted back. And, every few steps he would fall over backwards, turn over, climb to his feet again and continue his awful progress. There had been a roar from the crowd at the first sight of Jim arriving on the track, but it was now replaced by a horrified silence.”
England teammate Chris Brasher said: “Jim was suffering from dehydration, salt deficiency and overheating and his balance was gone. It was a hell of a scene and one of the most horrific in athletic history. They took his temperature [later] and it was about 107 or 108 degrees. It is something absolutely unbelievable in medical circles. He was on the verge of cooking his brain.”News reporters told how people in the crowd couldn’t bear to watch, some even fainting and others being physically sick: “Women wept and strong men lost their lunch” was one headline. New Zealand runner Murray Halberg recalled: “There was a stark, shocked silence in the crowd and I felt like being sick. I wished someone would stop this agony. It was beyond everything that is sport to see that stricken man, all alone before thousands of horrified spectators, lurching in virtual collapse.”
The crowd began to shout for Peters to be helped, but the only response was a stadium announcer calling for order and "respect for sportsmanship". The grotesque torment lasted around 11 awful minutes before Peters tottered across a white line into the arms of England trainer/masseur Mick Mays and official Ernest Clynes. Initially it was thought he had made the finish line, but it soon became clear he was still half-a-lap short and officials had no alternative but to disqualify him, announcing this sad fact just as he was laid on a stretcher!There were loud jeers from the stands, but those gathered around Peters were by now more concerned about whether he would live, rather than whether he’d won. He was whisked to hospital, put in an oxygen tent and given a saline drip. Nearly 15 minutes after Peters stumbled into the stadium, Scotland’s Joe McGhee, who’d run a more sensible and measured race, progressed smoothly and untroubled to the gold medal in 2:39.36.
Early next day a rumour spread that Peters had died during the night in hospital, but thankfully this proved false and several days later a shaky figure emerged, miler Roger Bannister at his side, for the flight back to England. Shaken and damaged beyond repair, Peters quit his beloved sport at the age of 35. He accepted his approach to running had made him a danger to himself, and there was no point carrying on for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics which would also be held in hot conditions.Peters’ exploits and world records of earlier meant his place in history was already secured. He returned to his family and his work as an optician in Essex and slowly regained full health - but never ran another competitive step. His life would end nearly 44 years later at the Fairhavens Hospice in Westcliff-on-Sea in 1999.
However hot it gets in Glasgow this weekend, thankfully nobody is likely to suffer like Peters did, thanks to vastly improved knowledge about preparation and rehydration, better race organisation and medical support. It’s also true that we probably won’t see an Englishman leading the race either; the last Commonwealth men’s marathon gold going to Ian Thompson of Luton, way back in 1974.
- To read more about the remarkable running career of Jim Peters, my 2011 biography ‘Plimsolls On, Eyeballs Out’ can be obtained via the following links: