Never had It so Good - By Joe Parkinson

The 1950’s and 60’s was considered by most to be an inspirational period in British Culture. Winston Churchill once said, “A pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty.” Many people recall this period of time for its starkly different values to those we hold today. The two decades will fondly be remembered as a golden age for decency and strong community ties. If you were born in the fifties it is very likely that your mother did not work outside the home but instead concentrated on providing a safe environment for the family. The differences in how young people use to hang out in the 50’s and 60’s in comparison to adolescents of today’s society are amazingly different. 

 Most noticeably the younger generation of the 1950’s and 60’s had much more personal contact; not many people had telephones in their home even though the first telephone was invented in 1876 by Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Watson. This meant people were more inclined to meet up with
friends and hang out in the flesh. Whereas in today’s society the majority of youngsters have mobile phones and access to the internet with various forms of social networks becoming more popular to stay in touch with friends and family. 

Sport was used as a great medium for young people to socialise and has had some historic influences that we still feel today that can be related back to that era. At that time most athletes were amateurs and had full time jobs away from athletics and performance-enhancing drugs were just a rumour to all but a few. It was 1954 when Roger Bannister (25) became the first man to break the magical four-minute mile mark, despite only being able to train for just 45-minutes a day, due to be being a full-time medical student. History was made on the 6th of May when he ran a mile in 3 minutes 59.4 seconds.  This was a day that galvanized a nation into appreciation for running competitively. His achievement has not diminished with time - not least because he was the last amateur athlete to break such a significant record.

  Inspirational moment. Chest Out Roger Bannister first person to run a mile in under 4 minutes.

George Blackburn was born in 1938 and would have been 16 years old at the time that Bannister shook the world. He grew up in Ireland, County Wexford in a village not too far from a small town called Fern that he described as 20 years behind England in terms of moving on from the Second World War. Even though Ireland was not part of the war, the country was extremely poor. Ireland was very much agricultural and there was very little production or manufacturing. 

His father was killed in a road traffic accident at the age of 12 leaving his mother to take care of George and his four siblings. As a youngster George was very much into his sport, his main interests were playing Gaelic football and hurling. Not many people may know what hurling is, the best way to describe it as a different form of hockey. Hurling is an outdoor team game of Gaelic origin; the game has an ancient heritage and has been played for more than 3,000 years. It shares a common Gaelic root with the sport of Shinty that is predominately played in Scotland. As a youngboy growing up, George idealised Irish National heroes of his favourite sports including Bobby Rackard who played hurling with his local club Rathnure and with Wexford senior inter-county team from 1945 until 1957. Rackard is still regarded as one of the greatest players of all-time.

As time went on through his teenager years George developed an interest in cross-country running, it all came through a bit of a freak accident. In 1954 George was hanging out with his friends on a Friday night in his nearest town 4 miles away from his village. They were always talking about sport; the game coming up on the weekend was always a particular highlight he said. 

One Friday night outside the pictures, one of his friends had asked him if he was playing hurling on the weekend or if he wanted to run cross-country. George was bemused and replied, “I’ve never even heard of it.” He was excited at the prospect when told one of his other mates was getting his name in the newspaper along with a photograph. George admitted he would not get very far in hurling due to the mass participation in Ireland in the 1950s.  George was always enthused to take his sporting talents further. “Only the top players got their stories told about them in the newspaper so I decided I would give cross country a go because that’s a big thing and I could be somebody here.” “I’ll do it,” he told his friend.  

George Blackburn - May 16, 1975

George went along to the cross-country county championship and unbelievably won out of an estimated 100 people in his first ever race. Not only did he get his name in the newspaper he had a whole page devoted to him for his accomplishments. “I was over the moon, I didn’t realise it was such a big thing, I immediately became an instant hero to our community. I had a whole page about me in the local paper.”

 After doing so well, he was invited back the very next week to run in another county championship race. The words of Winston Churchill were beginning to trickle in George’s ears. This time it was at a higher level, the Junior County Championship and the same result happened again. He won for the second time in his second ever race. The people of Wexford community were starting to notice George’s talents and a few weeks later he was running in another race this time at an even higher level. He described it as running against ‘real runners’. He battled hard and finished second. He then became an integral member of Fern Athletic Club. George had very little money and his mother could not afford sport shoes so had to run his races bare footed. 

George Blackburn - Second from Right with members of the Fern's Athletics Club

In his early 20’s George moved to Bristol England in search of work. He had served his apprenticeship as an electrician and came qualified to work. He originally only came for a short-term stay in 1960. But was being so well paid in England he decided to stay for as long as possible. Once he found his feet in Bristol he joined Westbury Harries Athletics club (which later he would go onto captain). This was the opening that George craved for and led him to meet one of his childhood heroes in a hotel lobby on tour with his club in Helsinki. He stumbled across English Athlete Gordon Pirie, who won the silver medal in the 5000m in the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

George said, “I was eventually met him and we shared a hotel room together. It was an unbelievable experience that I will never forget. For years I was in absolute awe over this guy.”

“I was in the foyer of a hotel and thought to myself that might be Gordon Pirie so I walked up to him and told him how much of a pleasure it was to meet him.” His childhood hero replied, “Unbelievable, they haven’t got one spare bed in this whole hotel. I’m supposed to be running in the 10,000m on Sunday. What am I suppose to do now?” George was still in disarray and gingerly asked if he would like to share his room to which Pirie kindly accepted.

“We stayed up to the early hours of the morning exchanging stories of how I use to run in Ireland and when he was a young lad running around Parliament Hill in the English Junior cross-county championship. I heard first-hand how he went  on to race in the Olympics. It was a real inspiration to me, I was absolutely spellbound.”

George’s hero.Gordon Pirie ©
George never drank alcohol and has never been interested in the thought even to this day. He explained that it was partly because he and his friends could not  afford it. He used to spend three nights a week at the Westbury Harries Athletics Club socialising with other athletes. He filled his other spare nights training and going through weekly training methods with his coach. “Everything I did was to practice my running because my coach said I may have a chance to represent Ireland for a world cross country event. So I use to go home and train all the time. I would dream about one day a lad from nowhere representing Ireland.”

 George being pesented the Chivers Trophy for the Wrexford county championship 15 mile race.
In 1964 George’s coach made his dreams come true, he told him he would be running in the Irish cross-country championship and had a chance to represent his country, all be it if he finished in the top 9. Unfortunately for him, he finished 10th and was a non-travelling first reserve. This was motivation for George to train even harder and the following year in the same competition he had made the cut. He and the rest of the Irish athletes went to Ostend in Belgium for his first international cross-county event, then again the following year in 1966 travelling to Rabat in Morocco. George described his fellow athletes and competitors as ‘not the best of friends’ because he would only see them for one weekend a year, but they would stay in touch by writing to each other.

George had fulfilled his dream of representing Ireland and won many competitions through his career. It was 1968 when he won the Chivers Trophy,county championship 15 miles race. George would return to Wexford every year to compete in the Wexford country cross-country championship. He won the title in 1974 and then again in 1975. Then in 1978 he became the Irish veterans cross-country champion. 

2013. George still has his trophy that he won in 1968 with his Bristol based athletics club Westbury Harriers

Neil Miller from the England Athletics South West Regional Council and South West Cross-Country Co-ordinator is a coach to today’s youngsters of Westbury Harrier’s Athletics Club; the same club that George joined when he moved from Wexford to Bristol.  He believes youngster’s face different 
challenges then athletes of George’s day. “They would have started from a much stronger base, so a lot of things in George’s day would of come more easily.”

Sport has transformed undoubtedly since the 1950’s and 60’s in particular Athletics. Coaching techniques have altered with new knowledge of how the body work, management styles have changed to be more modern.  However one thing that hasn’t transformed and something we can learn from our heritage is the necessary work ethic. It’s the belief of work and ability to enhance character; work ethic also has initiative. The characteristics is an important factor of a performance, without imitative, the performer cannot improve on their performances. Is it possible that athletes of today are always looking for their coach to improve their performance and sometimes take short cuts where they can?

“I think people had more perseverance in those days, in today’s society we are taught to be couch potatoes, we come home from school or work and we put on the TV.” It seems that technology has had a major effect on the way young kids hang out today with each other. Instead of socialising three nights a week like George did, younger people contact each other with their Facebook app installed on their phones all from the comfort of their sofa’s in the living room. “We are just brought up to have an easy life and expect to have things easy. Athletes always want to be told what to do next like they want to be spoon-fed” Said Neil.

“Whereas in those days you brought up in a tougher environment and that breed   much tougher character’s like George.  The best athletes are the self-motivated ones. If a coach has to do all the millage of getting an athlete to train and turn up on a regular basis they are ultimately not going to get very far.”

“Sport has progressed so much from the 50’s and 60’s. The big difference besides the technology and science behind the sport is younger athletes of today is that they are not as physically strong. When you are running it’s absolutely vital that your core is strong although it your legs are doing the work you have to transmit those forces throughout your body and if you can’t spread the load in the proper way you will end up with injury.”

“I think it’s generally true that they don’t have that natural strength like George had. He was brought up in agricultural environment so lifting hay bells gave him that natural strength. That was called training in his day. Nowadays you don’t get runners like that and hence as result a lot of time and effort have to go into prescribing extra exercises.”

It seems that we can learn a lot through the athletes of the 1950’s and 60’s, most of all is the independence of athletes, their perseverance and dedication is an attribute that all younger athletes should try to replicate today. Even though the competition in sport may be far fiercer, what we can learn from George is the huge importance of character and making the sport accessible, fun and providing common sense. It’s important not to over complicate it with science. George’s approach was far more ‘intuitive’ then athletes of today. This is why heritage can be so vital to sport. The famous saying goes, “to know where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been.” 

Joe Parkinson


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