kingston 1966: andy wilson (england)

openquote.gifI am quite the worst person to write about the eighth British Empire and Commonwealth Games as it was known then, held in the third world capital of Jamaica, Kingston. Quite the worst as I was the only English swimmer not to make it to a final. I had a good excuse, and came home a stone lighter than I’d gone, and there is still probably some of me somewhere in the West Indies.

Forty years ago things the world was a strange place, but Jamaica actually had some of the brushed-on glamour of the early James Bond films. Trousers were narrow, swimming goggles were around somewhere, but not in south London, and the swimwear, well, my wife says it was like swimming in a box. Electronic stop watches were a thing of the future, and Gatsometer swim timing was in its infancy. Anti-turbulence lanes were a foreign novelty.

I had taken a ‘gap’ year to have a crack at making the team for this meet, and I see from my diaries (I really must get round to throwing them away) that I was training some 20,000 yards a week. That was quite a commitment in those days too. Luck was on my side and I did make the team, and was kitted out in the rather modest array of Bata shoes, Daks trousers and a light jacket that passed for team uniform in those days. We left London in the glory of a VC10 jet, which was a step up on the usual team transport. (On one trip we had to leave all the food behind as the team was too heavy for the plane. It took six hours to get us to Sweden.) And then we landed at night in the clammy heat of Kingston.

Our accommodation was in the non-air-conditioned halls of residence of the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies, some distance from the main swimming and athletics stadia. The men at least were spared the braying of a donkey that reportedly kept the women’s village awake. We prepared in the university’s outdoor 50m pool, which for a time we shared with a large toad. The main stadia were about half an hour away by bus, and our first visit was enlivened by the sight of Norman Sarsfield tacking down the coconut matting on the 10 metre board.

Day 1 of the swimming competition saw a couple of world records, yards records on this occasion, from the Australian 4 x 220 team, led off by a young Mike Wenden whose 1-57-plus must have demoralized Bob McGregor in the 110 yards later on. I don’t remember the order of events, but our team swam well in almost every event. On the ladies side we had Linda Ludgrove winning both backstrokes for a second time, Diana Harris and Jill Slattery winning the two breaststrokes, and our divers winning all four titles. Our ladies 4 x 110 medley team of Ludgrove, Harris, Judy Gegan and Pauline Sillett set a world record winning their event. They still get together at reunions and haven’t changed all that much.

There was one little oddity which reveals a little of the spirit of the age; the Australian men’s medley team picked up a DQ, I forget for what, but was then allowed a time trial in which they beat the winning Canadian time. A nice gesture to the Australians but it took some of the gloss off the Canadians’ only gold medal in the men’s events.

In terms of outstanding swims, well there was Canada’s Elaine Tanner who won both butterfly events and the IM and was second in both backstrokes. She was the outstanding female. On the men’s side we had Ralph Hutton vainly pursuing a gold medal but getting seconds and thirds in the backstroke and IM.

The closing ceremony was held in the large combined cycling and athletics stadium. All medalists were invited to take part in a grand march past, but athletes being cussed creatures the medalists sat in the stands while the affronted non medalists occupied their places on the march past. Some things I suppose never change.

You can still see members of that England team taking part in Masters events. On the ladies side Judy Gegan has turned into Judy Wilson, Sue Haigh swam then as Susan Williams. Di Wilkinson became Di Bishop and a member of staff at the ASA.

Amongst the men Bob Lord is a regular Masters competitor, Neil Jackson has recently made a happy return to the water, Bob Apel never really went away, John Gordon swims when he is super-fit. Jim Rogers still turns out and one can still occasionally spot John Martin-Dye administering water polo in Hertforshire, while Keith Bewley coaches at Wigan.