JUST as Paul Lawrie’s 1999 Open Championship victory at Carnoustie is often remembered outwith Scotland for Jean van de Velde’s late meltdown, so it was with the 1954 Commonwealth Games marathon.
For decades after the event in Vancouver, the horrifying, dramatic collapse of long-time leader Jim Peters was relived far more regularly than was the victory of Scotsman Joe McGhee.
England’s Peters was the world record-holder at the time – he set four over the distance during his career – and a firm favourite to take gold on a baking hot afternoon. That status was only confirmed when he established a commanding lead over the opening miles, and the majority of spectators in the Empire Stadium – primarily there to watch the mile race featuring Roger Bannister – presumed they would see Peters still in the lead at the climax of the marathon a couple of hours later.
They did, but by then the heat had taken a terrible toll. Unaware of how far in front he was – 17 minutes according to one estimate – Peters pushed himself on harder than he needed to go. He wobbled once on the hill approaching the stadium, again on a ramp down on to the track, and then, with less than a full lap to go, began to stagger alarmingly.
He fell over, and forced himself to his feet. “I could see that tape in front of my eyes, but as I got up and ran, it didn’t seem to get any nearer,” he explained later. He fell over and got up again several times in the following ten minutes, until the England masseur intervened and began to give him the treatment that probably saved his life.
Meanwhile, McGhee, unaware of the drama further up the road, was steadily getting the better of the two South Africans who had become his chief rivals for gold. Running strongly, he finished more than a minute ahead, in two hours 39 minutes and 36 seconds.
Only six runners completed the course of the 16 who had started, and controversy soon raged about the timing of the race, which began at noon, and the length of the course. Peters was not alone in thinking it had been measured wrongly, and stories soon emerged that other runners – McGhee among them – had also fallen. The weirdest claim had McGhee sitting at the roadside exhausted until urged by an old woman to resume running “for the honour of Scotland”.
It was a story that the Scot himself denied. “That’s completely apocryphal, though much quoted,” said McGhee, who went on to be a senior lecturer in applied linguistics. “At no time did I collapse,” he said. “On one occasion only, I tripped momentarily on the kerb.
“Over the last four miles, indeed, I was engaged in a very active race, pulling away from the two South Africans, Jackie Mekler and Johann Barnard, who had come close at 22 miles. I never knew that I was first until I was near the stadium and, indeed, at that time I was absolutely delighted to be finishing second,” – which soon became first.