Scotsman Obituaries: Ricky Dunbar, world class Scottish athlete of the Sixties

Ricky Dunbar, athlete. Born: 22 September 1939 in Devonport, Plymouth. Died: 5 October 2021 in Melbourne, Australia, aged 82

Ricky Dunbar was among the fastest sprinters in the world
Ricky Dunbar was among the fastest sprinters in the world

Ricky Dunbar was a world class Scottish athlete, the leading professional sprinter of his era in the 1960s who, had he been amateur, would undoubtedly have represented Britain and Scotland at the Olympics and Commonwealth Games.

As these codes were distinctly separate then, professionals were unable to run against amateurs, with major championships restricted to amateurs. In his peak years in the mid-Sixties there is no question that Ricky was the fastest British sprinter in either code and among the fastest worldwide.

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Emigration to Australia in late 1965, where he became known as The Flying Scotsman, led to some improvement, recording a world best mark in 1966 of 11.2s for 120 yards at Olympic Park, Melbourne, the equivalent of 10.1s for 100m when the world record (amateur) was 10s.

Before then he had acquired a hugely impressive CV here which included the famous Powderhall New Year Sprint and success at all the leading Games. His fastest time came at Jedburgh Games in 1965 when he set a British record of 11.34s for 120 yards on a grass track during a wet afternoon, the equivalent of 9.34s for 100 yards. That time comfortably beat the best performance by a Scottish amateur that year and the winning mark at the British Championships (amateur), 9.6s in both cases, while i n a separate invitation race at Jedburgh the same day, he easily defeated former British international Alf Meakin, who in 1964 had competed at the Tokyo Olympics.

In addition, Ricky was a wonderfully smooth runner, the epitome of classy elegance. His coach Jim Bradley used to show film of him to aspiring sprinters to demonstrate ideal technique, one of whom was a young George McNeill, later to break Ricky’s 120 yards world best.

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Richard Falconer Dunbar was born in Devonport, Plymouth, where his father, also Richard, was a Naval Chief Petty Officer. Because of the war, Ricky and his mother Edith (nee Buchanan) returned to Edinburgh where brother Graham and sister Elizabeth later joined the family. Once demobbed his father set up a business and bought a house in Wardie Road, where Ricky was brought up, initially attending the local primary school before going on to Broughton High.

There an encouraging PE teacher developed his lifelong love of sport and Ricky participated widely at school, always to the fore at running. While working as an apprentice mechanic in an Edinburgh garage Ricky met the coach who would transform his athletic career, Jim Bradley. Bradley was a former “pro” athlete working as a tyre salesman, and on the verge of a successful coaching career.

Training with him since 1957 as his first serious protege, Ricky maximised relatively limited natural ability thanks to his dedicated commitment and adherence to Bradley’s methods at Saughton Enclosure and old Meadowbank, leading to significant improvement. Dave Walker and Stuart Hogg, both former British pro sprint champions and training companions of Ricky, recalled how seriously he trained, with Hogg adding that before their weekly trial runs Ricky refused to speak to him to avoid losing focus.

Success at the New Year Sprint normally held at Powderhall represented the pinnacle of professional sprinting here, an iconic historical event with good prize money to be won on the track and, through betting, off it. In 1963, after 2nd place in 1962, Ricky won from an original entry of 133 athletes on Newtongrange’s cinder track. In winning in sub-zero temperatures over snow-lined lanes, he covered 120 yards, off 4 and 1/2 yards handicap, in 11.39s, outstanding in the conditions, earning him a prize of £250 in addition to betting winnings of £600, then a significant sum.

Other highlights included British Championship wins over 120 and 440 yards at Hawick and Carlisle respectively, British records over 120 and 440 at Keswick and Jedburgh, and success at Braemar and Aboyne Highland Games.

In the latter in 1964 he won the 100, 220, 440 and triple jump with 2nd in the long jump alongside five-star performances at Games throughout the country.

In 1965 Ricky emigrated to Victoria, Australia, having been encouraged by Bradley, who foresaw greater opportunity there due to the better conditions and pro running being a bigger sport. After winning his first four meetings, his handicap was reduced for the 1966 Stawell Gift, a bigger Australian equivalent of the New Year Sprint, hampering his quest for success in the main sprint although he won the invitation 220 yards in 21.2s, tying the winning time in the British Amateur Championships that year.

Among his achievements he won Victorian and Australian sprint titles at various distances, equalled the Australian record for 300 yards and was 3rd in the World Sprint Championship in 1968, won by 1964 Olympic gold medallist Bob Hayes.

He also enjoyed a long distinguished Masters career, winning twice at Stawell 31 years apart and in 2018, aged 79, a 300m race at Ballarat.

A lifelong enthusiast, he also contributed off track as sprint handicapper to Victorian Athletics League, Board and Life Member of VAL, President of Past Runners’ Association and as coach.

In 1968 in Holy Trinity Church, East Doncaster, Victoria, Ricky married Sue Peterson, daughter of one of his coaches and the couple enjoyed more than 53 years of happy marriage, during which they had daughter Nila and son Cam.

They lived mostly in Wanga Park, Melbourne, where they built their own house in 1972. Ricky was in partnership in a sports goods business while Sue was an art teacher.

Ricky’s single mindedness led to success on the track, his place in the pantheon of top sprinters assured. He was popular with everyone, especially his grandchildren, who enjoyed hearing his stories from his youth. He is survived by his wife, sister, children and six grandchildren.

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