Athletics: 160 years of Jedburgh Border Games

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JEDBURGH Border Games – said to be the “Blue Riband” of the Border Games circuit – are 160 years old today and despite hosting many big names, their history is also notable for one legendary figure who didn’t make it to the start line.

Tommie Smith, the American sprinter who won 200 metres gold at the Mexico Olympics in 1968 and will forever be remembered for his “Black Power” salute on the podium alongside fellow American and bronze medallist John Carlos, was hit by red tape rather than finishing tape.

John Steede, now the Jedburgh Border Games treasurer and a stalwart both on and off the track over many years, recalled: “It was 1972 and Tommie was in the UK to run a series of sprints at Wakefield Rugby League ground for the title of World Professional Sprint Champion.

“By then, he had forfeited his amateur status by playing American football professionally. His main rivals were George McNeill of Tranent, along with Mike Murray of Barrow, Ivor McAnany of Blyth, Bob Swann of Kirkcaldy and myself. George ended up beating him, but I remember being at Riverside Park on the Thursday before our Games on the Saturday and there was Tommie Smith trying to negotiate an entry for our sprint on the Saturday, no doubt as a warm up for his forthcoming World title series.

“He was walking up and down the lanes, which then in professional running were still separated by lines of string. He seemed quite bemused as this was completely new to him. Back then the rule was that entries had to be in two weeks before the event and our committee, in their wisdom, decided he could not be allowed a late entry, irrespective of his pedigree. What an attraction he would have been!”

But another outstanding American sprinter who did run at Riverside was Barney Ewell in 1950. John was eight years old at the time and remembers being inspired to take up sprinting by the sight of “this fantastic sprinter with the huge thighs”.

Hardly surprising that John was so inspired as Ewell scorched down the 120 yards on the grass track in the almost unbelievable time of 11.37 seconds.

A record crowd of over 6,000 attended to see Ewell, while about 40 bookies competed for business. At the London Olympics in 1948 Ewell had won the silver medal in the 100m after a photo finish – the first ever used at the Games. He also took silver in the 200m and gold in the sprint relay. He was also joint world record holder for the 100m.

At a time when the amateur-professional divide was rigorously enforced, it appears that Ewell’s townsfolk were too lavish in their gifts to him after his Olympic success, with the result his amateur status was infringed.

That resulted in him coming to Scotland to run in a number of games that summer, during which time he was based in Bathgate, accommodated by the well-known professional trainer Bobby Renton. Unsurprisingly, his stay caused quite a stir in the town with groups of kids following his every move. He would carry out training sessions at Meadow Park and, by the time he left, Barney had grown to love Bathgate and Bathgate him.

And John Steede was clearly inspired, as he went on to have a very successful sprinting career. Six times British professional quarter mile champion, he also twice won the Jedburgh Games 120 yards sprint handicap. The first success was fifty years ago in 1963 and the second came in 1972, the last at the imperial distance.

His first “home” win was very special and his winnings were also very welcome – a £200 prize and “about £100 from the betting”. That £300 might seem insignificant compared to today’s winner’s prize of £3,000 but, allowing for inflation, £300 then equates to about £4,500 now.

Once past his peak, Steede wanted to compete in veterans’ athletics, but had to be reinstated as an amateur to do so. He enjoyed travelling the world to compete with success, but is still, though, proud of the history of his local Games.

First held in 1853, at Dunion Moor to the south-west of the town, to mark the coming of age of the 8th Marquis of Lothian, they were a success from the very start, attracting a crowd of some 5,000 to watch running, leaping, pole vaulting, shot putting and wrestling. Competitors came from Tyneside, Northumberland and all the main Border towns. The wrestling attracted 32 entrants with a first prize of £5. An astute decision was made to ban the sale of alcohol with the result that it was a trouble-free day.

By 1871 the first “official” sprint was in place, a 150 yards handicap, for the Glasgow Cup, a trophy still in existence. That was donated by Jedburgh men who had left to work in the shipyards in Glasgow but who wished to signal their continuing attachment to their native town. That trend was repeated over the early years with a variety of trophies such as the American Cup, the Calgary Cup, the Melbourne Cup and the Vancouver Prize, all donated by Jedburgh exiles.

Although a wide variety of events once figured on the programme, the emphasis has shifted over the years to track events. Famous names who have shone in the sprint include the great Australian Eric Cummings, Edinburgh’s Ricky Dunbar, who shaved three one-hundredths of a second off Ewell’s record in 1965, the incomparable George McNeill and, more recently, Olympic sprinter Nick Smith from Dunfermline.

Among the distance men, the legendary Gordon Pirie, Olympic medallist and world record holder, ran in 1962 but finished only fourth in the mile and was unplaced in the two miles. He was quoted as being surprised at the high standard. However, some say he had been put up in a plush hotel the night before and overdid the hospitality!

With the event being in the Borders, a number of top rugby players have swapped their boots for spikes to run with distinction including Scottish internationals and British Lions Peter Dods, Colin Deans, Alan Tait and Tony Stanger – with Dods winning the sprint in 1980.

There have been incidents over the years. In 1902 an athlete who entered under a false name to benefit by obtaining a better handicap was prosecuted for fraud at the local Sheriff Court.

Despite having returned his ill-gotten gains, he was fined.

In 1964, Welsh Olympic sprinter Berwyn Jones refused to run after “discussions” with the Committee. It is understood he was claiming £60 appearance money – a sizeable sum then. He would only say afterwards: “It was ridiculous what I was offered.”

That same year, well-known Rugby League player Brian Sullivan was disqualified from the sprint for an irregularity in his entry – allegedly not disclosing his true form.

Tradition is an integral part of the event and the start of Games day is signalled by the firing of a miniature cannon in all four directions in Market Square at 6.30am.

This is always carried out by an exile from the town and also serves as the starting gun for the Round the Town Race at that time, which usually includes a few revellers from the ball the previous night. The cannon is fired again to signal the morning and afternoon sessions at Riverside Park, and the closing of the Games.

A good turnout nowadays would be over 1,000, according to Steede, and it is not just crowds which have declined.

When Steede won his first sprint in 1963, there were 26 heats with over 150 athletes, now there are eight. Where once there were up to forty bookies in attendance, now there are only two.

“There are too many counter attractions now,” mused Steede. “But I am confident the Games will continue for years yet.”