Black an original Scottish sporting icon

'Golden patch' saw Aberdonian swimmer beat Bobby Charlton and Stirling Moss to BBC award 50 years ago

IAN BLACK will tune into BBC One tomorrow night with his fingers crossed for Chris Hoy. Fifty years since the swimmer from Aberdeen was named Sports Personality of the Year, just two Scots have repeated the trick in half a century since and Black only makes a point of watching when the air is thick with patriotic intrigue.

This year would have been a series of commemorative occasions for Black, the retired headmaster, were he inclined to self-indulgence. For 1958 was the year that necklaced all of his major sporting achievements, squeezing a career's worth of accolades into what he refers to as his "golden patch".

British sport's eagerly-awaited prize-giving was only five years old when Black, a 17-year-old who seemed to win every time he entered the pool, enchanted a public bereaved by the demise of the Busby Babes in Munich, deflated by the failure of England or Scotland to win a match at the World Cup (Northern Ireland and Wales, mind you, reached the quarter-finals), and split by the Formula 1 joust between Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss.

In one short summer the scholar from Robert Gordon's College, where he would return years later to head the junior school, won three gold medals at the European Championships in Budapest in the 400 metres and 1,500m freestyle and the 200m butterfly. The combination of titles has never been repeated, and no British swimmer has neared the tally. In lieu of summer access to a pool in Aberdeen, he trained for all of this in a tidal salt-water pool carved out of a rock in Guernsey.

Black also excelled at the televised Commonwealth Games in Cardiff, winning a gold medal and two silvers for Scotland – not to mention five titles at the British Championships – and after a momentous year, he undertook a journey to London with no notion of the recognition he was about to receive.

"You could say that in my life I had a golden patch, a golden spell or era, and it lasted about six months. And that was from June 1958 to December 1958 – everything was packed into that little period," Black, 67, told The Scotsman yesterday from his home in Ballater.

"The first indication that I had actually landed on the national stage came when I got a telegram from the secretary of the Sports Writers' Association. He sent me a telegram saying: 'Delighted to inform you today, elected by considerable majority as top sportsman of 1958.'

"I don't think I had even watched the BBC Sports Personality of the Year before. I was quite young and things happened very quickly and everything seemed to happen to me. Also, these were only the beginnings of television.

"My memories are quite vague: all I know is I went down to London with Mr (Andy] Robb, my coach, and we stayed in a hotel and went to a dinner in the evening. Peter Dimmock was in charge, and during the course of the evening a lot of the top sportspeople were going out and being interviewed – but I was not. So I didn't think I was in the running. But then they made the announcements and, lo and behold, I was first in the national poll. I was Sports Personality of the Year; second was a fairly well-known athlete, Bobby Charlton, and third was Stirling Moss.

"It was the year of the Munich disaster, so Manchester United were very much in the news at that time, and Mike Hawthorn also won the world championship that year – these were all huge personalities and here was me, wee laddie from the Highlands who did half of his training in the sea – a kind of Geordie situation, if you know what I mean!"

The link was made in jest but Black's tale really did resemble that of the 1955 comedy about a young Scot, played by Bill Travers, who threw the hammer at the Melbourne Olympics and insisted on wearing his kilt.

Black, who received his award as trumpeters in the BBC studio tried to play Scotland The Brave, had singular talent. He won his two freestyle finals in Budapest out of sight, and it stifles the breath to imagine how good he could have been – he retired at 19 to concentrate on his education – if picked up at the right age today. On the lighter side, he also wore at poolside a MacGregor tartan dressing gown, which has pride of place today in the National Museum beside the iconic silver camera that the BBC awards – eventually – gave to winners.

"They didn't actually give me a replica trophy," he reports. "But I went to Canada for several years and I came back and saw that they were giving out replicas, so I wrote to the BBC and asked if I could have one, because I had no permanent record of this award. They very kindly gave me one, which I was very pleased to receive, and it's now on display at the Scottish Sports Hall of Fame in Edinburgh.

"Sadly all my medals were stolen some years ago, which was a pity, but it's an irrelevance really. The medals themselves are nothing; they are just mementoes.

"But I was absolutely delighted to win the BBC award, no question. It has always remained, I suppose, my most pleasant memory of taking part in the competitive arena because it meant that for a period, I was held in affection by the people of the country.

"Even to this day, yesterday in the gym where I train, somebody said: 'You're Ian Black, the swimmer.' And this is half a century later. It really is nice that people remember. 'You're Ian Black, the swimmer.' That will probably be my epitaph."