Interview: Ian Black - first Scots SPOTY winner

Ian Black at his home in Ballater, Aberdeenshire. Picture: Hemedia
Ian Black at his home in Ballater, Aberdeenshire. Picture: Hemedia
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Scotland’s very first Sports Personality of the Year is recalling the fantastic bonanza of lucrative endorsement opportunities and exclusive brand-ambassador contracts which spilled forth after he’d won the BBC prize. “Let me see,” says Ian Black. “I was still at school so during the ceremony I was maybe spotted drinking a glass of milk … ”

So did the Milk Marketing Board ask him to be the face of their latest big-budget promotion? “No, but the Band of Hope got in touch.” Black declined to take up the offer to promote abstinence. There would have been no fee in any case because swimming was strictly amateur and, besides, he was strictly Highlander. His kind didn’t go parading themselves on billboards.

“My career, such as it was, really happened a long time ago and I’m amazed you’re interested,” he continues. “No one made much of a fuss, even then. I had to be back at Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen the morning after the awards ceremony as I was still the same schoolboy struggling to get through his exams. When I got off the London sleeper my welcome party was a cleaner. ‘Weel done, Ian,’ she said.”

Black, now 74, is right, this was a long time ago: 1958, which was almost pre-history. Sport, in terms of hype and hoopla, has come a long way since, as will be obvious tomorrow night during the latest instalment of what we’re now obliged to call SPOTY. But it’s not quite true that Black’s achievements went almost unnoticed.

Half a century ago, the still-fairly-mysterious medium of TV could persuade the people to watch just about anything, even a potter’s wheel, and swimming was relatively easy to pipe into living rooms. “There was no televised football at that time and our events were covered live,” he explains. “When I was thinking about giving up I remember my father saying to me: ‘But what will all those housewives do with their Fridays nights?’” Black was the handsome, strapping young star of the pool – the boy they would have wanted their daughters to bring home. He emerged for meets in a trademark tartan robe sewn together from towels and afterwards autographed many cigarette packets.

Having pranged the office car on its last outing I wasn’t really looking forward to tackling Glenshee en route to Black’s trim little home in Ballater. At the 
summit, the A93 was slippy with zero visibility but once down the other side, it was glorious winter sunshine the rest of the way and Black’s wife Alison had made lunch. I meet a sprightly, silver-haired fellow who impersonates I. M. Jolly, declares Hugh McDiarmid, his hero, and is a proud 
Scot in every respect, even the Calvinism. His story, I think, is a good one. It’s also quite shocking. “I’ve never told anyone what really happened before,” he says. So why now? “Well, I’m coming to the end of my life. I feel like being more outspoken.”

Black scooped a hat-trick of top sportsman awards in 1958, the others coming from the Sportswriters’ Association of Great Britain and the Daily Express. His heroics at the Commonwealth Games in Cardiff (one gold and two silver) and the European Championships in Budapest (three golds) took his titles to 32. If his life was a movie, you’d imagine him being hoisted onto the shoulders of his classmates and carried back into school. Well, his pals loved his successes; his teachers rather less so.

“Not one member of staff ever – ever – told me: ‘Well done.’ All the headmaster did was say something at the end of assembly – words given him by my coach – and then add: ‘Show your appreciation in the usual way.’ The kids cheered like mad but I knew he didn’t really approve.”

The head, David Collier, was irked by the pop-star attention Black received. The Scotsman reported that while Collier acknowledged the swimmer’s achievements, he “deplored the fuss” as it gave 
fellow pupils “the wrong set of values”. In a speech to school alumni, Collier went on: “It was a little trying to think of 
Gordon’s College, with more than 200 years of not undistinguished history, being known as ‘Ian Black’s school’.”

Adds Black: “He repeated those remarks at dinners around the country, in Edinburgh, Glasgow and London. He also wrote to my parents saying the school was there for education and nothing more. Matters came to a head when he sneaked up on me in the school pool and told me he was stripping me of my prefect’s badge. I can still hear him: ‘Hand it back!’ That was me effectively thrown out of Gordon’s, although my mother marched in the next day to tell them she was removing me. I was halfway through my Highers and had to sit the rest at 
Aberdeen University.”

It should be stressed that Black wasn’t seeking acclaim. “I was brought up never to boast. You just didn’t talk about yourself. My father used to say: ‘If you have to tell them what you’ve done you probably weren’t good enough anyway’.” At first, his abrupt departure from the school, without even saying his goodbyes, didn’t bother him, but his feelings changed. “It would be untrue to say that something like that doesn’t gnaw at you.”

His father’s stern instruction – and the old man was a journalist on the Montrose Review with the same McDiarmid, then C.M. Grieve, before becoming an airport radio operator – came while growing up in Inverness. At the age of nine –“and four days” – Black was nominated for an open-sea swim between the piers of the 
Kessock ferry, a popular local challenge. “I know not by who,” he says. “You couldn’t do that now – you’d be charged with child cruelty. And I don’t know why either as I don’t think I’d swum 20 lengths of the local pool. I reckon, in agreeing to do it, that folk must have thought I was rather simple!

“The attempt was announced in the local paper. It was supposed to take place while I was still eight but the sea – and this was summer – was too rough. Two adults swam either side of me in case I sank. There were no wetsuits but I made it over to the other side. Every day the rest of that week, at the town theatre before the variety show, I was held aloft and introduced to the audience. I don’t think the record of being the youngest was ever beaten.”

Just eight summers later, Black was a world-class swimmer and the Commonwealth champion at the 220 yards butterfly. This was the start of his “little golden spell where everything seemed to go right” and his triumph stopped an Australian clean sweep of the top pool prizes. “The Americans loved that; it showed that the Aussies, who were so formidable, weren’t quite invincible.”

The Games Village was Cardiff’s 
RAF barracks. Did he mix with the athletes from other countries? “No. In my day Scots were pretty reserved – we were Calvinists. And I was just a boy from the Highlands, which was an additional layer of reserve. Children were seen and not heard; I was never encouraged to say anything.” Then came the Europeans. with Black winning two of his three golds in finals just 20 minutes apart. He was now a serious attraction. The TV companies’ first inquiry when offered the rights to meets was: “Will Ian Black be swimming?” My file of yellowing cuttings has one describing the “sensation” caused by him missing an event in Coatbridge. And yet British swimming lagged behind other countries, most notably Australia. After Budapest, 30 from the British team, including Black, wrote to the Amateur Swimming Association complaining of poor facilities, lack of training and bad management.

The Aussies respected Black’s super times and fiery Scottish competitiveness and invited him over to train with them, as did the University of Southern California. “I didn’t go. This might sound daft, but I thought I’d rather stay where I was, be true to Scotland, even if it meant failing, than go abroad and maybe succeed a little bit more.

“I didn’t regret that decision and here’s why: as a good Christian I tend 
to believe that my life’s journey is unfolding as it should. You can wonder: if I’d done this instead of that, would things have turned out differently? If I’d gone to America or somewhere, would I have still met Alison? Possibly not. Am I happy with my wife, my family, myself? Yes I am.”

He repeats that he doesn’t normally talk about his time as a swimmer, the achievements and the frustrations. The matter of his reticence cropped up in the doctors’ surgery recently. One GP was surprised by it until his colleague suggested: “That’s a generational thing.” But maybe now he reckons – and this could be the teacher in him – that a history lesson is no bad thing.

“I don’t think folk of your generation can hope to know what sport – at least my sport – was like back then. There wasn’t really training as you’d think of it now. At Robert Gordon’s I had to dodge the younger pupils who’d be in the pool at the same time. Eventually I got a key so I could swim before classes, although my coach then thought I was training too much.” This was Andy Robb who’d been employed as the pool mechanic although he would go on to coach the Scotland team.

In the summer of 1959 it was being written of Black: “There can be no doubt that he’s the greatest all-round swimmer in the world today.” There were new world records to go with the acclaim, including one by four seconds in what was his debut 400-yard individual medley. What was his parents’ reaction to these successes? “Muted. They were pleased but told me I had to get a degree. I knew swimming could never be my 
whole life.”

If anything he had to swim even harder against the tide for the next challenge – the 1960 Rome Olympics. “I could still use the school pool but less than before and the headmaster closed it at Easter and again in July and August before the Games.” Black’s treatment at the hands of the school had caused a stooshie in Aberdeen but the local council still refused him training time in the public baths. “I never got any help from them, not a single lane.” When Robb got a summer coaching job on Guernsey, he took Black with him – “but the pool was 
tidal.” They tried Stonehaven but this pool was freezing and heavily chlorinated. “Basically, in the lead-up to Rome I did no training at all – and then, after my parents had bought tickets for Andy to be there with me, the school wouldn’t let him go.”

The great swimming hope ended up being accompanied by his coach’s wife and was quickly told he’d be thrown off the team if he swapped official colours for his tartan goonie – but his biggest frustration was still to come. Although well short of race fitness he and his great rival, the Aussie John Konrads, touched together for third place in the 400-metre freestyle. With no photo-finish three of the judges gave it to Konrads, three to our man and the other one went for a dead-heat – but Konrads was awarded the bronze. “No one ever told me why,” says Black.

He quit swimming soon after, just 21. “I was a very determined competitor and hated losing – that was maybe my strong point. Even though I was nowhere near fit enough in Rome I still thought I could win. The other countries were miles ahead of us on training and coaching. I just didn’t want to settle for second best.”

Black went into teaching and guess where he ended up as headmaster? Robert Gordon’s, the junior school. “I had a definite view of what I wanted to achieve. I was going to applaud success in any sphere, at whatever level. I wanted children to have a positive self-image and to know that they were important and were valued. I think I did that.”

How much does he think about what might have been? “Daily,” he says. But maybe he can hear his father’s voice now, re-emphasising the benefits of good old-fashioned Scottish stoicism. “Ach, I did my best. When you come from this land you don’t have too big a conceit of yourself. I think it’s wonderful being Scottish!” He’s said his piece on a brilliant, brief career in the pool and this might all he ever says about it. In every other respect, as he looks forward to Christmas with his five grand-daughters, he’s been blessed.

Black has cheered all the Scottish winners of SPOTY –Jackie Stewart, Liz McColgan, Chris Hoy and Andy Murray – and hopes the latter can triumph again tomorrow.

He declares Murray Scotland’s greatest-ever sportsman, stressing that no one should underestimate the tartan vote.

“When I won the event it was still quite new. On Sportsview, Kenneth Wolstenholme produced a voting form, pointed to Nat Lofthouse’s name and said: ‘I’m putting my cross here.’ He was showing viewers what to do but maybe Scots thought he was also indicating who he thought should win. They didn’t like that. They had other ideas!”