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Near-miss for golden girl Ennis heralds memories of Yorkshire athlete who blazed unique trail

Gordon Pirie winning the two miles international event at the British Games at White City.

Gordon Pirie winning the two miles international event at the British Games at White City.

  • by Dave Craven
 

There was a time when Yorkshire involvement in the BBC Sports Personality of the Year was as regular as sprouts at Christmas.

Indeed, following its inception in 1954, four of the award’s first 10 victors hailed from the Broad Acres, not a bad representation considering the vast wealth of sporting talent drawn upon.

It is perhaps surprising then that no one from the region has lifted it in nearly half-a-century, not since Barnsley’s Dorothy Hyman was hailed for her sprinting exploits in 1963.

There has been a couple of notable runners-up, not least legendary Yorkshire and England cricketer Geoff Boycott who was pipped by Wimbledon winner Virginia Wade in 1977.

Also, gold medal in the 100m breastroke at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul was not enough to secure Bradfordian Adrian Moorhouse the Beeb’s highest praise as he was edged out by Steve Davis, ironically the brilliant snooker player often famously mocked for his dour demeanour and lack of personality.

More latterly, of course, Sheffield’s golden girl Jessica Ennis is the latest to just fall short.

The heptathlete was in the running last night following her stunning triumph at the London Olympics earlier this year, but again there was no Yorkshire victory.

It is clear, therefore, that those early successes have now turned into slim pickings and so they should be cherished all the more.

The first Yorkshireman to lift the title was the middle-distance runner Gordon Pirie, who collected the award in 1955, only the show’s second year.

There was no major athletics championships in 1955, but Leeds-born Pirie rose to fame after three times defeating the legendary Czechoslovakian Emil Zatopek, the triple gold medallist from the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.

Pirie openly admitted the only reason he ever took up running was because he had been so inspired by watching Zatopek in action at the 1948 Olympic Games in London.

Subsequently, his treble achievement was a real feat in his career and one of his finest personal accolades.

That aside, though, that was far from the athlete’s finest campaign.

He won the national cross-country title, improved his Three-Mile time to 13.29 and also set a 10K British record of 29.29.

Earlier, in 1953, he had risen to the top of the rankings in both 5,000m and 10,000m, along the way breaking two world and 10 British records.

Later, as well, he would reap real rewards, setting a 5,000m world record of 13.36.8 in Norway in 1956, vanquishing European champion Vladimir Kuts in the process with a stunning sprint finish that left his great rival almost out of sight.

Pirie – renowned for his punishing training regimes and colourful personality, often brushing with controversy – shaved almost four seconds off the previous record.

Just days later, he equalled the world best time in 3,000m recording a time of 7.55.6 and his outstanding season continued apace as he swept past a trio of Hungarian world record holders in Sweden to break it again at 7.52.8.

However, he agonisingly fell short in the Melbourne Olympics after one of the most epic races in athletics history.

Pirie stuck with Kuts and after 3000m the two became locked in an amazing duel.

Every time Kuts tried to break away, Pirie would hit back and on occasions the Russian even tried to wave him past.

Kuts then slowed and Pirie was in front with five laps left but it was tactics which did not work for the Yorkshireman.

Kuts enjoyed the chance to regain his power and burst away, Pirie finishing eighth.

Five days later came the re-match in the 5,000m.

It was never as dramatic as Kuts went in front early on and was never caught, but Pirie did win Olympic silver.

During his time, and long after his career until his death aged just 60 from cancer in 1991, Pirie helped revolutionise attitudes to hard training and many thought it was shambolic that he never got a more prominent position coaching the nation’s athletes or awarded any honours from the Queen.

When competing, often he would put in more than 200 miles a week, which in the 1950s was a rarity and he adopted ideas which were quite pioneering.

Incidentally, anyone wondering who the other Yorkshire winners of the Sporting Personality of the Year were?

In 1956, Bradford-born cricketer Jim Laker won it after memorably claiming 19 wickets in England’s Test win over Australia at Old Trafford, while York-born swimmer Anita Lonsbrough became the first female winner after winning three gold medals at the Commonwealth Games in 1962.

 

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