Obituary: Jim Peters

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IF THE "Mile of the Century" between Britain's Roger Bannister and Australia's John Landy was the most talked-of race in track and field history before its running on 7 August 1954 at the Empire Games in Vancouver, the marathon that had begun two hours earlier on the same afternoon was to become, thanks to Jim Peters, the stuff of athletics legend.

Bannister, who had run his four-minute mile earlier in the same year, did not disappoint his admirers and duly beat his great rival Landy in a truly memorable race. Barely 20 minutes later, as the temperature in the non- existent shade rose to 75F against the rather incongruous backdrop of the snow-veined Grouse Mountains, the 35-year-old Peters, favourite for the marathon gold medal, entered the sun-drenched arena, weaving and swaying from side to side.

Sixteen men had begun the race but only six were to return. Peters, along with his countryman Stan Cox, took an early lead, passing the five-mile mark in 28min 15sec. The race wore on up the steep Kingsway and through the Vancouver streets, deserted thanks to viewers watching on television or in the stadium, but before long it was plain that all was not well. Peters passed the 20-mile post in 1hr 48min but Cox, by now about 400 yards behind, was beginning to feel the effects of sunstroke.

There was a heat haze over the roads and the melting tarmac began sticking to his rubber-soled shoes. Just before the 25-mile mark Cox became so groggy he crashed into a lamp-post but when he heard that Bannister had won the mile he got up and ran another 100 yards before the police led him away to a nearby ambulance.

Peters, who had set a new world record earlier that year and had covered more than 5,000 miles in training, struggled up the last two hills but arrived at the stadium gates in a dangerously dehydrated condition with the last 385 yards around the track to run. Staggering and clawing his way along on all fours and falling at least six times, he took 11 minutes to cover the first 200 yards.

Bannister, along with others at the track-side, could only watch, as they knew any attempt to assist Peters would disqualify him. Eventually though, after crossing the photo-finish line nearly 200 yards short of the actual finish line, he could go no further and with arms and legs still going through the motions of running he was carried off to hospital to join Cox, who was fighting for his life.

Peters spent the next seven hours in an oxygen tent during which time no less than half a gallon of saline solution and dextrose was fed into him intravenously. As the treatment took effect, the two men began to recover. Joe McGhee, meanwhile, an RAF officer from Scotland, had fallen over five times during the race and called for an ambulance, but when he heard that Peters and Cox were out of the race he got up and finished the course to win.

The psychological and physical reactions Peters suffered were so marked that he was advised by doctors to retire from athletics and he never ran again, although he always maintained he was robbed of the gold medal in Vancouver as the course was longer than the regulation 26 miles 385 yards.

Those appeals fell on deaf ears, but the Duke of Edinburgh awarded him an honorary gold medal on Christmas Eve of the same year for his gallantry, and last year, to mark his 80th birthday, Peters was proud to receive the Duke's good wishes once again.

Born in Homerton, east London, but raised in Becontree in Essex, Peters was a useful schoolboy cricketer and footballer before taking up athletics. The outbreak of the Second World War interrupted his progress. Peters joining the RAMC, but afterwards, and by now a qualified optician, he returned to running, although he was disappointed to finish only ninth in the 10,000m at the 1948 Olympics in London.

Approaching the age of 30, he was tempted to retire, but his coach persuaded him to take up marathon running and engaged him in a series of innovative training techniques focusing on speed and strength routines. In 1952 he set the first of four world records for the distance with a time of 2:20:42.2 but failed to finish at the Helsinki Olympics owing to cramp.

The following year, however, with a running style that grew more and more exaggerated and led at times to blood seeping from his torso as his thumb-nail tore into his vest, he set two more world records and won four of the world's largest marathon races. Then, on 26 June the following year, with a time of 2:17:39.4 in the Polytechnic Marathon from Windsor to Chiswick, Peters became the first man to run under 2hr 20min for the marathon.

In his later years Peters remained in touch with his club Essex Beagles and was a Rotary Club member near his home in Thorpe Bay in Essex. Prior to his death he had been fighting cancer for six years, and of those who witnessed his heroics in Vancouver or were among the millions to see it later on Movietone News, few would have been surprised that his final battle lasted so long.

Adam Szreter

James Peters, runner: born London 24 October 1918; married (one son, one daughter); died 9 January 1999.