Derek Johnson

Olympic medallist and 'angry young man' of athletics

A story told by David Bedford, his close friend and long-time ally in the sometimes arcane world of athletics administration, says much about the often antagonistic approach, coupled to a sharp-minded wit and willingness to try new things, that often characterised Derek Johnson, the 1956 Olympic 800-metres silver medal-winner.

Derek James Neville Johnson, athlete: born Chigwell, Essex 5 January 1933; twice married (one daughter); died London 30 August 2004.

A story told by David Bedford, his close friend and long-time ally in the sometimes arcane world of athletics administration, says much about the often antagonistic approach, coupled to a sharp-minded wit and willingness to try new things, that often characterised Derek Johnson, the 1956 Olympic 800-metres silver medal-winner.

"Derek was in his late fifties, yet he agreed to travel to the European Championships in Split on the back of my motorbike," said Bedford, the former 10,000m world record-holder who is now the race director of the London Marathon. By the end of the first day's travel, Johnson was windswept and uncomfortable, and his constant complaints had annoyed Bedford. "I warned him, one more whinge, and he'd be off," Bedford recalls, "but first thing the next morning, Derek said, 'This is just like being in the Army.' 'That's it,' I said.

"Off you get," Bedford ordered Johnson.

"But Dave, you misunderstand me," Johnson replied, "I really loved the Army . . ."

And Johnson really loved athletics, and he will have certainly enjoyed the achievement of his fellow 800m runner Kelly Holmes in winning her second Olympic gold medal in Athens less than 48 hours before his death.

Born in Chigwell, Essex, in 1933, Derek James Neville Johnson possessed a razor-sharp mind that took him from East Ham Grammar School to medical studies at Lincoln College, Oxford, thence to careers in computers and property. Yet it was the abilities of Johnson's legs, heart and (eventually TB-ravaged) lungs which earned him his greatest fame and his lifelong passion for athletics, both on and off the track.

Johnson was a contemporary in the Oxford University Athletics Club of Roger Bannister, organising the Iffley Road track for the first sub-four- minute mile in 1954. Johnson went on to win that year's Empire Games 880yd title as well as a relay gold medal. But, while his performances on the track, from his national junior title for 440yd in 48.8sec in 1950, were notable, it was his off-track deeds which did much to enable the likes of Kelly Holmes and modern-day professional athletes to earn the tens of thousands of pounds that their abilities can command.

He was dubbed an "angry young man" for his protests over athletes' derisory daily allowance at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, and it was a tag he would never shake off. Despite his Oxbridge background, Johnson was no fan of the sporting establishment. A leading light in the setting up of the "athletes' union", the International Athletes' Club, when his high-energy approach was requested again in the 1980s as the IAC faced a financial crisis, Johnson was then described by one of his numerous critics as the sport's "militant tendency".

In 1980, he organised the IAC's opposition to Margaret Thatcher's call for sportsmen to boycott the Moscow Olympics. "When she calls on the CBI to ask its members to stop trading with the Soviet Union over Afghanistan, then maybe we'll reconsider our position," Johnson would say. British track athletes went to Moscow, and Allan Wells, Daley Thompson, Steve Ovett and Sebastian Coe all won gold medals.

In the 1990s, Johnson did much of the constitutional work to set up the British Athletic Federation and he also had a spell as secretary of the AAA, yet his passion for competition never waned. At 50, he ran the marathon in less than three hours and, well into his sixties, he could be seen leading a gaggle of assorted road runners on training sessions of his own devising around Hyde Park, taking great pride in his achievements as a coach and mentor. Unable to race due to old running injuries, he even turned out in Southern League matches as a hammer thrower for his club.

A proud Londoner, in June Johnson got to carry the Olympic torch as it made its way through the capital, but, already very weak after a five-year battle against leukaemia, he had to do so in the back of a taxi.

A bout of tuberculosis contracted on the wards when a student doctor curtailed his international track career in 1959, causing Johnson to spend a year in a sanatorium. Although he did not pursue the medical career, his interest never waned: his mother had died in childbirth, his father of lung cancer. Thus, one of Johnson's finest, and most successful, campaigns was against tobacco sponsorship in athletics.

It is fair to say, however, that until Ovett and Coe's emergence in the 1970s, Derek Johnson was Britain's best two-lap racer since Sydney Wooderson in the 1930s, breaking Wooderson's British record and improving it to 1:46.6 in 1957, the year after his finest performance.

Johnson missed out on Olympic gold at the Melbourne Games by a mere 0.1sec to the American Tom Courtney, in a race which has been described as "one of the most thrilling in Olympic annals". Johnson himself would tell that tale of how he met Courtney in the Olympic village a couple of days after the final.

"I've run that race a thousand times since Monday, Tom, and beat you every time," Johnson said.

"Yeah," the American replied. "I've done that too and, Derek, I just ate you up."

Steven Downes



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