Mary Rand: Jess can win it, says Britain's first Golden Girl

Legend of track and field believes that Ennis can follow in her footsteps and become the nation's pin-up – but first she must beat the world's best. Alan Hubbard meets Mary Rand

Jessica Ennis has already been labelled London 2012's Golden Girl. But the former superstar for whom the phrase was invented over half a century ago warns that, like the medallion, it is not one that should be hung around the neck of the Sheffield heptathlete just yet.

Mary Rand, the first British woman to win a track-and-field gold medal – in the long jump at Tokyo in 1964 – is a big fan of Ennis but worries that there is too much pressure on her to win the Olympic title. "I love Jess, she's wonderful," Rand says. "But will she win gold? Let's just say I am as confident as I can be that she will do Britain proud.

"It is always difficult when you are competing against the best in the world," she adds. "Jess has everything going for her but the only thing is, this is the big one and sometimes someone comes out of the blue, so you just never know. You can miss a jump, get nervous, all sorts of stuff can happen, but I think she has a tremendous chance.

"I wish we could get back-pay for all the time and effort we put in, but I am not envious of athletes like Jess, though I would have loved to be full- time, with all today's state-of-the-art facilities and warm-weather training. Living in the States, you only know about American athletes, but from what I've heard, her high jump is incredible and she is a fantastic hurdler – probably because she is a little bit shorter than me, which makes it easier for the steps between the hurdles. Obviously she has to make sure she does well in the javelin, which I believe is her weakest event.

"She also has to contend with two extra events than I had as a pentathlete. I did long jump, high jump, hurdles, 200 metres and shot [as well as competing in the actual long jump competition]. She also has the javelin and 800 metres.

"I'll be rooting for her and she will have the crowd behind her. If she holds her nerve and everything goes well she is definitely in there with a heck of a chance.

"But as I say, you have to appreciate that every single athlete out there is the best in their country and anything can go wrong when you have all that pressure. Look what happened to me in Rome."

At those 1960 Olympics, as 20-year-old Mary Bignal from a council house in Wells, Somerset, she was favourite to win the long jump and led the qualifying with a personal best of 6.33m (20ft 9¼in), a distance that would have won her the silver in the final. But then she struggled with nerves, botched her run-ups and crashed out of the competition, running through the pit on her first two jumps and managing only 6.01m (19ft 8¾in) with her third to finish in ninth place.

Rand admitted that there were also quite a few romantic distractions. "We were young, we were single, we were in Rome," she recalls with a smile that the world came to love, not least four years later, when she won the gold in Tokyo, shattering the long jump world record with her fifth leap of 6.76m (22ft 2¼in). "It was my day of days," she says. She also took silver in the pentathlon and bronze in the 4x100m relay.

By 1964, she was no longer single. She had met the first of her three husbands, the British Olympic oarsman Sidney Rand, in 1961, agreed to marry him after three days and did so five weeks later. By the Tokyo Games she was a mother as well as a wife, but still very much a 5ft 8in beauty with stunning good looks. "Marilyn Monroe on spikes," is how the former national athletics coach Tom McNab describes her.

After the Games' pin-up girl was named BBC Sports Personality Of The Year and wore a mini-skirt to collect her MBE from the Queen, Mick Jagger nominated her as his dream date in a pop magazine. Asked at the time if, had she not been married, she would have taken up the Rolling Stone's offer, she giggled: "Well, he has got those great big lips".

A newsman's delight, she was always ready with a quip and a quote. After beating a Spanish woman in a photo finish, she gasped: "Just as well my nipples were bigger than hers."

In the run-up to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico, Rand was injured and did not make the team. It was the end of her Olympic dream, but she was approached by a model agency and was considering a fashion career when her five-year marriage broke up. Shortly afterwards she fell for the American Olympic decathlon champion Bill Toomey and moved to the United States. She subsequently married another American, John Reese, in 1969, and now lives with him in Atascadero, California.

At 72, Rand is currently back in Britain for the Games and to visit relatives. Last weekend she received the freedom of Wells. "We re-enacted the parade when I came back from Tokyo with the gold medal," she said. "It was fantastic". The crowds welcomed her back in their own Somerset style with a banner reading: "We be turrible proud of 'ee".

"This has been a very poignant visit for me. During the parade they had the original Olympic music playing and I was thinking, 'Oh my God, this is so moving'. My brother is 82 and when I left, he said, "I'll probably never see you again". It was very emotional."

Her old school, Millfield, where she won a scholarship but from which she was later expelled after going off to Paris with her then Thai boyfriend, a fellow pupil, have also given her a lifetime achievement award. Four of her nine grandchildren are in this country, and she has one great-granddaughter.

She is staying in Hertfordshire with Jean Pickering, the widow of her former coach Ron, the BBC commentator. She has stayed in touch with Jean since Ron's death in 1991. "She's just a fantastic person. She does so much for charity and young athletes, and doesn't get the recognition she deserves. I had a great rapport with Ron. He died far too young, because he had so much left to offer, and I find it such a shame now that all these young athletes don't know who he was and what he did for the sport.

"Yet so many kids have benefited from his memorial fund. I think it's about time they all got together and celebrated what a great guy he was. Ron was so anti-drugs and, as it turned out, he was right."

Like other former gold medallists, she has had to buy her own tickets for the Games. She has only received two, which she says has been a bit of a problem "because I have three daughters who all want to go. Quite frankly I would prefer they or my grandchildren went so I am playing it by ear at the moment".

She was always super-fit, but all the punishment her body took while training and competing took its toll, and she has had both hips and her right knee replaced. "I've also had my shoulder done. You name it, I've had it. I'm OK, but I have to be a bit careful. I do creak rather a lot. Now I'm like any other 72-year-old.

"Everything I've seen and heard about 2012 seems to be fantastic. The big difference between 1964 and now is that we were all genuine amateurs. We were really struggling athletes. No one got rich through sport then.

"When I won gold, I was a working mum. I had a job in the post room with Guinness and they were very kind because they allowed me time off for international meetings – and at least I got a three-course lunch every day, with a free half-pint of Guinness.

"Today [athletes] have such superb medical back-up. I see them having personal masseurs and I think, 'That would have been great'. We dealt with aching limbs ourselves. If one of us needed a back rub, one of the other athletes would do it. I think there was more camaraderie then and we certainly had more fun."

Her room–mate in Tokyo, Ann Packer, who six days later won gold in the 800m, said: "Mary was the most gifted athlete I ever saw. She was as good as athletes get, there has never been anything like her since. And I don't believe there ever will be." Unless Ennis comes good in London. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed for her," says Rand. Gold-fingers, naturally.

Other poster girls and boys

Women

Sharron Davies Arguably Britain's most glamorous swimmer, Davies won silver at 18 in the 400m individual medley at the 1980 Moscow Games. Has appeared in and presented Superstars and is a regular BBC swimming commentator.

Denise Lewis Won heptathlon gold at Sydney in 2000, now a regular BBC pundit. Prominent role in the London 2012 bid and is a Games ambassador.

Victoria Pendleton Multi-medalled "Queen Vic" is British cycling's Golden Girl, and is world and Olympic sprint champion at 31. Successful model, and possesses a degree in sports science.

Keri-Anne Payne South African-born British long-distance swimmer, aged 24, is a two-time world 10km open water champion and medallist in Beijing. First British athlete to qualify for Olympics.

Men

Lynn Davies Like Mary Rand, Davies won long jump gold in Tokyo in 1964, aged 22. Tall, dark and handsome Welshman known as "Lynn The Leap". President of UK Athletics.

Jim Fox Soldier who led Britain's gold medal-winning modern pentathlon team in Montreal in 1976 aged 33. Exposed Soviet fencing cheat Boris Onischenko. Suffers from Parkinson's.

Roger Black Labelled "Sex on Legs", won 400m silver medal at Atlanta in 1996, aged 30, and 4x400m relay golds in World and European Championships. TV pundit and motivational speaker.

Louis Smith At 19 the first British gymnast to win an Olympic medal in a century, bronze in the pommel horse in Beijing four years ago. Posed nude in aid of cancer charities in Cosmopolitan.

Alan Hubbard

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