Remembrance of Things Past

Mostly about growing up the 1950s in Ilford, Essex.

[64] Sport – Part Two

1 Comment

I have looked at Football, Cricket and Rugby. Without implying that the remaining sports are less important, they are definitely lower profile in Britain. As I have tried to make clear, in looking at all things to do with sport over the last sixty years I am well aware of the fact that I am concentrating on what I have learned from television. I am not at all keen on watching sport but I am even less interested in actually taking part so my experiences are vicarious. I can only comment on what I remember from my experiences of watching sport.


Television started as one channel, the BBC, and so all televised sport started on BBC. At first it was only major events that were shown and somehow the BBC acquired the rights by default to show these events. So, long after ITV and Channel Four had started broadcasting, all the major sports were still exclusively shown on BBC. It was quite a slow process for these sole rights to be lost but eventually the BBC found it hard to compete financially. Now television rights for sports are big business. ITV and Channel Four show more sport, with several newer premium channels, such as Sky Sports, showing exclusively sport.

The major sports that started like this as BBC only included League football and the FA Cup, the Football World Cup, Rugby internationals, Test Matches in cricket, The Open golf, motor-racing Grand Prix, the Grand National and the Boat Race.



We love our quaint old traditions. Just as cricket kept its archaic links to Marylebone Cricket Club, golf is traditionally linked to the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews, which controls the game. It likes to call itself just the Royal and Ancient or the R & A.

Internationally, the USA has its share in the control of the game and there have always been four main championships in the golfing year, known as the Majors. They are the Masters, (we call it the US Masters,) the US Open, the Open (the USA call it the British Open) and the PGA (the US PGA.) We always like to call our one simply ‘the Open,’ as we got in first before there was a need to call it anything more specific.

Back in the sixties the only one of any importance to us was the Open. I remember early attempts at televising this event. (I don’t think we even knew about the others.) You will remember all about the poor quality of our very limited black and white screens (from [27] Television). Even when the cameraman could follow the path of the ball, it would be impossible for viewers at home. There was no zooming in or playing back. (Televising anything live from abroad was out of the question!)

To me golf has memories of the great players – Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino – but then it also reminds me of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope, both keen golfers!

I could have included golf in [20] Sex Discrimination because it has always treated women differently. It still does in the strange way that women play from shorter tees, have different handicaps and generally still have separate membership arrangements. Professional golf separates the men’s competitions from those for ladies.

Back in the fifties and sixties there were many Golf Clubs that did not allow women to be members, or gave them restricted rights, or banned them from entering the clubhouse. (But then I could have said the same about the MCC.)

As someone who only started playing golf on retirement I can say little about how it has changed. Technology has aided advances in clubs. A set used to consist of a set of irons, some woods and a putter. Now the ‘irons’ may have carbon fibre shafts; what we still sometimes call ‘woods’ are made of metal and the bag may include hybrid clubs and loft wedges. Modern golfers with modern clubs and modern balls routinely hit the ball further and more accurately. (This excludes my performance at golf!)


Grand Prix

It was never called motor racing, it was always Grand Prix, now it’s often known as Formula One.

As you can imagine, it was very different without the technology we now have. Racing cars were not much different to ordinary road cars, apart from the somewhat streamlined appearance. As a televised sport it was a lot of noise and whatever the commentator could tell us. The action was too fast to see what was happening.

In Britain we had Stirling Moss, a rare success in international sport and a famous character.

MossLotusClimax19610806 Stirling_Moss

You can get an idea of how much less technological it was from the start. All the cars were in a single row on one side of the track and the drivers were on the other side. At the start, drivers ran across, jumped in and started up their cars. Modern cars are far too complex to be started so easily.

It was also a far more dangerous sport with the possibilities of drivers and spectators being killed in accidents.

Horse Racing

I have never understood the prominence of horse-racing in England. We have dozens of race courses where we race horses that only the rich can afford to keep and train. While Ascot week is an event for the upper class, the sport is partly driven by the bets of the working-class. (Lots of sweeping generalizations!)

Newspapers have always had Sports sections and these always seem to include details for every day of horse racing. They list, in highly abbreviated form all the horses, their form and betting odds.

It should not come as a surprise that back in the sixties, there were no women jockeys. Women were not even allowed to be trainers for horse racing.


There must be many people, like me, who do not follow horse racing but one race has always caught people’s attention – the Grand National. The newspapers list all the horses and riders. People everywhere used to pick horses from the name without a clue as to form – and there were sweepstakes. But it is a long, rough ride and outsiders often win.

Fifty years ago the television showed just poor pictures from one fixed camera by the grandstand. When the horses went round the far side another commentator was able to describe some of what he could see there.

Fences used to be more difficult and many horses fell and refused. As well as betting on the result you could bet on whether the horse would finish. It was dangerous for jockeys and much more dangerous for the horses. Horses were routinely destroyed as a result of injuries.


The only rowing to have any significance back then was ‘the Boat Race’ – between Oxford and Cambridge University teams. It held much the same position as the Grand National and everyone would pick one side to support. I have never quite seen the attraction as the result is usually predictable a minute or two after the start.

You can guess some of the differences then. The race was not sponsored and there was never a thought of women having a race. (Almost all colleges at both universities were for men only.)

Television in black and white meant that we relied on the commentator to know what was happening. But we still watched it.

Show Jumping

Show Jumping used to be much more popular on television than it is now, with several events being regularly shown every year. I can only assume that it was much easier to televise an indoor sport where fixed cameras could show everything clearly. It was quite a visual sport with smartly dressed competitors on nice looking horses. Unlike other sports at the time we knew competitors individually by name. Pat Smythe was well known.

Very unusually for a sport, and even more unusual on the fifties, it has always been a sport where men and women compete against each other on equal terms.

Snooker and Darts

These are two sports that use to have a lower status in life. Snooker was played in snooker halls and darts was played in pubs. Both came to be more well-known through television.

The programme Pot Black, showing a snooker match, was picked as a showcase for the new colour technology of BBC Two when David Attenborough was the Controller of BBC Two. It introduced the sport to the viewing world.

The World Snooker championship, played since the late seventies at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield is still a popular annual event that is easily broadcast with modern television methods. Its fixed central camera position can be used to indicate the planned path of each shot.

Similarly, darts copes well with cameras showing the board in close-up so its World Championships are now televised events.

Both of these are sports where the top players have become well-known celebrities.

Popular Sports

For various reasons, people have become more obsessed with personal fitness. There are now many gyms, swimming pools and fitness clubs, frequented by ordinary people trying to control their weight and develop attractive, muscular, athletic physiques. We had none of this. (OK, there were some gyms where you could do weightlifting or boxing, but they were not common.)

These gyms have treadmills and running machines, cycling machines and rowing machines, using technology that had not been developed when I was young.

We didn’t run on treadmills and we didn’t take up jogging or road running as a hobby. The running shoes that now come as fashion statements did not exist. (I have to admit to knowing one or two people in the late sixties who occasionally went for a run round the PLA grounds at Ilford. That was considered to be exactly one mile so it didn’t compare to modern jogging habits.)


Not surprisingly there was no London Marathon or Great North Run, (both started in 1981) none of the other popular half-marathons or ‘fun runs.’ For those who wonder about the millions of pounds raised by charities in these races, the idea of any activity being sponsored for charity was unknown then. (There were no wheelchair marathons either but that is another topic.))

While talking of things we didn’t have, there were lots of other popular sporting activities net yet invented – windsurfing, paragliding, skateboards, quadbikes, BMX, bungee jumping, snowboarding or paintballing. We just managed without them.


I know I have missed out some sports. I haven’t finished yet …








Author: Alan

Retired, currently living in Cheltenham.

One thought on “[64] Sport – Part Two

  1. Pingback: [101] Barley Water and Barnado’s | Remembrance of Things Past

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s