IT is nearly 64 years since the last London Olympics, but one surviving competitor still has vivid memories of the games as the capital’s next spell under the global sporting spotlight nears. Ellie House went to meet him.
JOE Birrell is softly spoken, with the odd joke or two up his sleeve. Dressed smartly in a blue jumper and shirt, he has been married to his wife Marjory for 52 years and the couple have lived in Lancaster since 1970.
They have three daughters and three grandchildren. But aged 82 and standing proud at 6ft 4ins, the former Lancaster Royal Grammar School (LRGS) teacher is certainly not your average Joe.
Perhaps his long legs give the game away, for they enabled him to leap all the way to the 1948 London Olympic Games, in which he competed in the 110m hurdles.
Originally from Workington, Joe was educated at Barrow Grammar School. He sailed through the English Junior Championships with ease, and took part in the Senior Olympic Trials when he was still completing his high school certificate.
“I was encouraged by my head teacher, Mr Price, and I was actually selected for the Olympics when I was still taking my exams,” he said.
“I’m a Lancashire lad through and through, and I received a lot of support from people.
“The town was thrilled for me, but it was very different back in those days. At school I didn’t even have a track to practice on, just a playing field,”
But this wasn’t about to stop Joe from flying over a hurdle or two, as his mother lovingly stitched his Olympic shorts.
“We were living in difficult times,” he added. “There was still rationing but an anonymous person sent a beef steak up to school for me, it was my favourite food.”
Amazingly, Joe discovered the identity of the generous benefactor 30 years later at LRGS when he happened to teach the grandson of the butcher who had donated the gift.
“I was very surprised when I received my invite to the Olympic Games, it was very last minute and I was the youngest English competitor to take part,” he remembered.
“I finished school at the beginning of July and by the end of the month I was down at training camp.”
Joe was perhaps born with that special streak however, as his brother Robert, now 74, who lives in West Kirby, also took part in the Olympics in 1960 as well as coaching internationally.
“My mother was rather bemused by all her sporty children,” said Joe. “My other brother Jack played rugby in the Navy, and my sister June played hockey for Great Britain,”
Having competed in athletics since the age of six, Joe didn’t let stardom go to his head.
“We were all amateurs back in those days, there was no such thing as professionals,” he said.
“Of course, we knew from the very beginning that the Americans had it, they had private coaches but there was none of that for us.”
See the Lancaster Guardian (23-02-12) for full story.