With Great Britain enjoying a gold rush at the Rio Olympics it seems long time since the 1968 games when the nation collected just 13 medals. Among the few success stories of the Mexico games was Lancastrian Bob Braithwaite. Louise Busfield reports.
There are not many Olympic champions who can celebrate striking gold without any formal training in their sport.
Bob Braithwaite could. Although born in Cumbria, Braithwaite moved to Lancashire as a child and spent the rest of his life in the Red Rose county.
A veterinary surgeon by profession, despite his amateur standing he first began competing on a professional level in trap shooting events in 1956.
In 1964 he qualified for the summer Tokyo Olympic games as part of the British shooting team where he was placed seventh in the trap shooting event.
But it was the 1968 summer Olympic Games in Mexico where Braithwaite’s talents truly captivated the nation.
At the games the trap shooting took place over two days. There were 200 targets to hit across eight stages and on the first day of competition Braithwaite, then aged 43, missed only two shots, the fifth and the 13th clay pigeons, ending day one in seventh place.
The following day he successfully shot every clay pigeon fired on the Campo Militaire range making his final score 198 out of 200, a then Olympic record. Such was the high standard of the competition his margin of victory was just two points over the shooters who finished in silver, bronze and fourth places from a field of 55 competitors.
His achievement was even more remarkable as many of his opponents were either members of their nation’s Armed Forces or enjoyed commercial sponsorship.
But he was not one for basking in his golden glory immediately telling reporters he was heading home to Scorton the next day, “No sense hanging around now. The job’s done, I might as well get back home.”
Braithwaite told the Evening Post: “Although I hadn’t done too much shooting this year I had the feeling that things would go right for me. Once you run into good form you usually maintain it and I did. It was as simple as that.
“I missed one shot in my first round because of the visibility, but the next one I missed was a real bad ‘un. I thought to myself ‘that’s it chum’, but I just kept firing away, and hitting them. I enjoyed it and had a bit of luck.
“I never really got tensed up. I’ve been far more nervous before. But 198 out of 200, not bad, I suppose.”
He added: “I didn’t look at the scores of the other competitors and it wasn’t until the last but one shot that I thought I had a chance of winning.”
His family had been gathered around radio listening to his efforts but it was a family friend who phoned through news of his victory shortly after 11.30pm on October 19.
Fellow Olympic shooter Colin Sephton, who finished 26th in the mixed skeet, had a closer view.
He said: “The tension was unbearable. None of us dared speak to Bob lest we upset his concentration. To shoot 25 birds four times in a row in one session as he did, phew, that was fantastic. We sat through it until the last round then we couldn’t look. One hundred straight off. Bloody hell!”
Bob’s achievements were made even more impressive as he earned success while holding down a demanding job and had undertaken no formal training programme for the tournament.
In 1947 he qualified as a vet initially working in Lancaster but by the 1968 games he was running his own veterinary surgery at Castle View on Bridge Street, in Garstang.
The practice took up a lot of his time and the nearest trap shooting grounds available were in Hull and Bournemouth, too far to practice while working.
The only logical thing for Braithwaite to do was to build his own practice ground on his family’s farm in Quernmore.
Evening Post sports reporter Alan Hubbard, who was out in Mexico, explained: “Bob bought a hand-operated trap and with Tom Ibison of Shepherd’s Farm, Garstang, he carried on practising – far from the limelight and bally-boo at his father’s farm, Askew Hill Farm.”
It was reported that a local priest volunteered to operate the trap for his twice weekly training sessions.
Over breakfast the following morning after winning gold Braithwaite told Hubbard, “Perhaps now someone will be stirred into doing something for us Cinderella men.
“There are about 4,000 clay pigeon men in Britain although only about 30 shoot the Olympic trench and what we need is a central point where we can practice. If this gold medal gets near to achieving that I’ll be over the moon.”
The event Braithwaite entered was the more difficult of two clay pigeon competitions with the sportsmen stood 45 yards from a trench in which three traps are set at different heights and angles.
The chalk and pitch “pigeon” was four and a quarter inches in diameter and was released on the word “pull” but by the first syllable it was winging away at up to 120mph.
It was an astonishing performance not only in the eye of experts but in those of his family and local supporters who could not believe one of their own had been so successful, one local commented telling the Post: “It is unbelievable. But he’s done it, he’s got an Olympic gold. It’s a marvellous achievement.”
Bob returned home to Preston railway station to a fanfare of fans, friends and newsmen and then boarded a Rolls Royce laid on by Scorton Parish Council for the final stretch of his journey home and a celebratory fireworks display.
Earlier he had landed at Heathrow after a 15 hour flight to discover his suitcase had been lost in transit containing a silver trophy he won in Mexico before the games began.
Thankfully his gold medal was safely around his neck at the time and he later recovered the rest of his belongings.
Later that year the man the Evening Post dubbed Bashful Bob due to his modest manner was awarded the MBE.
Braithwaite died on February 26 last year aged 89 and at the time of his death he lived in Capernwray, near Carnforth.