Coffee House

Let’s remember McDonald Bailey in 2012

17 January 2012

McDonald Bailey was certainly
among the most famous names in British sport when Britain last hosted the Olympics, in 1948. Yet today he has almost been forgotten. It’s not how it should have been. He should have been our Jesse

Look at a photo of the British Olympic team of 1948 and Bailey stands out as the only black face in a monochrome sea. He was, you see, from Trinidad. He could have run for them in the Games had
they decided earlier whether or not to send a team. But instead he took up the British offer, and became a crowd favourite and the face of British athletics at the time. This fame, however, had little to do with his race, but more because he
was among the fastest men on earth, jointly holding the 100m world record (of 10.2 seconds) with Owens himself. 

Sadly, however, the London Olympics were not his finest hour. He finished a disappointing sixth in the 100 metres final, despite having been favourite the year before. After a difficult year with
injuries, he got laryngitis two days before the race. It capped a disappointing Olympic year for Britain, in which they won only three golds across the Games.

‘We were desperate for British medals. I was mortified when our great black hope McDonald Bailey did not win’, Malcolm Tappin, a schoolboy spectator in 1948, told author Janie Hampton,
for her book The Austerity Olympics.

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But Bailey bounced back — and did make the Olympic podium four years later, taking the bronze in the 100 metres in Helsinki. He remains one of just six British men in Olympic history to win a
medal in that flagship event. The great sportswriter David Miller wrote that he regarded Bailey as ‘arguably Britain’s best sprinter’ — notwithstanding the Olympic victories
by Harold Abrahams, Alan Wells and Linford Christie — seeing him as ‘grace personified; supple as silk’. And you can still seem him run in Pathe newsreel footage on the web;
winning sprint trials and races to make the Olympic team, or demonstrating his speed for cinema audiences by racing a hare around the
greyhound track at White City.

After a row over allowing Lilywhites to use his name for marketing starting blocks, Bailey was suspended by the Amateur Athletics Association, and then embarrassed them by winning on appeal. Having
made a fuss, he was told he would never be awarded an MBE. And he never was. This oversight should be corrected by the British government in this Olympic year — and they should award MBEs to
the remaining living medallists from 1948 too. While suspended, he drew a record 15,000 in his sole Rugby League appearance for Leigh. He married a Cockney woman, Doris, and they had five children.

We sometimes regard Britain’s multi-ethnic diversity in sport — and its pride in the same — as a relatively recent phenomenon, perhaps starting when Viv Anderson first pulled on an
England football shirt in 1978. But there is a longer history too, going back through the public outcry that made the MCC relent and select Basil d’Oliveria for the South African tour in
1968; to the nearly all-white crowds that cheered Bailey on in 1948; and even to the 19th Century, when the press clamoured for Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji, that great Indian Maharajah, to be included in
England’s Ashes team for 1896. Olympic heroes have often been the British-born children of immigrants, from Daley Thompson and Kris Akabusi to Seb Coe, whose mother was Indian brought up in Delhi,
and Harold Abrahams, the 1924 hero immortalised in Chariots of Fire, whose father was a Jewish émigré from Russian Poland.

As for sport, so for society. The Olympic year of 1948 also saw the SS Empire Windrush dock in Tilbury, a moment that has come to symbolise the beginning of post-war immigration, which changed our
sense of who we are — up to a point.

The strange thing about post-war Britain was that we shared a history, but seemed to have forgotten it. So McDonald Bailey’s story has a good deal in common with the authentic fictional tale of
airman Gilbert Joseph in Andrea Levy’s Small Island, set
in the London of 1948. For Joseph, from Jamaica, England is ‘the mother country’, the land of Shakespeare and grammar, of Monarchy and history, the metropolitan centre of a global
network. He can reel off the name of England’s canals, but the England he encounters seems to know nothing of him, of Jamaica, of Empire or Commonwealth, leading him to call out sadly:
‘how come England did not know me?’

Britain has at different moments been both the most global and the most insular of nations — choosing in different eras which face we wish to present to the world, and to ourselves. The
anxiety of post-war Britain — could ‘they’ ever become ‘us’? — was rooted in a sense that the encounter with difference was new. Knowing our own history
might teach us that it wasn’t. 

Which brings me back to McDonald Bailey. He may not have struck gold in London in 1948, but his British fans sang his name with pride neverthless. Let us, in 2012, celebrate this British sporting
great once again.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future, which launches today.

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Show comments
  • Dimoto

    Rhoda, the blog-post is a pretty innocent musing on a long-past athlete …. which lead to the usual, knee-jerk outpourings of irrelevent (to the blog post), anti-immigrant ranting.

    If it had been written by (e.g.) Sebastian Coe about (e.g.) Gordon Pirie, it would have got about four comments.

    But I’m sure you realise that.

  • MikeF

    In other words the leftist mythology that the UK was once a miserable, introverted, racially-exclusive, ‘white’ monoculture that has been miraculously transformed over the last few decades into something ‘vibrantly’ different is just that – frankly it is a pack of lies.

  • Austin Barry

    Mmmm.. I see that Frank P’s initial excoriating post has been deleted as well as my tepid post. Both used the word ‘fuck’ (in a meaningful, loving and non-pejorative way). Is this word now proscribed by the Speccie moderators? Please advise.

  • Verity

    A perfectly harmless, non-derogatory post of mine would not go up. I can only assume that my name is flagged for my own amiable self.

    I wrote asking what is the point of glorifying running. Since we in (I referred to a specific cardinal direction, which may have been a mistake) parts of the world invented the wheel, what is the point of not only running, but glorifying it?

    Since “we” (mankind in general; certainly not referring to any specific region of the world) invented the wheel, and subsequently the cart, the bicyle, motorised vehicles, including aeroplanes, plus rockets to get to outer space, what the hell, I asked, is the point of running? And why should anyone be rewarded for running when a train or a car goes faster?

  • Frank P

    James W

    “If I got to the stage that I was waiting for a new Spectator post, with Alistair Campbell’s thumb-tacks crushed into my palm to keep the angry fires alight, my fingers poised to deliver a withering, expletive-laden rant – I would probably need to reassess whether I was making the most of my time on Earth. Just a thought!”

    Very interesting to learn what you might do if you got to a certain stage. Very interesting! One wonders what further profundity we make expect from your sagacious introspection.

    Rather like those of us who sit beneath the Wall waiting for a conservative blogger to join the Speccy team and stick it up the fellow travellers who are invited here to enlighten us with their hopes and plans for a socialist utopia, hope springs eternal.

    Perhaps you should just relax and enjoy the craic – vehement expletives ‘n’ all, or toddle off and find something more suited to your intellectual sensibilities. We won’t be offended.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Anyone like to point out the most bigoted posts, in their opinion. Because I can’t see much that is actually offensive, except to Katwala who as author must take it. I can’t see racism here. I can only see what has to do for idiots to shout racist, and it is my impression that those idiots were expecting real bigotry and had their responses prepared, but in the absence of real racism went ahead and did it anyway.

    So which are the offensive comments?

  • Frank P

    Chris Birney

    “I hope we get more posts like this, it will help drive out the bigots”.

    Nah – we won’t get rid of The Telethuckwit Squad or the Shavian Arm of Agitprop that easily; they keep coming for their masochistic sessions with remarkable persistence. As for the brown bigot who wrote this piece, one wonders whether he will return for more; he obviously didn’t realise he was being set up for ‘footfalls’ of the hobnail boots variety. As for Alex Massie of this parish; interesting that he deigned to leave the safe haven of his sidebar to defend the author. Noble of him – perhaps he arranged the invite and felt obliged?

  • Jez

    The website falls short of stating conclusions to their left wing articles because like any Left leaning organisation, they feel that they know best, as though the audience must conclude what they conclude. People who do not ‘need dealing with’ and ‘isolating’ as to warn others to think the ‘right way’.

    The website is ‘one’ politcal groupings opinion- and on the face of it there is nothing wrong with that IF it were in the Guardian- but alas, it is in the Coffee House.

    The editors of the Coffee House, et al must want this to cascade down to their readership.

    But the majority of people on these blogs (except the trolls) are here because they know this liberal Left wing crap is a load of bollocks when cross referenced to London, Bradford, Birmingham etc etc.

  • Jez

    @ Chris Birney.

    Say what you want- but the comments here probably reflect a real sense that this has been flogged to death now.

    I went to school in the Thatcher years- and to be honest it was just a big Lefty teaching ‘Fest’….. with loads of Left Wing Union sponsored strikes to boot.

    The television is Liberal Left/Left wing, the media is mainly centre left to psuedo Marxist Liberal Left…… the only people that are not actually given the full story- by these organisations that are supposed to tell the unbiased blanket truth seems to be the majority of the population.

    Case in point; the summer riots. There’s one glaring, GLARING issue that is prominant throughout the riots that no one dare speak of.

    The article above is to break-in slowly a Left wing website that is the educated Urban London Left ‘way of thinking’.

    I have come to this conclusion by ‘reading it’.

  • Dimoto

    Bailey was a true popular hero of his time, and the blog-post is just an interesting memorial.

    But what bile and nasty stuff in response !
    And how totally un-British are the bigoted ranters on here. For shame !

  • daniel maris

    Alex Massie,

    Well I have never doubted that British society was more complex than a Pathe newsreel of the time would suggest but
    (a) this guy came SIXTH! – and so doesn’t really deserve any special mention, apart from his skin pigmentation allegedly being of some importance (but I think by 1948 we’d already had quite a few black sportsmen). Morever, he clearly self-identified as Trinidadian, not British.

    (b) That British Future site is supposed to be dedicated to integration amongst other things, but fails to address a glaring case of non-integration: the active prevention of millions of girls from a Muslim background (and some other backgrounds)from being allowed to participate in public sports such as athletics and swimming. You presumably, like British Future, think that is a matter of no consequence.

  • Chris Birney

    I hope we get more posts like this, it will help drive out the bigots.

  • Austin Barry

    The ‘Saloon Bar Brigade’?

    Unhappily, the patronising Alex evokes what Orwell referred to as the ‘high-minded socialist slum visitor’, dropping in to sniff the fetid air, make a supercilious comment and leave.

    We understand and appreciate your sensitivity Alex.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Yes, I know, I did it on purpose.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Massie could do with leaving behind the ‘brigade’ cliche, it is cheap and nasty. Eloi twit.

  • Jez

    Frank P,

    Yes, i didn’t word it too well- but i’d read the thing.

    It’s the opening of a Lefty broadside.

    Every peice on this website ‘just’ falls short of what the author of it feels they have to state.

    So, to the Speccie; what is it doing on here?

  • Andy Carpark

    Massie: ‘the saloon bar brigade’

    aka ghastly little people as opposed to ‘intellectuals’ like you. Pass the nosegay, Alice.

  • Wilhelm 1

    Why is the left pathologically obsessed with worshiping and exalting the black man ?

    When they’ve contributed nothing to civilisation except for the technological development of the spear.

    It’s a shame for them.

  • Wilhelm 1

    Matthew Blott

    ” sniveling waaycist coward.”

    Calm down and quit squealing, that’s name calling, that’s what you do in Primary 3 and when you name call, that’s the most graceless act of admitting that you’ve lost the argument.

    And with that, you’re dismissed.

  • Fergus Pickering

    I got a deserving friend of mine an MBE recently. You apply to some government website, they send you a form and you fill it in. You get some eminent friends – eminent in the field – to write supportive letters and – hey presto! – an MBE is in the post. Or rather not. You go up to Buck House and shake the Queen’s hand or kiss her robe, whatever you do. And yu get an MBE in a nice case. Go to it, lads.

  • anyfool

    As ever lefties propose rewarding mediocrities.

  • DavidDP

    Fascinating post. Always interesting to read about forgotten heroes from yesteryear.

  • Alex Massie

    I’d never heard of McDonald Bailey until now. So thank you, Sunder, for telling his story.

    As a Fabian you are, of course, wrong about many things. But not this: Britain and Britishness has always been more complex – and inclusive- than the saloon bar brigade would have one believe.

  • James W

    At the risk of abuse, I actually enjoy these pieces from people with different viewpoints from my own and on subjects away from the economy and party politics.

    Whether McDonald Bailey (or anyone else for that matter) is owed an MBE – is not a life or death. So the vehemence with which some want to play the man not the ball seems disproportionate.

    If I got to the stage that I was waiting for a new Spectator post, with Alistair Campbell’s thumb-tacks crushed into my palm to keep the angry fires alight, my fingers poised to deliver a withering, expletive-laden rant – I would probably need to reassess whether I was making the most of my time on Earth. Just a thought!

  • Frank P

    Matthew Blott

    Snivelling racism is what the post is about. And that is what is being addressed by the various comments. I doubt the author was born in 1948, so his sanctimonious and judgemental crap is inappropriate. If you find his work ‘interesting’ then pop over to the British Future website and fill yer boots with the Fabian crap. Why it is commissioned by the New Specstatesman is what puzzles me. This site is already infested with Lefty bloggers (and a few fellow travellers as staff writers).

  • daniel maris

    Having read their site – wittering on about integration – I think my comment is even more to the point. Rather than harking on about someone who came sixth at the Olympic Games, just because of his skin pigmentation, British Future should focus on why we (through our laws, our government, our local authorities and our schools) collude with millions of young women being excluded from participation in sports such as swimming, athletics, gymnastic – all friendly, life-affirming activities.

  • Frank P


    Has anyone read the Website that their (sic) promoting here.”

    Yes. See comment at 6.01pm above then pop over to The Wall (the rumours of its death are exaggerated – its just a little fucked up) and see the discussion about British Future.

  • Jez

    Two questions.

    1. Why is this in the Spectator?

    2. Has anyone actually read their Website that their promoting here?

  • daniel maris

    Perhaps should focus instead on the millions of girls in the UK (mostly,but not exclusively Muslims) who are actively prevented from taking part in sport in public by their families.

    I guess that’s not v. important though.

  • TrevorsDen

    I do not see a problem with a post about McDonald Bailey in Olympic year (personally I shall try to avoid them) – he was a world record holder.

    After all it gave boudicca a chance to use the mere mention of 1948 – spout off on her usual rant.

    As a rugby league fan Bailey’s name is well known to me. Shame he never persevered.

  • Verity

    My last, inoffensive, post didn’t go up.

  • Matthew Blott

    What lovely responses to an interesting post.

  • Kevin

    “Bailey stands out as the only black face in a monochrome sea”.

    You might want to consider rephrasing that, as it has an air of “they all look the same to me” about it.

  • Tom Pride

    Frank P

    Any chance of you getting on the Question Time or Any Question panels? I’d break my own rule and listen again if you did. Oh to see / hear the tutterings, booings, hissings, foaming at the mouth, apoplexy and cardiac arrests, if you let them have that broadside against their sanctimonious holier than thou pie-in-the-sky clap trap.

  • EC

    Fraser Nelson does like foisting pointless crap on us, doesn’t he! Didn’t anyone tell this Katawala chap what a shit dragging Korski gets when he spouts bollocks?

  • Frank P

    Fergus Pickering

    “He should have got that MBE though.” So should many others who didn’t and many others did who shouldn’t have. That’s the nature of the ‘honours’ system; it’s haphazard and replete with anomalies. In general, not worth a J Arthur. Look at the red benches in the gasworks if you want glaring proof.

  • Frank P

    Another ray of light on this Gramscian guru, Sunder Katawala; a Fabian Society culture warrior. The Lefties sure do know where to rent-a-Sunder, don’t they?

    Just so CH-ers know where he’s coming from.

  • boudicca

    1948 – when we still had our national identity; our own culture was fairly robust and we (apparently) were perfectly happy to have the country represented by a black British athlete.

    We will be represented by many more black athletes in 2012 and I wish them all well. But as far as our social cohension and our culture is concerned, our politicians post-war consensus on mass immigration has been a disaster for this country.

  • Fergus Pickering

    He should have got that MBE though.

  • Austin Barry

    I’ve checked the “British Future’ website and can recommend it as the finest extant collection of complacent, anodyne, feel-good homilies and pieties outside the befuddled, dandelion-going-to-seed head of ABC Rowan Williams. Read it all.

  • Rhoda Klapp

    When exactly was Britain the most insular of nations? Never, that’s when.

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