The Mesmerizing Mary Rand Part 2: Redemption and Domination in Tokyo

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Mary Rand, from the book, XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 Asahi Shimbun

“I went to Rome in 1960,” Mary Rand explained in this video interview. “I was favored to win the long jump there. Did one of the best qualifying jumps but in the finals I ran through the pit and everything went wrong. And so when we came back to England, the headlines were ‘Flop Flop Flop’. I kinda thought I’m going to pack it in.”

In 1960, Mary Rand was expected to win the gold medal in the women’s long jump, but the 20-year-old cracked under pressure in Rome, and came home to unwanted and unwarranted attention from the press. Here’s how The Times described the press reaction in 1960. “British athletes, you should be ashamed of yourselves,” wrote one newspaper over photographs of those deemed to have failed. Bignal (Rand’s maiden name) was the star failure.”

Rand thought she was done with athletics. After all, she was married with a small daughter. But the call of competition was strong, and Rand found herself preparing the Tokyo Games. When she qualified for the British Olympic Squad, and landed in Tokyo, she was four years older and wiser. And yet, the demons of past failure were still in her head.

In this wonderful profile Rand in the Sunday Times as a run-up to the 2000 Sydney Games, the writer describes a joyful Rand the night before her long jump competition, singing a lullaby she would sing to the daughter she left in London, refusing to allow her roommates to sleep.

“Mary, for crying out loud,” says Mary Peters from the next bed. Her roommates cannot be angry. She sings so beautifully and even now, so late at night, her effervescence bubbles. “I’ll teach you,” she says, “come on, ‘I ullowoost to halowav an alawold banjalawo’, try it.” And so in this small room at the 1964 Olympic Games, four British athletes serenade themselves to sleep.

Sleep? Singing brings them to life. “Mary, I’m going to bang a nail into the wall,” says [Ann] Packer, “and from it I’ll hang the medal you’re going to win. It’ll inspire us to get the other ones.” It’s just a bit of fun but Mary Rand shivers at the mention of winning.

But according to the writer, Rand does not want to sleep, for silence forces her to hear the voices of doubt in her head:

What are you going to do tomorrow Mary, flop like you did in Rome four years ago?”

Outside, Mary hears the rain fall, so loud it could be hailstones: “What will that do to the cinder track, Mary?” She hates not being able to control the voices.

Alone in the darkness, Mary talks to God. “Please,” she pleads, “let me do well tomorrow.

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Mary Rand, from the book XVIII Olympiad Tokyo 1964 Asahi Shimbun

But as it turns out, the 24-year-old version of Rand was made of stronger stuff. In the video interview, Rand reflected on her attitude as she readied herself for the women’s long jump competition, and her refusal to allow her competitors to psych her out during the practice period.

The hardest thing in long jumping in the Olympics is everybody is trying to get their run-ups. The Russians. The Poles. They’re all pushing and shoving, you know? So you have to be pretty tough. I got a couple of jumps in. It was really cold and windy. It was a little nervewracking because in the back of your mind ‘Oh my gosh, this happened four years ago.’ And I know the press were thinking, ‘Is she going to fall apart again.’ And everything went right.

Rand did not run through her mark. She did not foul. She did not crash and burn. In fact, Rand dominated from start to finish in the six rounds of the finals. In the first round, she broke the Olympic record with a leap of 6.59 meters, 35 centimeters further than Diana Yorgova of Bulgaria. In the fifth round, she broke the spirit of all competitors with a world record jump of 6.76 meters.

Like many British and American athletes who were not used to the metric system, she had no idea what that meant in feet and inches. The world record at that time was 21 ft 11.75 in so she had to dig into her bag for the meter to fee conversion table to learn that she became the first woman ever to exceed 22 feet – 22 feet 2 1/4 inches to be exact.

A star was born.