Tokyo Olympiad’s High Performance Couple Robbie Brightwell and Anne Packer Part 1: An 800-meter Champion Known to All Except the Runner

You can’t even see her – Kon Ichikawa‘s camera is tightly focused on the two lead runners of the women’s 800 meter race,Maryvonne Dupurer of France and Zsuzsa Szabo of Hungary. Occasionally, the angle lengthens and you can see the rest of the pack bleed into the frame. Towards the end of the race Dupurer is safely in the lead, with about 6 others in a pack a few yards behind. Until, Billy Mills-like, #55 of Great Britain splits wide and sprints past the pack, blasts pasts Duprerer and wins the 800-meters with, apparently, ease.

#55 was Ann Packer. At that time, she wasn’t experienced at the 800 – her specialty was the 400 meters. And while her hopes for gold in the 400 meters were very high, she had to settle for silver, losing to a powerful Betty Cuthbert of Australia. At that stage, with her best event done, she wasn’t motivated to do worse in a 800-meter field packed with superstars. After all, her 800-meter career was really only a few months old.

 

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Ann Packer wins the 800 meter race in Tokyo unexpectedly.

 

Just prior to the Tokyo Olympiad, members of the Great Britain track and field team were in France for a meet. Packer’s hamstring was barking somewhat so she was reluctant to run in events unnecessarily. However, there were open slots for the 800-meter competition, and as her then fiancé and fellow 400-meter specialist, Robbie Brightwell, explained to her, the 800 would be less punishing on her hamstring than the 400 and it would also still be a good tune up. Additionally, Brightwell reasoned, there would be no pressure as everyone recognized Packer as a 400-meter runner.

And as all great sports stories play out, she ran and she nearly won in an event she rarely gave a second thought to. The Olympic authorities for GB agreed that Packer should get one of the open 800 meter slots. Packer protested, saying that she would be taking another worthy runner’s spot to Tokyo, but the fact of the matter is that Packer had smashed the qualifying time required.

But when she got to Tokyo, after taking second in the 400 meters, Packer no longer had visions of glory. She could already see herself back home in England. In fact, her plan was to forgo a potentially disastrous 800 and catch up on her shopping in downtown Tokyo. As far as she was concerned, her Olympiad was over. Here’s how Brightwell described her state of mind, in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl:

“Do you think I should run in the 800 meter heats tomorrow?” she asked. “Maybe I should call it a day and go shopping.” I gaped in astonishment. “Shopping? You must be mad! Shopping? This is the Olympic games, not the Moulsford Village sports!”

“I know, but I’m hardly likely to bed or a silver medal, am I? And I need to buy some presents for the folks back home.”

“Come off it!” I exploded. “Think about the British girls back home who would have given their eyeteeth to be here in your place!”

She smiled sheepishly. “OK I’ll run. Not that it’ll make much difference. I’m bound to get eliminated in the heats, and then I can go shopping.”

As it turns out, Packer and perhaps even her fiancé Brightwell were missing the telltale signs of potential success. While Packer hoped just to remain respectable, others saw a form and ease that would translate easily to victory. As Packer prepared for the finals, after essentially just making the cuts in the heats, two people of considerable experience and respect came up to Packer with powerfully motivating words. Again, here is how Brightwell explains it in his autobiography:

Milkha Singh jogged past with his 1600 meters relay squad. Espying her, he dashed over, taking both hands and staring stern-faced into her eyes. “Ann Packer, listen to me. You will win!” She giggled self conscientiously, flashing me an amused smile. Shaking her hands emphatically, he repeated his message.

“You’re not listening, Ann Packer! Yesterday, I watched your semi-final. You were coasting! After the race, you come and show me your gold medal.”

She nodded respectfully. No sooner he departed than Percy Cerutty, Betty Cuthbert’s coach, rushed up. Even though they had never been introduced, Percy wasn’t a man for social ceremonies. “This,” he said, wagging a finger in front of her face, “is the finger of experience. And it’s standing to attention. Listen! Better and I’ve been talking. Stay with them until the end, and you will hammer them. Understand?”

Astonished, Ann nodded dumbly. Mission completed, Percy disappeared as quickly as he’d appeared.

When Packer won her race, right away she steered to the stands and into the arms of Brightwell. Milkha Singh was there as well, smiling with the satisfaction of clairvoyance proved correct. “Did I not say your woman would win? You didn’t believe me! I was right! Hee, hee, hee! Brightwell, you never listen to me!”

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