He could sense the ghosts of Rome with him. Robbie Brightwell, just 17, crashed out of the 400 meters in the semi-finals at the 1960 Summer Olympics. He ran so hard in the first 200 meters that he didn’t have the strength to fight effortlessly through an expected crosswind around the bend.
Brightwell, returning to the 400 meters at the 1964 Tokyo Games as the captain of Great Britain’s athletics squad, was determined to do better. And this time, he made it to the final eight. But the ghosts of Rome stuck to Brightwell like the thick humidity of the Tokyo air. The ghosts whispered doubts into Brightwell’s ears, and the 21-year-old from Shropshire could not help by listen. Here’s how he describes his moment of truth in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl:
Something wasn’t right in my head. The burning flame to win was waning. Instead, a terrible foreboding gripped me, akin to the terror of being buried alive. I was suffering the onset of ‘choking’. It was like acid eating away at my resolve. It’d started during our tunnel walk. One moment I was okay, the next swamped by fear.
Brightwell was actually in third, behind eventual gold medalist Mike Larrabee and silver medalist Wendell Mottley, going into the home stretch. But when he saw Larabee blast into a five-meter lead, something broke within Brightwell. “A wave of hopelessness swept over me. My oxygen and glucose banks were empty, and I was running on despair.”
And despite being in third, he meekly allowed the Polish sprinter, Andrzej Badeński, to pass him for the bronze medal.
I felt disconsolate. What hurt most wasn’t the fact that I’d been beaten, but rather that I’d failed myself. At the critical moment, the demons in my head had taken over. That was an unforgivable sin. I hated myself. After years of training and seismic setbacks, I’d fallen into the fathomless Pit of Doubt. Idiot!
And yet, it is not how we lose or fail, it is how we react to loss or failure that shows what we are truly made of. Redemption, in the 4×400 meter relay, was only two days away for Brightwell.
While the Americans were favored to win this competition, as they featured the 400-meter gold medalist Mike Larrabee and the 200-meter gold medalist Henry Carr, Team GB was a strong medal candidate. Tim Graham, Adrian Metcalfe, 400-meter hurdler silver medalist John Cooper and Brightwell as the anchor had already run the fastest team time in the heats.
But the finals brought the best in the world together for winner take all.
Great Britain was in the outside lane, which meant that in this staggered start, leadoff runner, Graham, could not see anyone in front of him. And yet he ran well and passed the baton to Metcalfe, who was going so fast in the first 100 meters that Brightwell worried if he could last. In fact, Metcalfe drew first blood, grabbing the inside lane and the lead.
Metcalfe was up against the 400-meter champion Larabee, who powered ahead, as did Kent Barnard of Trinidad and Tobago. Metcalfe handed the baton to Cooper, who strained to keep up with American Ulis Williams and Trinidadian Edwin Roberts. Cooper’s head wagged as he dashed towards Brightwell, but was passed by the Jamaican Mal Spence.
Just when Cooper was about to hand the baton to Brightwell, Williams of the USA slapped the baton into Carr’s hand, and then went sprawling to the cinder track. Brightwell grabbed the baton and found himself in fourth with 400 meters to go.
As he writes in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl, this time, he did not allow the moment to swallow him.
Carr, Mottley, and (George) Kerr were travelling at vertiginous speed, and I was falling further behind. I knew they were engaged in a headlong fight to reach the last turn first. That way they could dominate the inside lane, and avoid running extra distance around the turn. Fixing Kerr’s bobbing head in front, I eased fractionally. I mustn’t repeat my Perth mistake. Let him duel with Mottley.
As we scorched the final turn, Carr put in a ferocious kick, pulling away from Mottley who, in responding to his burst of speed, opened a gap between himself and Kerr. Still fourth, I kept close behind the Jamaican, awaiting any sign of weakness. Suddenly, his head began to waggle. The punishing pace was taking its toll. Determination took hold. I attacked, inching alongside him. We were so close our elbows clashed. He drifted behind.
The last 60 meters loomed. Two runners remained in front: Mottley and Carr. Instinctively, I relaxed and fixed the Trinidadian in my sights. My legs, although heavy, continued driving. Then, almost as though watching a slow motion film, Wendell wavered, chopping his stride, and tensing his neck. That was enough to give me encouragement. I slowly inched up to his shoulder. Holding me steadfast was the thought that this would be the last time I’d compete. In the last few meters, I flung myself at the finishing line.
Brightwell did it. He came from way behind to not only secure a medal, but a silver medal. Brightwell had brought his team back from the dead, exorcising ghosts of his own on the way.
Watch the video below from the 1 minute, 30-second mark to see part of this race.