Robbie Brightwell, captain of Team GB’s track and field team, was about to board his flight for Tokyo and the XVIII Olympiad when he got a telegram. It was from his mentor, Harold Fletcher, the headmaster of his school when he was a young teenager, as he explained in his autobiography, Robbie Brightwell and His Golden Girl.
“Best of luck to you & team. Stop. Do your best. Stop. Hold true to T&D. Stop.”
Brightwell, the 400-meter sprinter from Shropshire, was likely pleased to receive such encouragement, but he was puzzled about what he had to hold true to. What did “T&D” mean?
This was the 1960s and long flights had long stopovers – the one Brightwell boarded landed in Tehran, Iran to refuel. The Persian air hung hot and heavy despite the early morning, and the nagging flies made the new environment somewhat unbearable. Brightwell’s teammate and eventual double silver medalist in Tokyo, hurdler John Cooper, remarked, “This place is a bloody disaster.”
And that last word unlocked the puzzle that had been rattling around Brightwell’s brain since he left London. Fletcher was referring to Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem, “If”.
If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
Brightwell was a young 21, and was asked to captain a group of talented athletes who were looking to be the most successful athletics team Great Britain had ever sent to an Olympics. But he was feeling the pressure. This was a time when athletes in the US and the UK were bristling at the hierarchal and top-down nature of sports associations – how they selected athletes for meets and competitions, what support they provided, and in general whether they treated them as people or pawns.
Brightwell had strong views that sports associations and officials needed to be more transparent and give athletes greater voice, but also knew that transparency and voice would not come without a fight. Brightwell clearly was popular among other athletes for his positivity, evenhandedness, and clarity of values. And when the powers that be, notably the British Amateur Athletic Board (BAAB), noticed that the track and field team was enjoying success and had a great esprit de corps, many believed Brightwell was a major influence.
When Jack Crump, the secretary to the BAAB, offered the captaincy to Brightwell, the runner was overjoyed. But perhaps he heard Kipling whisper in his ear to treat “Triumph” as an imposter. Brightwell took a mental step back and asked Crump questions: Would there be any duties? Could the captaincy be rolled over into the following season to ensure consistency? Brightwell was involved in reform activities in athletics – could he still continue with that? In other words, was this just a title, placed on someone who’s most important role was to avoid controversy?
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
Brightwell eventually accepted. But he did not stay quiet. The captain asked to be present when the BAAB made its selections for Great Britain’s track and field team, but he was turned down. “Surely I should have sight of the team before it’s splashed over the newspapers? I don’t believe it’s an unreasonable request, if only as a matter of courtesy.”
And yet Brightwell was left in the dark. The reaction to the selection was emotional, according to Brightwell.
A chorus of omitted athletes raised merry hell, providing the press with a wealth of “protest” stories. In my opinion, many had cause for complaint. Athletes who were still injured had been picked, while alternative candidates reaching top form had been ignored. Similarly, world-class athletes recovering from illness (and almost certain to achieve full fitness before Tokyo), were disregarded. Also, complaints abounded that regional bias within the selection panel had influenced decisions.
Brightwell did not believe his captaincy was just in name only. He decided to write an open letter to the press to voice his disappointment in the lack of transparency. Brightwell was tired of what he felt were autocratic ways in democratic times, and wrote he didn’t care of the consequences.
More political drama, as well as a silver medal, would follow in Tokyo, as I relate in an earlier post. But Brightwell had absorbed the wisdom of Kipling and his mentor Headmaster Fletcher. The poem “If” is said to be a collection of advice from Kipling to his son, John, and in many ways represents a Victorian stoicism represented in that classic description of a Brit – to keep a stiff upper lip. But in many ways, I believe it is more than just keeping a stiff upper lip, at least as I understand it. It’s about establishing a very high level of self awareness and social awareness, finding that right balance to make the right decision at the right time, and living a life that is without regret.
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
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